The ever-changing constitution

Andrew Blick
By: Andrew Blick

I recently published with Oxford University Press UK Politics, a textbook aimed at undergraduates. When I began work on it in mid-2017, an important motivation was the sense that there was a need for a title that reflected many changes that were ongoing on the UK political scene, while placing them in historical context. Writing the book confirmed for me how much change there has been. In the period since I was an undergraduate myself in the first half of the 1990s, we have seen a variety of convulsions take place and tendencies emerge or strengthen, some of which might have been hard to predict from this earlier vantage point. They continued even as the book was being written, complicating the task further.

Voter behaviour has altered in various ways. The Labour Party has revived as a party of UK government, then receded again – and the Conservatives vice versa. Smaller parties have risen and fallen. Coalition and minority governments came into being. The rise of the Internet has had substantial consequences for the nature of the media, and the way in which political campaigning and communication takes place. A peace agreement has been achieved and implemented in Northern Ireland, though subject to various stresses along the way. In Scotland, the independence movement has become a powerful force. Issues of equality and diversity, though far from new, have gained a degree of political salience arguably greater than that previously witnessed.

Some of the most dramatic developments have involved the constitutional system itself. Since the mid-1990s the UK has seen the revival of the referendum as a device for making major decisions; the introduction (or reintroduction in the case of Northern Ireland) of devolution for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; with more limited forms gradually appearing in parts of England. Devolution has become established and more extensive in scope. For instance, in Wales, the initially relatively constrained Assembly has become a Senedd or Parliament, separate from the Welsh government, with primary law-making powers. These developments have served to accentuate the territorial divergence of the UK, reflecting and strengthening its cultural and political variety.

The House of Lords lost most of its hereditary members in 1999; and under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 it ceased to be the location for the highest court in the UK, with this function removed to a newly established UK Supreme Court, that began work in 2009. The Human Rights Act 1998 incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic UK law, with a semi-entrenched status that led some to question traditional understandings of the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. In 2010, the Equality Act consolidated and strengthened anti-discrimination legislation. In the same year, the Civil Service gained a statutory footing for the first time in its history, implementing a recommendation made as long ago as 1854, in the ‘Northcote-Trevelyan’ report.

Other changes were mooted but did not take place. The 2010-2015 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government introduced but then dropped its plans for a mainly-elected House of Lords. During this same period, in 2011, a shift to the Alternative Vote for UK parliamentary elections was rejected in a referendum. Another such public vote, held in Scotland in 2014, favoured remaining part of the UK over independence. But none of these questions can fully be regarded as closed. Another perennial issue was that of UK membership of the European Union. A referendum, held in 2016, favoured leaving. This result was finally formally implemented in 2020. Brexit was an occasion for immense constitutional disruption involving – for instance – disputes over the relative positions of the executive, Parliament and the courts. It has also helped bring into being long term changes, the exact course of which is difficult to predict. They involve the legal system and the balance of power between the devolved and UK tiers of governance. The future status of Northern Ireland and Scotland within the UK is increasingly uncertain. Opinion in Wales, too, might be beginning to turn against the Union.

Alongside the Brexit factor, other pressures for constitutional change include ongoing controversy about the role of the Internet and social media. Demands for more effective regulation in this area have a complicated relationship with the need to uphold freedom of expression. The pandemic may have encouraged new ways of thinking about the social functions of government and its relationship with the public; as too might the climate emergency. Equality law and the way it is implemented are likely to come under scrutiny and be subject to calls for change.

Writing this book has confirmed for me the sheer rapidity and scale of constitutional transformation over the past three decades. Many of the earlier reference points for the UK constitution have faded or vanished, and new ones have come, or are coming, into being. I have provided here only a selection of some of the more dramatic examples. Undergraduates of today will have become politically conscious in an environment in which the constitutional certainties of yesterday were vanishing or completely absent. It would be a mistake to assume that this process of transformation will automatically slow or reduce in its scope. Capturing the position in a future edition of this book could present a similar challenge to its author to that created by the first. A realisation that the UK constitution is of an ever-changing character might also be beneficial more widely to analysis of our political system.

UK Politics by Andrew Blick is available now from Oxford University Press.

Dr Andrew Blick is Head of the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London and Senior Adviser to The Constitution Society.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.