The unionist Edward Carson signs the Ulster Covenant in 1912, protesting against Irish home rule. Photo: HULTON ARCHIVE / GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Vernon Bogdanor: The crisis of the constitution

Although the spirit of British democracy is in good health, its mechanisms are under threat. The task now is to transform crisis into opportunity.

We tend to think of single-party majority government as the norm in Britain. And so it has been in the postwar era. But from 1885, when the single-member constituency became standard, until 1945 such governments were rare – indeed, there were just three, one of which lasted for only a year – the 1906-10 Liberal government, the 1922-23 Law/Baldwin Conservative government and the 1924-29 Baldwin government. Every other government was either a minority administration or a coalition.

Until 1914, the prime reason for this was the return of a solid bloc of Irish nationalists to Westminster – at least 80 in every general election from 1885 to 1910. In 1885, 1892 and from January 1910 the Liberals, the leading party of the left, were dependent on the Irish nationalists for their majority.

The Irish nationalists (who formed the Irish Parliamentary Party), unlike the Scottish National Party and unlike Sinn Fein, which supplanted them in 1918, were not explicitly separatist. They claimed they wished to remain within the United Kingdom and sought no more than home rule – large-scale legislative devolution. But as Charles Stewart Parnell, the IPP’s greatest leader, had put it in 1885, while home rule was the most that could be demanded under the British constitution, “No man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. No man has the right to say to his country, ‘Thus far shalt thou go and no further’ . . .”

Had it been implemented, therefore, home rule might well have evolved into something like dominion status – independence for Ireland within the Commonwealth – but peacefully, without the repression and civil war that marked the birth of the Irish Free State in 1922.

Home rule, however, required the consent of not just the Commons but also the House of Lords, then composed almost entirely of hereditary peers and with a permanent Conservative majority; and before 1911, the powers of the Lords were unlimited by statute. After the House of Lords had rejected Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” in 1909, the Liberals decided to reform it, but following the sudden death of Edward VII in May 1910 they sought a “truce of God”, a compromise with the Conservatives.

The two parties came together in a constitutional conference, which sat from June to November 1910. This conference attempted to distinguish between different categories of legislation – ordinary, financial and constitutional – proposing different procedures for each and with the powers of each house to be laid out in statute. Use of the referendum was also discussed. The conference was attempting, in fact, nothing less than the production of a written constitution for Britain.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, it broke down, primarily because the parties could not agree to which legislative category home rule belonged and whether special procedures were needed to implement it. Instead of an agreed solution, therefore, the Lib­erals, prodded by the nationalists, decided to replace the absolute veto of the Lords with a suspensory veto of two sessions – reduced to one session in 1949 by the Attlee government.

During the constitutional conference, Lloyd George, the Liberal chancellor of the Exchequer, made a startling proposal – nothing less than a Liberal/Conservative coalition, which would impose on both Irish nationalists and unionists a system of “home rule all round”, a quasi-federal solution for the whole of the United Kingdom. If the Irish demurred, then (so Lloyd George predicted), the Liberals would “wash their hands of the whole affair and leave the Irish to stew in their own juice”. But the coalition proposal got nowhere; nor did home rule all round. It involved pulling up the British constitution by its roots to solve the Irish problem and imposing upon England a form of government it did not want purely to satisfy the Irish nationalists.

Once the Irish left Westminster in 1918, declaring their independence and setting up their own parliament in Dublin, pressures for constitutional reform faded away. “The two supreme services which Ireland has rendered Britain,” Winston Churchill wrote mischievously in 1929, “are her acces­sion to the Allied cause on the outbreak of the Great War, and her withdrawal from the House of Commons at its close.”

The SNP has now resurrected the constitutional debate. The Scottish Nationalists, could well, after next month’s general election, exert a stranglehold over British politics similar to that of the Irish nationalists in 1910. But whatever the outcome, the Scottish Question and the English Question will come to the fore.

A second Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition or a Conservative majority government will lack, as the 2010 coalition lacked, legitimacy in Scotland. Scotland will once again have a government it did not vote for. A government of the left, by contrast, will almost certainly lack a majority in England, and the issue of “English votes for English laws” will be raised with even greater intensity. Either way the Union will again come under threat.

As in 1910, there are many who suggest a federal solution. But that implies some similarity between the wants and desires of all four parts of the UK and the imposition of a new and probably unwanted system of government in England purely to accommodate the Scots. Plus ça change.

Kenneth Baker, the former Conservative education secretary, has suggested another way out of the deadlock – a grand coalition of the Conservative and Labour Parties that might, as was hoped in 1910, impose a solution to Britain’s constitutional problems. Yet that, too, is an unlikely development.




The 2015 general election, then, is likely to raise a question mark over the very future of the UK. But the difficulty we face in confronting our constitutional problems is that they are interconnected. The Scottish Question is intertwined not only with the English Question but also with the question of whether Britain remains in the EU, and with the electoral system. It would in fact be easier to resolve the Scottish Question, were there to be electoral reform.

In the 2010 election, the Conservatives won just one seat in Scotland. Yet they won one in six of the votes – around 17 per cent; just 3 percentage points fewer than the SNP – while Labour won 41 of Scotland’s 59 constituencies on just 42 per cent of the Scottish vote. A proportional system would have given Labour 24 seats and the Conservatives ten. In May, the SNP could make a clean sweep in Scotland on less than 50 per cent of the vote. First-past-the post makes Britain appear more divided than it really is and exacerbates the West Lothian problem because it exaggerates the imbalance in strength in Scotland between Labour and the Conservatives. First-past-the-post therefore threatens the unity of the country. Proportional representation, by contrast, would alter the dynamics of the conflict between England and Scotland and make it more manageable.

Resolving the English Question is also intertwined with other constitutional questions, and in particular with the status and reform of local government. George Osborne’s commendable attempt at devo-max to Greater Manchester requires, if it is to be successful, the devolution of real taxing powers to local government and of ministerial powers over such matters as health. But above all, a successful policy of devolution and decentralisation requires a clear understanding of what matters are fundamental to the UK as a whole – what are the basic constitutional, social and economic rights that should be enjoyed by every citizen – and what matters are capable of different treatment in different parts of the UK. That understanding is best embodied in a written constitution.

It is indeed because our constitutional problems are so interconnected that there is so strong a case for a constitutional convention. Speaking in Edinburgh in 2013, Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, called for a Scottish convention to consider the future of the Scottish constitution, similar to that of the convention of 1989 which paved the way for devolution. But the future of Scotland should not be seen in isolation from that of the rest of the UK; nor can further devolution be considered in isolation from such matters as reform of local government and electoral reform. What is needed is a UK-wide convention, with popular participation, to consider the constitution as a whole.

In 1910, the crisis of the constitution was resolved in an ad hoc manner and the chance for a real constitutional settlement was missed. Will the same happen in 2015? Or are we, on the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, approaching a genuine constitutional moment?

If we are, as I believe, approaching such a moment, it is because our constitutional problems have not arisen in a vacuum but reflect real pressures of social change – in particular, the end of deference and the breakdown of old class and party loyalties. There is a growing conflict between new social forces and our traditional constitutional forms. It is becoming increasingly clear that these constitutional forms are relics of a past era. Our political system needs to become more congruent with the public philosophy of what David Cameron has called a post-bureaucratic age, whose watchword is fluidity and whose leitmotif is a politics of openness and transparency. This means publicly stated constitutional rules rather than the tacit understandings that have hitherto served us as a substitute for a constitution.

The democratic spirit in Britain is not unhealthy. The Scottish referendum showed that there is a huge reservoir of civic potential that the political parties have largely failed to tap. It is the institutions and the mechanisms which seek to represent the democratic spirit that are at fault. Disenchantment with politics flows from the conflict between a maturing democracy, in which voters are accustomed to wider choices than in the past, and a political system that still bears all too many of the characteristics of a closed shop.

The task now is to funnel the democratic spirit down constructive channels so that crisis can be transformed into opportunity. That is the fundamental case for a constitutional convention and, if it comes about, it will repay a debt of gratitude that we owe to the Scots for voting to stay within the UK.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at King’s College London. His pamphlet “The Crisis of the Constitution” has just been published by the Constitution Society

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

Show Hide image

When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror