UK Constitutional Politics

Update: Evel passed in the Commons 312 to 270

Two events this week saw the creaking UK constitutional settlement become a subject of discussion. The first was the threat by Lady Meacher to make use of a so-called "fatal motion" in the House of Lords to derail the Conservative government's attempt to reform the system of tax credits. Ultimately the motion came to nothing - in part due to the Government's threat of renewed Lords reform in response to such an action.

The second occurs today as the UK Government attempts to pass the measure dubbed "English Votes for English Laws" (Evel). This legislation seeks to give the Speaker of the House of Commons the ability to categorize proposed legislation as "English" and thus subject to the votes of only English MPs. Offered by Cameron in response to the SNP's success in the general election, it represents a legislative response to the West Lothian question. At the time of writing it looks like the Government will win the vote.

The two moments highlight two aspects of recent UK constitutional politics. Both moments highlight a failure to address constitutional reform in anything approaching a system manner. In the first moment the Government mobilized the threat of Lords reform to head off attempts by that body to stop implementation of a policy lacking even a plurality of support (even for Conservative voters only 60% support the policy in the abstract according to a recent ComRes poll - table 17/2). This begs the question of what exactly the Lords is for, if not to attempt to force revision of unpopular policies. "A-Ha!" the textbooks say, "The Lords' lack of democratic legitimacy that makes it unable to block finance bills such as this one - why should an unelected body block the democratic will of the Commons?" But this argument makes the threat of reform - which would presumably seek a more democratic body - as a response to inference with finance bills somewhat incoherent. It also raises the interesting possibility that the "democratic" thing to do in this situation would be for the Lords to vote for the fatal motion and force the Government to embark on Lords reform. 

If that seems a very haphazard way to undertake constitutional reform, consider the other moment from this week. The Government's plans for Evel seem to be wholly designed to appease those disgruntled by Scotland's flirtation with independence. Such a view is given support by the announcement of the policy in immediate response to the referendum result. This points to the other common theme in these two moments - the use of constitutional reform (or rather the threat of it) as a tool of partisan politics. In both instances discussion of reform has served to further shore up the ruling party's electoral coalition. This is certainly not a tendency of the Conservatives alone - under Blair Labour embarked on ad hoc constitutional reform, partially purging the Lords of hereditary peers, offering regional assemblies to areas of electoral strength, avoiding resolution of the West Lothian question. 

Supporters of the UK Constitution make much of the piecemeal approach to reform that has characterized British constitutional history. This seems in many instances to be making virtue of (undesirable) necessity - Lords reform hasn't made much headway since it was initiated in 1911. However, in the current era this piecemeal approach is working neither to curtain partisan reform nor to ensure best practice. As commentators have noted, the Lords is the second largest assembly in the world and it is growing in size - and it remains resolutely unelected. Evel stands to empower the Speaker on the Commons in a significant new way but without an examination of how the Speaker is selected.

Piecemeal is not working for the UK at the moment. The constitution is a hot mess, and faith in the political class is at an all time low. What is needed is careful, expansive thought about democratization of the institutions of representation. What we are getting is short-sighted, partisan, and knee-jerk proposals. The question of the Lords and the West Lothian question are not necessarily separate - could the UK not follow the German or US model in arranging the upper chamber on regional lines? Might the Lords be replaced by an English Assembly to correspond with those in Wales and Scotland? Do the regions of England need a mechanism of representation that counters the dominance of London? Addressing these questions might require careful thought, but isn't that exactly what we need at the moment?