Cllr Dan Pitt represents Derby Road West Ward on Erewash Borough Council.
The introduction of the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill in the House of Commons on the May 19 by Chloe Smith, the Constitution Minister, reminds us that despite the fight to beat Covid-19, constitutional issues and reforms are still a pressing matter.
At the end of the nineteenth century, A.V. Dicey wrote that the British constitution “was the fruit not of abstract theory but of that instinct”. This haphazard approach to our constitution has allowed us to a build a lasting and flexible constitution.
Nevertheless, recent changes to our constitution, including membership of the EU (and our recent withdrawal from it), the last Labour Government’s changes and more recently the judgements of the Supreme Court have brought the constitution firmly onto the political agenda.
Certain elements of our constitution are a matter of concern and controversy. Especially, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the role of the Supreme Court and its relationship with the Government and Parliament.
Boris Johnson’s 2019 election manifesto reflected this reality by committing to address some of these constitutional issues. For example, by pledging to “get rid” of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, reforming the Human Rights Act and by pledging to set up a within a year a “Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission” to look at the broader aspects of our constitution. Therefore, Conservatives need to do some constitutional thinking.
According to the Financial Times Michael Gove is going to oversee the constitutional review and he has the responsibility of overseeing constitutional affairs and maintaining the integrity of the Union within the Government. Gove is one of the most thoughtful Conservative reformers. The Government will have to select people to sit on the commission including it chairman with extensive practical experience of the constitution as well as constitutional experts to support this endeavour.
I believe that the review into our constitution should be embedded in conservative principles and these principles should underpin a coherent constitutional approach. I suggest two core principles should be kept in mind during the review. These are: first, the suspicion of grand political blueprints, and second, the wisdom of past generations.
These principles may sound rather vague, but Conservatives understand that there is an culmination of knowledge in relation to our constitution within institutions, and this knowledge has grown over multiple generations, such as in the common law, Parliamentary Acts and in within the umpteenth versions of Erskine May.
The review should start by asking this simple question: what is the current state of our constitution? Once this question is addressed, concrete proven grievances that require redress should be pinpointed. To address the grievances, an Oakeshottian view should then be used as the framework for solutions: that is, a politics of repair rather than destruction and recreation.
Addressing the proven grievances in our constitution with concrete policies shall require delicate policy skill as well as knowledge of what facilitates or obstructs governing bodies. Reforming a constitution is a practical art that should draw on historical experience and precedent. Therefore, a process of reflection and historical analysis will be crucial if Conservatives are going to avoid the Constitutional Crisis of the Edwardian Era.
Conservatives should remember that constitutional government does not work because of the symmetry of some formal design, but through the gradual emergence of customary ways of conduct that channel the exercise of power through certain ceremonies and forms. The review should not worry about achieving symmetry, and it should not worry about constitutional oddities or ambiguities.
The main aim of the review should be to transform but this transformation should be slow. This transformation should aim to retain the good in our constitutional arrangements remove the bad, i.e. the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
The changes should be made with infinite care and caution, and should be guided by experience. The proven grievances must be address, but only through prudent and incremental reform. This way we can, according to Benjamin Disraeli, ‘bind up the constitution of our country with our dearest domestic ties and adopt our fundamental laws into the bosom of our family affections’.
Conservative politicians have grappled with major constitutional questions before from the revolutionary trilogy of great constitutional reforms (Test and Corporations Acts, Catholic Emancipation and Parliamentary Reform) in the 1820s and 1830s to the vandalism of Blair’s constitutional changes in the late 1990s. It is time once again for the Conservative Party to come up with the answers to the constitutional questions of our time.
The review’s conclusions should not turn to snake-oil fixes, such as a ‘written’ or codified constitution. A codified constitution for the United Kingdom, would be too restrictive, it would lack flexibility and movement and it would run contrary to our constitutional traditions and customs. Margaret Thatcher in her book Statecraft wrote that “constitutions have to be written on hearts, not just paper”. Therefore, any constitutional reforms must take into account the customs and traditions of our constitution and our country.