The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1996Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech on British Constitution – 26 June 1996

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech on the British Constitution, made on 26th June 1996.


This evening I want to address a vital debate – the state of the British constitution.

This debate is about the very nature of our nation. About the United Kingdom, and the constitutional fabric that underpin our freedoms and make us what we are.

The British constitution is complex and, in many ways, intangible. Too many people are put off by the word “constitution”, and make the mistake of thinking it a technical subject that only the experts can understand.

Well I don’t claim to be a constitutional expert. But I am a politician and a citizen, and it is from that practical experience that I want to address the issues. Because the constitution is not, to me, simply a matter of institutions – Parliament, the Crown, our legal system. At its heart I believe it’s about individuals and individual freedom. How we influence and control the kind of nation we live in. The Constitution is shorthand for our rights and our democracy.

This is a huge subject. A number of members of the Cabinet will be focusing on aspects of it in speeches over the coming weeks.

Tonight I want to start the process by setting out my view of the constitution, its enduring strengths. and how it has adapted and must continue to adapt to serve the people of this country.

And I shall cast a clear eye on some of the proposals for change that others have floated. Some are pointless. Others are damaging. But many are, in practical terms, irreversible.

We are fortunate. The British constitution is vibrant and robust. But it is not indestructible. People must realise that our Constitution is not a piece of architecture that one can re-engineer by knocking down a wall here or adding an extension there. It’s a living, breathing Constitution. Its roots are ancient, but it has evolved. And it has been stable because it has popular support.

Let me give you an example – the Monarchy. This has evolved over centuries. No alternative institution, fabricated by political theorists, would be designed with its current role and powers. And yet no alternative could ever match it in the affections of the British people.

It is one of the great features of our nation. Binding us together as a people and ensuring that political debate – the rough and tumble that swirls around Prime Ministers and Secretaries of State – leaves our Head of State untouched and untarnished.

So our constitution isn’t just dry institutions and legalistic relationships. It embodies a set of values, a legacy of understandings, that have developed year by year over the centuries – an understanding that is breathed in Parliament, reflected every day in the media, taken for granted in the saloon bar arguments about the state of the Nation.

And at its centre is something we are all instinctively proud of when pointed out to us, but – thankfully – rarely need to think about in our day to day lives. That is the fundamental freedom we each have as subjects of The Queen and citizens of the United Kingdom.

And you only have to pause a moment and think how few countries can boast such freedom, for so long, with so little national strife and struggle, to realise what a precious gift that freedom is and how much we owe to the unseen, unsung constitutional backbone that binds together our British way of life.

A living constitution that changes with the times.

Look at the history of this century and the changes there have been – not fundamental but significant nonetheless – in Parliament, our electoral system, the Civil Service, local administration, even the Monarchy and Church. Not change for change’s sake. Not the result of some technocratic plan. Not to serve the interests of the institutions themselves. They have been changes to strengthen the links with the individual citizen who they are there to serve.

That’s the kind of constitutional change that I support. Practical change, not grand plans. And above all, change that is driven by what people want. Conservatives believe in giving the citizen the reins wherever possible.

It is not right to suggest, as some do, that this Government has generally centralised power. In some areas, it’s true, we have introduced strong national controls over limited areas where most people would agree that it’s right and proper for national government to be responsible. The most obvious examples are the overall level of local government spending, and the definition of the national curriculum.

But these are areas where there was a specific problem which Government could not ignore. And they are the exceptions. Wherever possible, the record shows that we have moved Government closer to the people.

Moving power from centralised bureaucracies to smaller structures, closer to their local communities and consumers.

Decisions on health care from the NHS executive to individual hospital trusts.

Decisions on education from local government to individual school governing bodies.

And buttressing that with choice and information for the parents and patients who use them.

Opening up government, with more information now available than ever before.

The Citizen’s Charter – restoring the individual’s rights to hold large, impersonal organisations to account.

Privatisation – replacing government control with popular ownership, encouraging competition and putting consumers, not producers, in charge.

Curbing the power of trade unions, who for too long were out of touch with the interests and instincts of ordinary members.

Strengthening the independence of individuals by reducing taxation, encouraging home ownership, private pensions.

That’s my idea of freedom.

Protecting the freedom of the individual is an old principle, embodied in basic freedoms of speech and association.

The principle of Habeas Corpus still lies at the heart of English common law today, although born before our language itself.

But basic freedoms need to be constantly updated and applied to match the challenge of new technologies and social change.

Where should the rights of the many give way to the rights of the few?

When and how should a free and vigorous press be restrained from infringing the privacy of the individual?

What are the right safeguards for people in their homes as information – and other things – flood down the superhighway?

Some countries leave such questions to be decided by reference to a written constitution: we do so in the ordinary process of politics.

I believe ours is the right way. Vigorous politics offers the best safeguard of individual freedoms.

And in Britain it is our Parliament – the Parliament of the United Kingdom – that is, and should be, at the centre of that democratic, political process. That’s why piecemeal reforms that threaten to erode the power and supremacy of Parliament are so dangerous.

I know that some people argue that the freedom of the individual would be better protected if Britain had a written constitution or a new bill of rights, setting out a list of fundamental rights.

I don’t agree. I simply don’t believe that you could enshrine in a single piece of legislation the British conception of freedom. It’s no exaggeration to say that we believe our individual freedom is absolute, unless restrained by law.

It’s a way of life.

And we have no need for a bill of rights because we have freedom.

Any attempt to define our freedoms by statute would diminish Parliament’s historic role as the defender of individual freedoms.

Judges would become the guardians of a written constitution or bill of rights, and the supremacy of the elected representatives of the people in Parliament would – for the first time since the 17th Century – be eroded. Is that really the way we want to go? I think not.

It is not as though the processes of judicial interpretation are infallible.

In the United States, at different times, the Constitution was held both to support and to outlaw slavery. More recently, Canada’s 1982 Charter of Rights has been held to be inconsistent with earlier laws on Sunday Trading, drug trafficking, and abortion.

It is no slur on our judicial system to say that such great issues should be decided by elected representatives, not judges and courts.

All of this is based, not on any formal separation of powers, but on a silent boundary: a boundary of mutual restraint. No-one has the power to make final pronouncements about that boundary.

But collectively as part of our living constitution, I believe we all know, understand and respect where that boundary lies.

Some suggest that boundary is under pressure. That the greater use of judicial review means the Government is in conflict with the courts.

I see nothing surprising in the increasing role of judicial review. I believe it is a function of the increasing complexity or administration, and the legislation which governs it. And it is clearly right that the courts should hold Ministers and departments to the proper use of their powers, and should safeguard the procedural quality of public decision-making. This is merely an example of our constitution working. But, by the same token, it is of course ultimately up to Parliament to decide the laws on which judges and courts make their judgements.

In our constitution, Parliament is supreme, because the people are supreme. Parliament is the process through which the representatives of the people control the Executive.

Our Parliament may have its quirks and its faults, but it is hard to find another country today whose Parliament is so central to its national life. The proceedings of national Parliaments are televised in many other countries. But in how many others are they followed as avidly as here?

In Britain, Parliament is where things happen. It is the voice of the people of Britain, fighting out all the complexities of our national interest on issues which in some other countries are settled in smoke-filled rooms.

It is the focus of the nation’s unity at times of national grief or outrage. And it is the theatre for the great convulsions of political history.

So-one should lightly contemplate tampering with an institution that is so ancient and yet so alive. But that is not to say that nothing about Parliament can ever change.

Nor has that been our philosophy.

The last 17 years have seen the introduction and flourishing of Select Committees; new procedures to scrutinise European legislation; reform of Parliament’s working day; and a Budget, that brings together tax and spending. Now even Hansard and Bill papers may soon be on the Internet.

All these developments have made Parliament more open to the citizen, and the Government more accountable. Now I want to carry this process further.

I believe we could start by looking at the Parliamentary year. The House is swamped at the turn of the year with debates on The Queen’s Speech, the Budget, and the Second Reading of the bulk of the Government’s major bills.

I think there’s a case for change here. I would like to examine starting the Parliamentary year in May not November, so that some of these processes can begin sooner and be spread more evenly.

There are also legitimate complaints about the speed with which detailed legislative proposals are prepared and put through both Houses.

We have already made significant progress in tackling this through publishing bills in draft form for early scrutiny.

I’d like to develop more structured planning of the legislative programme and more time for consultation. I believe this could be done by preparing each year not only detailed proposals for the Queen’s Speech covering the next Session, but provisional plans for what would be in the Speech for the year after that. This would give Departments the opportunity to bring forward detailed proposals including, in some cases, draft Bills, for consultation in the year before the actual legislation was brought before Parliament.

That would allow Select Committees time to take evidence and report, and give Parliament a much more positive and forward-looking role in the policy process. It should also mean better legislation.

Improving Parliament’s ability to scrutinise legislation is the sort of constitutional change I favour: it identifies a problem, and comes up with a practical solution which could help. It is not change for change’s sake.

The same cannot be said for some of the proposals being floated for change to the House of Lords.

For example, some have suggested removing hereditary Peers’ voting rights, and developing the House of Lords in some other way.

But if you actually look at what the House of Lords does in its Parliamentary role, it is hard to cast it convincingly as the villain.

Has the House of Lords been overstepping the mark with the House of Commons? Of course not.

Has it been showing bias over the years, dispensing favour to one political party in Government and refusing it to another? Not at all.

So what precisely is broken, that needs to be fixed?

I find no convincing answers to these questions. To people who say that a House of Lords with a strong hereditary element is an anomaly, I say that it works. The fact is that the House of Lords has been far more effective than many overseas equivalents as a revising Chamber. But precisely because the Lords has no rival democratic mandate, the supremacy of the elected Chamber is guaranteed.

And what, anyway, are the alternatives?

A wholly appointed House of Lords. Is that more representative?

Or is it to be another elected Chamber If so how? And if we had two elected chambers, how would we avoid a situation where the two Houses are pitted against each other in legislative gridlock, or the executive plays one chamber off against the other?

I believe passionately in the House of Commons as the vital link between Government and citizen. That is why I don’t want to see it weakened by the establishment of a competing elected body.

Nor do I believe that the link between citizen and Government would be as strong if we were to change our electoral system and move to proportional representation. This carries a number of dangers. First, the idea that PR leads to short-lived coalition governments is not just theoretical. Take Italy, where I was last weekend – there they’ve had 55 governments since the War. And instability has other consequences. Politicians spend more of their time campaigning than governing. And the electorate have less and less influence over Government since so much of the agenda is the result of back-room barter.

Some of the models of proportional representation would damage Parliament in other ways too, by breaking the link between every citizen of this country and their MP. It is that individual responsibility which alone can balance the pressures of party loyalty and gives Westminster its unique electricity.

But Parliament is more than simply the focus for our democracy. It’s the cement that holds together the countries of the United Kingdom. Countries with distinct traditions, culture, history and language. But countries which have remained one nation because it was in their interests to do so. Unity brought stability. And stability bought prosperity.

Threaten the central role of our National Parliament, and you threaten that unity and stability.

Why do I feel so strongly about the Union? In many ways, the cynics would say I shouldn’t. After all, a purely English Westminster would be to the advantage of the Conservative party. But the unity of the nation, all parts of it, is so crucial to our future that our duty is to stand up to protect it.

The Conservative commitment to the United Kingdom doesn’t mean ignoring the distinctive individuality of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. On the contrary, we’ve gone further in recognising that diversity than any previous Government.

The new powers we’ve given to the Scottish Grand Committee are a huge step forward. They mean Scottish MPs can call Ministers to account and debate legislation. We’re making similar changes to the Welsh Grand Committee too, which will involve for the first time Welsh Members of Parliament asking their questions to Ministers in Welsh in Wales.

Some seek to exploit the ideas we put forward some time ago for a possible Assembly in Northern Ireland, as part of an agreed overall political settlement there, by suggesting that they form a justification for proposing a Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly. But they do no such thing.

There are plainly differences, self-evident even on the most casual examination. I have set them out before.

For one thing, the kind of Assembly that might emerge is not likely to be the same as is proposed for Scotland. The ideas we put forward did not, and for good reason, extend to an Assembly with power to raise taxes, unlike the Assembly that is proposed for Scotland.

And the political background is quite different too.

In Northern Ireland, there has been a sectarian divide for years. That does not exist elsewhere.

In Northern Ireland, none of the parties could obtain a majority in the UK Parliament or form a UK Government. In Scotland and Wales, all of the major Westminster parties are represented.

In Northern Ireland, because of its history, there has been an Assembly in the past. That does not apply elsewhere.

These are some of the differences. And they explain why a solution tailored to the special circumstances of Northern Ireland would not threaten the stability of the United Kingdom.

By contrast, the alternatives floated by the Opposition could not fail to destabilise and, in the end, diminish the British Parliament.

This audience needs little reminding of the intractable problems they raise.

The West Lothian question, for a start. Simply put, why should Scottish and Welsh MPs be able to vote on English matters, but English MPs unable to vote on Scottish and Welsh matters?

Would devolution mean a cut in the number of Scottish and Welsh MPs at Westminster? If not, why not?

At the moment, the Government spends more in Scotland and Wales than it raises in tax. Would that continue? And if so, who would fund it?

Would we still have Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales in the Cabinet? If yes, what if one party has a majority in Scotland or Wales, and another in Westminster? Which one would choose?

Why give the Scottish Parliament the power to raise tax and make the Scots pay more tax than any part of Britain?

Why should Scotland have a tax raising Parliament, but Wales only an assembly?

And why should a Scottish Parliament be elected by PR, but a Welsh Assembly by first-past-the-post?

It’s no use the Opposition retreating and trying to dodge the argument by pledging a referendum. Who would vote in this referendum? The Scots of course. But who else? Because the result would affect the whole of the United Kingdom. And would the result be decided by a simple majority or a higher threshold?

Frankly the opposition don’t know as they wriggle and turn to try to avoid answering the questions that expose the folly of their plans. A referendum would do nothing to make these plans less dangerous. People would still need to know the answers to the questions and precisely what they’d be voting for.

These are serious questions. The Opposition have implicitly acknowledged this. Why else did they come forward with the wholly unwelcome proposal that, to justify a Scottish parliament and a Welsh Assembly, we should have English regional assemblies too.

But what are the regions? How do we define them? Why must we carve up England in some arbitrary way just for the sake of legitimising devolution elsewhere in the UK?

Where is the demand for these assemblies?

Anyway, surely what would be required to match a Scottish Parliament would be not a set of regional assemblies but an English Parliament?

But one thing is clear. Go down this route, and there will no longer be a single focus for democracy. Set up rival parliaments or assemblies, and they will grow hungry for more power.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop people voting to undermine or destroy the Union. Our unity depends on democracy. At the next election, just as at the last, people will be able choose if they want to embark on a voyage into the unknown, uncharted waters of tempestuous change. The choice is – rightly – theirs. Our task is to warn them of the perils of doing so.

And there’s another choice people will face come the election. Not only could they undermine the role of Parliament in the United Kingdom, but also its relationship with the European Union.

The choice could not be clearer. I have often set out my view of a flexible Europe, a Europe of nation states. Not a federalist State. Not a Europe of regions that would effectively bypass national governments and weaken our strong national voice. I will not reiterate those points again this evening, except to say that they rest on my belief that our national Parliament must remain the primary focus for our democracy.

People might disagree. They might want greater integration, and see Britain become part of a European superstate. Or they might want a wholly federal Europe.

But they should recognise that both of these would affect the role of Parliament. And having given powers away, it would be all but impossible to get them back.

I intend to make sure that the issues at stake in the constitutional debate are properly understood.

So over the coming weeks, a number of Ministers will directly address current constitutional issues.

The Lord Chancellor, James Mackay, will speak on Parliament and the Judiciary and the vital role each plays in our Constitution.

The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, will develop the same themes and speak on the need to retain our present method of election to Parliament.

The Leader of the House of Commons, Tony Newton, will be talking about parliamentary reform: how do we preserve and build on Parliament’s strengths.

The Environment Secretary, John Gummer, will speak about the importance of local government, and the absence of a convincing case for regional assemblies.

The Chancellor of the Duchy, Roger Freeman, will talk about the improvements we have made to provide the public with services which are more accountable, open and efficient.

The Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales, Michael Forsyth and William Hague, will address the Opposition’s devolution plans.

And I expect other colleagues will want to add to the debate too.

This will be the most thorough debate on the constitution for a generation. And it is right that we should have it. Right because it’s too easy to take for granted the traditions and institutions that make us a nation. Our constitutional fabric has been woven over the centuries. It’s the product of hundreds of years of knowledge, experience and history.

It’s been stable, but not static.

Along the way the key events stand out, spanning generations of our ancestors – the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Act of Union, the First and Second Reform Acts, step by step progress towards universal suffrage, Reform of the House of Lords, and the introduction of Life Peers. Each one a footprint in our nation’s story, a step down the path towards today’s modern constitution.

Out of this evolutionary change has grown one of the finest, strongest and most admired constitutions in the world.

I’m all for practical change that would solve real problems or improve the way our constitution works.

But pointless fiddling with our constitution wouldn’t solve any problems. It would just create new ones.

In the end, it would begin to unstitch our way of life. One group of politicians could unravel what generations of our predecessors have created.

I don’t make any apology for defending what works. I’m a Conservative and I reject change for change’s sake.

That doesn’t mean I avoid change where it’s needed.

We live in a world that is changing rapidly in many areas.

In the economy, for example, I am committed to following through the changes necessary to ensure Britain can compete and prosper. Many of our opponents resist such changes.

But on the Constitution, the arguments are reversed. There, our opponents favour experiments that would undermine our stability and introduce new uncertainties for no good purpose.

Our constitution is the lifeblood of the United Kingdom. It upholds our freedom. It binds Parliament and the Government to the Citizen. It provides the checks and balances that prevent abuse of power. It cements the Union together.

It’s not just precious because it’s ancient. It’s precious because it’s alive.

I said earlier that the three key institutions in our constitution were Parliament, our legal system, and the Crown. We British have a great gift for underselling our virtues. We should not do so with our Constitution.

Just ask yourself: if you had to face a court of law, where is justice more impartial than in Britain?

In which country is parliament more accountable, more accessible, more likely to right a wrong?

And if we had no Monarchy, how would we find a Head of State who was so much above party politics, who would provide the impartiality, the continuity and the focus of so much of our national life?

To ask those questions is to know the answers.

That is why I care so much about our constitution. It’s why I will defend our tradition, our heritage, and guard against any needless change which threatens the institutions that make us one nation.

It is that which makes me a Conservative and Unionist.

To conserve what is best.

To change what is needed.

And to make one nation a stronger nation.