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The Constitution Unit

The Constitution Unit

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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.
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The Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. It announced that the thirteen American colonies, who were at war with Great Britain in the American Revolutionary War, no longer considered themselves part of the British Empire. They now called themselves a new nation, The United States of America. This famous document went on to become a well-known keystone of the human rights movement. However, the newly formed state had no real identity or philosophy and were merely a loose col ...
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Recent years have seen many changes to election regulations in the UK. These changes affect key aspects of how elections are fought and administered, including party spending, voter identification, the voting rights of citizens living abroad, and the electoral system used to elect mayors and police and crime commissioners. So what has changed, what…
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The UK’s recent air strikes on the Houthis in Yemen have renewed discussion about parliament’s role in approving military action. The government is not constitutionally required to consult parliament on military deployments, and can choose whether and when to seek MPs’ approval. So what is parliament’s current role? Should this be changed, as some …
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Protest is a fundamental part of democracy. From thousands attending pro-Palestine marches in London, to farmers driving their tractors into Paris, Berlin, and Cardiff, to Just Stop Oil spraying UCL’s famous portico orange – protests are rarely out of the spotlight. But what do protests actually achieve? Do they affect political debate and policy o…
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On 1 February a cross-party expert commission, the UK Governance Project, chaired by former Conservative Attorney General Dominic Grieve, published its report. It makes various proposals for improving governance standards in the UK, aimed at restoring high standards of integrity in public office, enhancing the role of parliament, improving working …
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The Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales launched its final report in January 2024. Its recommendations – which assessed options for ‘entrenched devolution’, full federalism, and Welsh independence – have implications for the whole UK. How would such arrangements be viewed outside Wales? How would they function in practice? …
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How parliaments hold ministers (particularly prime ministers) to account is a fundamental part of parliamentary democracy. And one of those mechanisms of accountability involves asking questions. We take a good hard look at how – and how effectively – parliaments question prime ministers. We are joined by Dr Ruxandra Serban, Associate Lecturer in D…
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Peace in Northern Ireland is widely recognised as one of the leading achievements of politics in recent decades. The Good Friday, or Belfast Agreement, reached in 1998 by the British and Irish governments and most of the main Northern Ireland political parties brought an end to thirty years of violent conflict in which over three and a half thousan…
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Over the past two years, a Constitution Unit team has been examining public attitudes to democracy in the UK. The project’s final report draws together the findings – from two large-scale surveys and a citizens’ assembly – and reflects on implications for policy-makers. It examines what kind of democracy people in the UK want and consider what chan…
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Mark D’Arcy recently retired after spending 21 years covering events at Westminster for the BBC. During that time he built up an unparalleled knowledge of the institution, its procedures and dynamics, with insider access to innumerable key players and a ringside seat at important political moments large and small. This conversation discussed his ke…
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The recent book by journalist and author Ian Dunt provides a detailed and critical account of many aspects of the UK’s political system, including political parties and elections, parliament and the legislative process, the work of ministers and civil servants in Whitehall, and the role of the media. The book analyses various perceived problems, an…
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Adopting a more proportional electoral system is opposed by the Conservative Party, and by the Labour leader, but attracts growing support elsewhere. Would such reform be desirable or practical, and what might be its consequences? What might politicians wish to consider regarding other aspects of our elections, such as the minimum voting age, voter…
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This final keynote session considered the practicalities of delivering constitutional change in the round, whether under the current government, or a new Conservative, Labour, or coalition administration after the next general election. What kinds of changes might be ‘quick wins’, and which might instead take longer to deliver? How is the balance t…
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The issue of ensuring high standards of behaviour in public life remains high-profile following the Johnson and Truss premierships. Rishi Sunak pledged to lead a government of ‘integrity, professionalism, and accountability’ when he first became Prime Minister, while Labour has proposed an extensive overhaul to the UK’s system of standards regulati…
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Relations between the political branches and the courts have been strained in recent years. Pushback against the Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights has spilled over into determined attempts to ‘clip the wings’ of the UK’s own courts, with renewed interest in ‘ouster clauses' and attempts to repeal the Huma…
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Uncertainties over the UK’s future territorial politics are great. The SNP is in turmoil, and the UK government’s block on Holyrood’s gender legislation is being challenged in the courts. Labour’s Brown Commission has recommended major changes, and further proposals are being developed in Wales. Renewed devolution within England is on the cards. Is…
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The last few years have seen frequent controversy about parliament’s role, and the government’s openness to parliamentary accountability. Concerns have focused on parliament's ability to scrutinise primary legislation, delegated legislation, and international treaties, and on the role of the House of Lords. What are the proper scrutiny roles of MPs…
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Recent years have seen rising global concern about ‘democratic backsliding’, whereby political leaders challenge democratic norms and institutions and dismantle checks and balances on the executive. What can be done to combat these trends? In particular, how can international actors, and domestic actors such as opposition forces and civil society, …
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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 sys…
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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 abu…
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This episode was first recorded for our sister podcast - UCL Uncovering Politics The 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…
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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 …
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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, th…
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Recent years have raised fundamental questions about how the UK’s democratic system functions: about the roles and characters of different institutions, about dangers of democratic ‘backsliding’, and about options for reform. Understanding public attitudes on such questions is vital, so the Constitution Unit’s Democracy in the UK after Brexit proje…
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The Labour Party’s Commission on the UK’s Future, chaired by Gordon Brown, has published recommendations for sweeping constitutional change, including major reforms to the devolution framework and the House of Lords. What does the Commission’s report propose? What does it leave out? Could its proposals be practically implemented? If so, how might t…
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Proposals for reform of the UK’s House of Lords are in the news. In the wake of a report by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Labour leader and – if the polls are to be believed – likely future Prime Minister Keir Starmer has said that he would abolish the House of Lords and replace it with a so-called Assembly of the Nations and Regions. This we…
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From the prorogation of parliament to military action, the executive’s prerogative powers have been at the heart of some of the most heated political controversies of recent years. This seminar marks the publication of a new book and report on this little-understood but crucial topic. Robert Hazell will explains the main prerogative powers, the suc…
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This episode was originally recorded for recorded for our sister UCL Political Science podcast - 'Uncovering Politics'. Questions about politicians’ behaviour have been high on the political agenda here in the UK in recent months and years. Boris Johnson’s premiership was dogged – and ultimately ended – by allegations that he was serially dishonest…
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Rishi Sunak’s agenda for government will inevitably be focused on the UK’s economic woes. However, Sunak also faces important questions about constitutional change. How might he approach his predecessors’ legislative proposals relating to the Northern Ireland Protocol, retained EU law, and human rights? How will he deliver on his pledge to prioriti…
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Politics in the UK is in a state of turmoil. Every time we think it can’t get any crazier, it finds a way of doing just that. Many of the roots of the trouble can be found in Brexit. Whatever you think of Brexit, it’s clear that the referendum of June 2016 forced parliament to implement a massive switch in the direction of the country that most MPs…
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The next big event for King Charles after accession will be his coronation, planned jointly by the monarch, church and state. Parliament will need to update the Regency Acts to provide for additional Counsellors of State. Meanwhile several Commonwealth countries have declared their intent to leave the monarchy and become republics. Three experts co…
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After Boris Johnson announced his resignation as prime minister, he was widely described as leading a ‘caretaker government’. But this episode has highlighted that the conventions surrounding such governments are far from clear in the UK. What are the UK’s caretaker conventions? When do they apply? Should the existing conventions be clarified, codi…
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The UK government has promised to introduce a new ‘Brexit Freedoms’ Bill in the current parliamentary session. The government’s aim is to make retained EU law – former EU legislation placed on the British statute book during the Brexit process – easier to amend. However, this may mean increasing ministers’ ability to make important policy changes v…
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Rory Stewart was Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border between 2010 and 2019. He served in government under David Cameron and Theresa May, including as a Home Office minister and Secretary of State for International Development. As a former diplomat, he served on the House of Commons Foreign Affairs and Defence Committees, the latter of which …
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Johnson’s premiership has been marked by various controversies about parliament. On COVID-19, the government was accused of overusing delegated powers – adding to already long-standing concerns in this area. Subsequently, some primary legislation has been rushed, and the relationship between whips and backbenchers often difficult. Most recently, th…
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The 2019 Conservative manifesto promised to review the relationship between government, parliament and the courts. In particular, ministers had concerns about the growth of judicial review. Since then, there have been consultations on judicial review and the Human Rights Act, the Judicial Review and Courts Act has reached the statute book, and the …
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The UK’s ‘devolution settlement’ is unsettled. Alternative visions abound for how to achieve stability: through ‘muscular unionism’; by reforming intergovernmental relations; through wholesale federalisation; or by breaking up the Union. What is the current state of each of these options? How are they likely to develop in the foreseeable future? In…
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Northern Ireland finds itself again without a functioning Executive or Assembly. All mainstream voices agree that the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement offers the only viable framework for politics in Northern Ireland in the coming years, but the risk of breakdown is severe. How can Northern Ireland’s power-sharing arrangements be restored in the …
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The Johnson premiership has sparked numerous concerns about constitutional standards – from respect for checks and balances and the rule of law, to standards of behaviour among ministers, officials, and parliamentarians. A major review by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 2021 proposed significant change. These debates take place within …
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