On his personal blog, Lord Norton has summarised his three considerations on constitutional reform as proportionality (‘don’t expect too much of it’), complementarity (‘make sure it relates to a clear view of what is expected of our constitutional arrangements’), and effectiveness (‘make sure it is evidence based’).
In addition—and as a way of preparing the ground—I suggest a thorough ‘metaphysics of reform’ should also be among constitutional first principles; namely: (i) an identified abuse; (ii) a realistic remedy; and (iii) consideration of long-term consequences.
In his House of Lords address, Lord Norton cautioned: ‘We need to ensure that this is a thoroughly well grounded proposal and not some back-of-the-envelope approach of the sort that we have seen in the past.’ He is referring implicitly to consequences both unintended (foreseen but considered unlikely) and unforeseen (quite unanticipated at all).
For one of conservative disposition, this is one of the strengths of tradition: not that an institution or practice is old, but that it is tested, and that its benefits (as well as its weaknesses) are known. In a nomenclature that has fallen out of favour in our day, Edmund Burke called this knowledge prejudice:
Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discern the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, that to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence.For Hamlet, knowledge of these prejudices—and an awareness of the veil of ignorance concerning consequences, pending their removal—‘makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of’.
Burke’s aversion to this rationality of ‘naked reason’ is the same source for Lord Norton’s appeal that ‘constitutional change – indeed any public policy – should be grounded in clear empirical evidence.’
Unfortunately, the ease with which this Government (and its predecessor, under Labour) enters into legislating for reform—whether it be for an elected Upper House or the general voting mechanism—betrays a disconcerting cavalier attitude. When His Lordship says, ‘Our constitution is not the plaything of any government ... We need to ensure that change is justified both in principle and practice’, he echoes the wisdom of Disraeli:
Are we never to learn that a Constitution, a real Constitution, is the creation of ages, not of a day, and that when we destroy such a Constitution we in fact destroy a nation?