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Andrew Le Sueur, a member of the IACL executive committee, reports on a seminar held in London ahead of this week’s United Kingdom General Election.
On 7 May, members for all 650 seats in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons will be elected in the 2015 General Election. For months, opinion polls have shown little or no gap in support for the largest two political parties – the Conservatives and Labour. The Liberal Democrats, for decades the third party in British politics, seem destined for fewer seats than in 2010 as the public turn away from them after 5 years as part of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. In the wake of the September 2014 referendum on Scottish independence (which resulted in a 55% ‘no’ vote against 45% ‘yes’), the separatist Scottish National Party have seen a surge in support – some commentators even speculate that the SNP will win all 49 Scottish seats. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), pledged to lead the UK out of the European Union and introduce Australian-style immigration controls, has sizable support in some parts of England but will gain no more than a handful of seats under the first-past-the-post electoral system; likewise, with the the Greens (who had a single seat in the 2010 Parliament). Either a coalition or minority government seems certain.
Against this background, on 30 April the UK Constitutional Law Association (affiliated to IACL) – in conjunction with The Constitution Society and the UCL Constitution Unit – held an invitation-only all day seminar for academics, practitioners, parliamentary officials, and politicians to explore the future constitutional challenges.
In the first session, Alison Young and Stephen Dimelow (both of University of Oxford) presented their new report on the future of the Human Rights Act 1998. The HRA ‘brought rights home’ by incorporating into national law most of the rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights – to which the UK had acceded as long ago as 1951. Especially for the Conservative Party, the Act is increasingly politically unpalatable, with accusations that the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has fallen victim to ‘mission creep’ and frustration that domestic courts use powers under to HRA to impede strong government on counter-terrorism, immigration control and prisons. Young and Dimelow suggested that the Conservatives misdiagnose the problems and that their proposed solutions may be legally, constitutionally and politically unworkable.
Session 2 focused on the possibility of a constitutional convention (in the sense of a constitution-making institution) for the United Kingdom. In September 2014, in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum, Labour announced that if they formed the next government they would set up “a full Constitutional Convention rooted in our nations and regions, to address the need for further devolution in England and political reform of Westminster”. The Liberal Democrats favour a convention that “should have a Citizen’s Jury at its heart, representing every corner of the UK”. Alan Renwick (University of Reading) spoke to his report After the Referendum: Options for a Constitutional Convention and Art O’Leary (secretary general to the President of Ireland) the reflected on the experiences of running the recent Irish constitutional convention.
In session 3, David R Howarth (University of Cambridge and a former member of Parliament) and Shona Wilson Stark (University of Cambridge) reported on their research into what officials “really think” about the constitution and the rule of law, drawing on a working paper published last year. Their findings suggest that senior military, civil servants and police seem to have various understandings of the “rule of recognition” (using HLA Hart’s concept), attaching different importance to international law, the views of the Attorney General, and judicial interpretations of Acts of Parliament.
In the final session, Vernon Bogdanor (King’s College, London) outlined his thesis of the interconnectedness of constitutional developments – the era of party political fragmentation with governments enjoying little more than one-third of the popular vote, the continuing demands for Scottish independence, the possibility of an in/out referendum on European Union membership (called for by the Conservatives and UKIP), proposals by the Conservatives to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998, and “the English question”. Read more on this analysis in his new report The Crisis of the Constitution: The General Election and the Future of the United Kingdom.
Andrew Le Sueur is a former president of the UKCLA and continues to serve on its executive committee and the IACL executive committee. He is Professor of Constitutional Justice at the University of Essex, UK.