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How can we fix our democracy?
Our democratic system is not working as well as it should: on this, both the public and most experts agree. But what exactly are the problems? What are the pros and cons of the potential solutions? And are such changes feasible? Drawing on recent Constitution Unit research into public attitudes to democracy, as well as his own work on electoral systems, referendums, citizens’ assemblies and other democratic institutions, Alan Renwick explores answers to each of these questions. Alan argues that there are no quick fixes, but that a series of changes in institutions, practices, and behaviours may lead to valuable improvements.With an introduction by Prof Meg Russell and an appreciation by Prof Anand Menon.
Ministers also have rights - balancing executive prerogatives and executive scrutiny
Debates over standards in public life have a long history. Their evolution is partly cyclical, reflecting reactions to extended periods of one party in office. But there is also long-term growth in a belief that ministers cannot be trusted to behave well and that more formal structures are needed to check their power. Of late, the view that the abuses and challenges to institutional checks have been greater under some recent prime ministers – particularly Boris Johnson – has produced what amounts to a culture war between, on the one hand, defenders of the elected government – often citing an almost presidential mandate dismissing unelected regulators and judges – and, on the other hand, critics who would constrain or even eliminate ministers from some decisions. This debate is in danger of becoming very polarised. So where can a new balance be achieved? In this lecture, Peter Riddell will argue that the solution must recognise the legitimate rights of ministers as the elected government while also strengthening independent scrutiny where needed. Parliamentary committees should also play a more active role in holding both ministers and watchdogs/regulators to account. Introduction by Prof Meg Russell. Response by Rt Hon Jack Straw. Professor Sir Peter Riddell Peter Riddell was appointed an Honorary Professor at UCL in March 2022. He has taken a long interest in constitutional issues, parliament and standards in public life, both as a journalist and subsequently in various other roles. He joined the Financial Times in 1970 after graduating from Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, with a degree in History and Economics. He served as Political Editor for seven years before becoming the paper’s Washington Bureau Chief. He joined The Times in 1991 serving as its chief political commentator until he retired from journalism after the 2010 election. He has written ten books on politics, parliament and political careers. Towards the end of his journalistic career, he became involved in other activities, initially as a trustee and then chair of the Hansard Society from 2007 until 2012, and then as Senior Fellow and then Director/Chief Executive of the Institute for Government from 2012 until 2016. He served for 18 months as a member of the Gibson inquiry into the involvement of UK intelligence agencies into the alleged mistreatment of detainees and rendition. In spring 2016 he was appointed to the independent office holder post of Commissioner for Public Appointments where he served an extended term of five and a half years until September 2021. His other public roles have included conducting a review for the Cabinet Office into the future of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and serving on the Parliamentary and Political Service Honours Committee. He has had close contacts with the academic world in various forms, notably with the Constitution Unit over more than two decades. He chaired the advisory panel of the ESRC’s Constitutional Change research programme from 2001 to 2006, is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a recipient of the President’s Medal of the British Academy.
The Parliamentary Battle over Brexit
This episode was first recorded for our sister podcast - UCL Uncovering PoliticsThe last seven years in British politics have been tempestuous. The turmoil has had multiple causes: Covid, Putin’s attack on Ukraine, and Trussonomics among them. But the politics of much of the period has been dominated by Brexit: by a referendum on an ever so simple question, followed by years of wrangling over what the question meant and how the answer that voters gave to it should be interpreted and implemented. Much of that contest took place in parliament. Meaningful voters, indicative votes, the Brady amendment, the Malthouse compromise, the Cooper–Letwin Bill and the legality or otherwise of prorogation – all became the stuff of prime-time television.So what should we make of that period? And what can we learn from it – about how parliament and our constitution work, and about how they should work?Well a new book recently published by Oxford University Press explores all these questions and many more. It’s called The Parliamentary Battle over Brexit. And its authors join me now. They are Meg Russell (Director of the UCL Constitution Unit and Professor of British and Comparative Politics in the UCL Department of Political Science) and Lisa James (Research Fellow at the Constitution Unit).
The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement at 25: What Should London’s Priorities Be?
As the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement passes its 25th anniversary, uncertainty remains over whether Northern Ireland’s power-sharing institutions will be restored any time soon. Debate has intensified over possible reforms, notably to how the Northern Ireland Executive is formed and to voting procedures within the Assembly. There are also differing views over the optimal forms of North–South and East–West engagement. The UK government has a vital role in shaping Northern Ireland’s future, but trust in it is exceptionally low across all Northern Ireland’s communities. In this seminar, a panel of leading authorities will explore the question of what London’s role and priorities should be.Speakers:• Simon Hoare, Conservative MP for North Dorset and Chair of the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee• Professor Cathy Gormley-Heenan, Professor of Politics and Provost of Ulster University• Baroness (Angela) Smith of Basildon, Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Labour Spokesperson on Devolved Issues in the Lords, and former minister in the Northern Ireland Office• Alan Whysall, Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Constitution Unit, former civil servant in the Northern Ireland Office, and author of Northern Ireland’s Political FutureChair: Professor Alan Renwick, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, UCLFurther reading: The Agreement at 25: A Time for Constitutional Change in Northern Ireland? - Alan Whysall
The Parliamentary Battle Over Brexit and the Constitution
Since the 2016 referendum, the hotly contested issue of Brexit has raised fundamental questions about the workings of British democracy. Parliament soon became a public battleground for arguments about Brexit’s implementation, and the process frequently brought its own role into question – alongside that of the courts, the devolved institutions, the civil service and even the monarch. A new book by the Constitution Unit’s Meg Russell and Lisa James charts The Parliamentary Battle Over Brexit, from the initial backbench pressures for a referendum, to the arguments over the ‘meaningful vote’, the repeated defeats of Theresa May’s Brexit deal, backbenchers ‘seizing control’ of the Commons agenda, and Boris Johnson’s unlawful prorogation, up to the ultimate approval of his Brexit deal. In this event on its publication day, the authors and three high-profile respondents discussed the book’s key arguments and conclusions, including why this period was so difficult, and what if anything might need to change in the UK’s parliament and wider constitution.SpeakersProfessor Meg Russell FBA is the Director of the Constitution UnitLisa James is a Research Fellow at the Constitution UnitDavid Gauke was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and then Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice in Theresa May’s governmentJoanna Cherry is SNP MP for Edinburgh South West, and was the lead litigant in the Cherry case in the Supreme Court over the 2019 prorogationDr Robert Saunders is Reader in Modern British History at Queen Mary University of London, and author of Yes to Europe! The 1975 Referendum and Seventies BritainThis event was chaired by Professor Alan Renwick, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit.For more details about Meg Russell and Lisa James’s new book The Parliamentary Battle Over Brexit, and to preorder a copy with a 30% discount, see here.
The Constitution Unit conducts timely, rigorous, independent research into constitutional change and the reform of political institutions. Our research has significant real-world impact, informing policy-makers engaged in such changes - both in the United Kingdom and around the world.
On this channel, you will find the audio recordings of the Constitution Unit's past events.