CONSTITUTIONS are, in the words of expert Hassen Ebrahim, the “soul of a nation”. They set out those fundamentals – in terms of institutions, rights, identity, values and principles – that bind us together as a political community.

Constitutions can legitimately perform these roles because they are grounded in broad cross-party political agreement, supported by a widespread and enduring public consensus.

Constitutions that embody such agreement and consensus tend to last and thrive. To use a familiar term, they represent the “settled will” of the people.

In contrast, constitutions imposed by one party against the wishes of others, and without widespread public endorsement, are usually short-lived and ineffective.

They represent only the power of the dominant majority, not an underlying stable settlement. Opponents do not accept the legitimacy of the constitution; they wait for their opportunity to get into power, rip it up, and start again.

The effect of the Blair-Brown reforms should not be under-estimated. Devolution created new political spaces and enabled formerly marginal parties to share policy-making.

By 2011, seven parties held government office across the United Kingdom: a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition at Westminster, a Scottish National Party government in Scotland, a Democratic Unionist-Sinn Fein government in Northern Ireland, and a Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition in Wales. This would have been inconceivable before 1997.

The New Labour reforms also changed the relationship between the state and the citizen. The Freedom of Information Act, for all its weaknesses and loopholes, did subject the workings of the government to a degree of previously unknown public scrutiny.

The Human Rights Act, by incorporating European Convention rights into domestic law, has done much to change the culture and the discourse around human rights in the United Kingdom.

Its effect has been strengthened somewhat by the establishment, under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, of a United Kingdom Supreme Court.

Nevertheless, these reforms were hobbled from the outset by three factors.

Firstly, they had contradictory, irreconcilable aims: to modernise and democratise at the periphery, without challenging parliamentary sovereignty at the centre.

This contradiction reflected New Labour’s muddled thinking about constitutional matters. They could never get beyond the assumption that constitutional change was merely administrative change on a bigger scale.

In deference to the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, the Human Rights Act stopped short the Charter 88 demand for an entrenched, justiciable, supreme-law Bill of Rights, while decentralisation stopped at devolution rather than full federalism.

Back when I was a naval officer, we’d call that ‘‘getting out at Fratton’’, or reformatio interruptus.

Secondly, there was no attempt to connect these piecemeal institutional changes. For example, devolution was not tied to reform of the House of Lords, in a way that could have transformed the latter into a senate representing the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. Proportional representation was adopted for devolved legislatures and the European Parliament, but not for the House of Commons; multi-party politics was able to flourish at the geographical and political periphery, while two-party dominance continued at Westminster.

A Greater London Assembly was established, but not linked to a wider scheme of devolution within England. Indeed, the “English question” was ignored.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the Blair-Brown reforms did not recognise the importance of constitutional conversation, and so failed to bring about an agreed, consensual constitutional settlement. They never reached out across party lines or brought the general public and civil society into their deliberations. There was no sense of a “people’s constitution”.

In the absence of such consensus, constitutional reforms have only fragile legitimacy, and are extremely vulnerable to reversal when political fortunes change.

Change they have.

The Johnson government promised in its 2019 manifesto to establish a “Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission” with a mandate to examine “the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to


On one level, this is school-bully revenge tactics – an opportunity for all those who have never liked devolution, hate the Human Rights Act, resent the Supreme Court and despise Speaker John Bercow to settle scores.

On another level, it marks a strategic consolidation of power, re-making the state in the Brexiteers’ own image.

There is a very real risk that progress made since 1997 will be rolled back. The result will not, however, be a restoration of the status quo ante – that would be impossible. Instead, it will be the creation of a new authoritarian-populist regime.

We have already seen attempts to undermine the judiciary, weaken parliament and politicise the civil service. This follows the same playbook used by other authoritarian populists across the western world, but the UK is in a uniquely vulnerable position. The lack of a written constitution means everything can be swept away by an ordinary parliamentary majority. No institution is safe. Democracy hangs on a thin thread.

This column welcomes questions from readers