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Felix Bungay: Radical constitutional reform should include an elected second chamber, a federal UK, a directly-elected Prime Minister and a separation of the executive from the legislature

Picture 17 Felix Bungay was until recently chairman of the Conservative Association at the University of York, where he is in his final year of studying History and Politics.

When it comes to the constitution, Conservatives have to ask themselves a simple question; is it broken? Conservatives will be reluctant to embrace change, but whether it be the West Lothian question, reform of the House of Lords or the leeching of Parliamentary sovereignty to the EU, it is clear our current constitution is in a bit of a mess.

It is also quite clear that our current system vests far too much power in the government, power which has been continually used to ignore the people’s wishes on issues like the EU, immigration and has allowed the unimpinged growth and expansion of government. Quite simply our current constitution has failed to uphold conservative values or provide sufficient checks on the government’s agenda.

For all these reasons I feel our constitution needs radical reform if we are to having a working constitution which upholds parliamentary sovereignty and freedom of the individual.

With the subsequent erosion of the power of the House of Lords, we have essentially been left with a unicameral parliament in which there are no checks on the government’s power to pass legislation. For this reason, it is essential we have an elected second chamber, elected on different terms and possibly a different electoral system to the commons in order that we can have a chamber which can effectively block or reform government legislation.

This idea seems to horrify both Mr Oborne and Mr Isaby, who say this would challenge the Commons' supremacy. Absolutely it would, but why should any Conservative stick up for the right of government to simply ram through legislation without it being challenged? It is precisely because there is no check on the government’s power to legislate that we have had a huge expansion of government power and the size and scope of government.

You may well ask why this chamber has to be elected, and the answer is that only an elected chamber would have the legitimacy and accountability to challenge the Commons and have the same sort of legislative powers. Our friends across the pond provide an ideal example for us with the US Senate, which acts a check on the House of Representatives. Its Senators are elected for terms three times longer than a Congressman (six years as opposed to two) and the American Senate is the senior body with the most power to upset the legislative process. If we want to reign in government, then we should welcome a similar body in the UK.  As it stands we cannot continue with the Lords in its present form, and an elected body which can act as a check on the power of government is the way forward.

As far as wider reforms to our constitution go, it is clear that the West Lothian question demands an English parliament for it to be resolved in a satisfactory manner. A fudge to create ‘English votes on English laws’ would be demeaning to the English people and would create an unwelcome parliamentary precedent; all our MPs should be able to vote on all laws before the House.  An English parliament is in keeping with localism, pushing power closer to the people and if given real power, it would be a voice for English people who are disenfranchised under the status quo.

Ideally we should look to have a federal structure for the UK, in order that power remains close to the people (why should the people of Scotland have a say in what the people of Surrey do, and visa versa?) but also to preserve the union when its constituent parts are so politically different. We need the powers of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly to be increased, but we also need to have an English Parliament with the same powers. Most importantly each of these bodies needs to have the financial power to raise and set their own taxes and expenditure so they are fully responsible for their finances and properly accountable for spending decisions.

Finally, in order to provide a real check on the power and growth of government we need a separation of powers and a directly elected Prime Minister. As James Madison remarked in 1787,

“If it be a fundamental principle of free Government, that the Legislative, Executive and Judiciary powers should be separately exercised, it is equally so that they be independently exercised. There is the same and perhaps greater, reason why the Executive should be independent of the Legislature, than why the Judiciary should. A coalition of the two former powers would be more immediately and certainly dangerous to public liberty.”

This has certainly proved to be the case here in Britain, where the government can (and has) trample over long standing principles and precedents with a simple majority in parliament.

By ensuring that MPs could not be government ministers, we would ensure that they were representing their constituents and scrutinising the government rather than voting as they are told in order to climb the greasy pole into a ministerial post. By breaking the power of patronage and ensuring that is was parliament and not the government which was in charge of legislating, we would re-assert parliamentary sovereignty and strengthen parliament's hand against the executive. The Prime Minister himself would be elected separately from parliament and have a proper mandate to set about his reforms.  Out of all the reforms, it is this one which is most vital to reinvigorating parliament, make our politicians more accountable and to stop the growth of the government’s power.

All this would certainly be a revolutionary step in transforming the UK government, but if we look back over the previous century we have seen nothing but the continual growth of government (even under Mrs Thatcher), the continual restriction of the people’s liberties and the slow destruction of a constitution without the means to preserve itself.

If we want a real alternative to big government then we must start by reforming the system which has allowed it to grow and all too easily stay in place. Structures beget standards, and unless we reform our constitution we are asking for more of the same, more big government and more centralised power. Conservatives must push to reform our constitution so government is constrained, not free to take over ever more of our lives.


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