Constitutional modernisation: Parliament, Elections and the Crown
Submitting InstitutionKing's College London
Unit of AssessmentLaw
Summary Impact TypePolitical
Research Subject Area(s)
Studies In Human Society: Political Science
Law and Legal Studies: Law
Philosophy and Religious Studies: History and Philosophy of Specific Fields
Summary of the impact
There has been growing public and political debate on modernising the
monarchy since the early 1990s, seeking to ensure the law best serves and
harmonises with UK society for symbolic as well as practical purposes.
However constitutional law is a highly complex area. Initiatives to
replace uncertain 'floating' election timing with fixed-term Parliaments
would involve reform of the ancient royal prerogative to dissolve
Parliament. To allow female succession, or permit the monarch to marry a
Roman Catholic, would mean overturning common law doctrine and ancient
statutes respectively. Professor Blackburn's research and interventions
have directly informed two historic legislative changes: the Fixed-term
Parliaments Act 2011 and the Succession to the Crown Act 2013. His
publications-leading academic works on the subject — were widely
consulted by policymakers and cited in parliamentary documents. He also
presented evidence to the constitutional reform committees of both Houses
As contributor of the Halsbury's titles on Parliament and
The Crown & Royal Family , Blackburn is an authority on
these subjects, founded on his research interests and publications on the
law of Parliament and the monarchy since the early 1990s.
His primary research on the personal role of the monarch in dissolution
was conducted in 1993-95 . Political interest in the idea of fixed-term
Parliaments was gathering momentum: it was proposed in Labour's 1992
election manifesto and had also been Liberal Democrat policy since 1992.
The rules on election timing have been a complex mix of ancient law,
constitutional history and modern political practice, and Blackburn's
1993-95 research was the first major study to analyse the inherent
problems of election timing being governed by the legal act of the
monarch, and to put forward a case for fixed-term Parliaments outlining
options for a new legislative framework. He examined the legal regulation
of the royal prerogative, the evolution of unwritten constitutional
conventions, little-understood procedural aspects of calling a general
election and the political advantage derived by Prime Ministers as adviser
to the monarch. The work produced coherent conclusions on conventions
governing general election timing, government formation following an
inconclusive result, and legitimate circumstances for calling an early
second general election. Blackburn continued to generate research leading
up to the 2011 Act. A publication in 2004  addressed the theory and
practice of the role of the monarch in dissolution, and the legitimacy of
Prime Ministers calling an early second general election in hung
Parliament situations. His research in 2008-09  analysed a proposal by
then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, to make dissolution of Parliament
subject to a prior formal parliamentary vote. Blackburn opposed this,
arguing for a statutory framework for fixed-term Parliaments in the
journal Public Law .
In parallel, Blackburn conducted important primary research on the wider
role of the monarchy. Research underpinning his contribution to the 2013
Act was conducted between 2003-06 and published in his book King and
Country , which presented recommendations for modernisation and
reform. Blackburn examined the ancient common law doctrine of male
primogeniture as applied to royal succession and argued for its repeal,
contending that laws relating to the royal Head of State had great
symbolic importance and must evolve to reflect changing social values
about equality. He also analysed the ancient legal and religious duties
imposed on a monarch, notably that he or she cannot be or marry a Roman
Catholic. Blackburn studied the anomaly of Catholicism being singled out
for disqualification for political reasons in the 1689 and 1701 statutes,
and what this signified today. He also examined the Royal Marriages Act
1772 which declared the marriage of any descendent of King George
II to be void unless they first obtained formal consent from the reigning
monarch, and argued for its repeal.
References to the research
1. Robert Blackburn, The Electoral System in Britain (Macmillan,
1995), chapter 2: "The Timing of General Elections", pp.18-65. Positively
reviewed inter alia by The Economist (`the definitive book
on the electoral system in Britain'), by Lord Plant, Master of St
Catherine's College, Oxford (`... the best study of the British electoral
system (including arguments for reform)...') and by Professor Dawn Oliver,
Professor of Constitutional Law, UCL, and then editor of Public Law
(`A very comprehensive and scholarly account of the electoral system ...
an authoritative contribution to current debates on reform').
2. Robert Blackburn, "Monarchy and the Personal Prerogatives", Public
Law (2004), pp. 546-563. Public Law is the leading
peer-reviewed journal in this field.
3. Robert Blackburn, "The Prerogative Power of Dissolution of Parliament:
Law, Practice and Reform", Public Law (2009) pp. 766-789. Cited inter
alia in the Canadian Parliamentary Review and the Malayan Law
4. Robert Blackburn & Raymond Plant, "Electoral Law and
Administration", chapter 4 and "Monarchy and the Royal Prerogative",
chapter 6 in Blackburn & Raymond Plant (eds.), Constitutional
Reform (London: Longman, 1999), pp. 82-108 and 139-153. Cited inter
alia in the Manitoba Law Journal.
5. Robert Blackburn, King and Country (London: Politico's, 2006),
206pp. Subject of 20 minute television programme on GMTV, 15 Oct 2006.
Cited inter alia in House of Commons Library Research Papers.
6. Robert Blackburn, The Crown & Royal Family (4th
ed, 1998, vol 12(1)), Parliament (5th ed., 2010, vol
78) and Constitutional & Administrative Law (5th
ed, vol 20, in press) in Halsbury's Laws of England (regarded by
lawyers as the definitive statement of English law).
Blackburn was awarded a Leverhulme Research Fellowship for research on
"Law of the Monarchy as Head of State", May 2007-Oct 2008, to the value
Details of the impact
In 2011 the law on general election timing in the UK was reformed from a
'floating date' system, based on the ancient royal prerogative power of
dissolution of Parliament of the monarch exercised by unwritten convention
on the Prime Minister's request, to that of a 'fixed' five year statutory
interval laid down by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. Two years later, the
Succession to the Crown Act was passed, reforming the law to remove male
preference in the line of succession, to remove disqualification from the
throne arising from marriage to a Roman Catholic, and to limit the
requirement for the monarch's permission to marry to the six persons next
in line to the throne. These reforms are of exceptional benefit to the UK
public. The 2011 Act adds overdue stability and fairness to the political
process, while strengthening economic planning in the public and private
sectors by providing certainty over when the next election and possible
change of government will occur. The 2013 Act in turn modernises and
stabilises an institution that is a cornerstone of the UK's constitution
and holds significant symbolic meaning for many UK and Commonwealth
citizens. For both these important statutory changes, Blackburn's research
and interventions had a significant impact on policy makers, by providing
clarity and authoritative analysis in a complex and little understood area
of law and convention, and by contributing to public and Parliamentary
debate on reform and helping shape the legislative framework. A senior
parliamentarian describes Blackburn's contributions to both Acts as being
`material and valuable contributions' to some of the `most important
constitutional reforms in the history of the UK' .
Contribution to policy debate
Blackburn has participated directly with the royal household, government
and parliamentary bodies to help inform and shape thinking on how the
monarchy can modernise and evolve. In 2004 he gave a lecture at the
Department for Constitutional Affairs (subsequently published as an
article ) which was attended by the Queen's Private Secretary, and made
the case for reconfiguring conventions governing the monarch's exercise of
prerogative powers, including election timing. Blackburn further put into
the public domain his analysis of the role of the monarch in hung
Parliament situations in a prominently placed letter to The Times
in 2009  and in a co-authored Hansard Society pamphlet 
launched in the House of Commons in early 2010.
Regarding the law on royal marriages and succession, Blackburn's research
and writings (including King & Country) were quoted in House
of Commons Library papers  given to MPs and peers prior to
parliamentary debates on the subject during the six years between
publication of his 2006 book and preparation of the Succession to the
Crown Act 2013. During this period, Blackburn also presented his research
in public talks, including a public lecture in March 2007 at the Institute
of Advanced Legal Studies, and at a joint Kings College London/Ipsos-MORI
conference on the monarchy in November 2012 attended by over 100 people.
He also spoke in the media on royal succession and modernisation issues on
numerous occasions .
When the House of Lords Constitution Committee examined the Coalition
government's constitutional reform programme in the early months of the
new Parliament, Blackburn gave oral evidence on the proposal for
fixed-term Parliaments . During the Bill's passage, Lord Lloyd (the
former Law Lord) stated that Blackburn's evidence was "important because
he is the man who has made a particular study of this very issue", while
Lord Norton (himself a constitutional law expert) observed that
Blackburn's work The Electoral System in Britain was one of just
two works to have considered the issue in detail since the 1970's .
When the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill was introduced shortly afterwards,
Blackburn was the sole expert invited to give oral evidence to the House
of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee to inform second
reading debate . He also prepared written evidence for the Committee
which was published in the report and was explicitly mentioned in the
Government response . During parliamentary consideration of the
legislation, Blackburn was invited to several meetings and gave a number
of lectures to audiences comprising politicians, government and
parliamentary officials, and academics . These informed discussion and
built support for the reform and how it might be framed. He or his
research was cited on several occasions in parliamentary debates on the
Bill . Through these interactions, Blackburn's research had a distinct
and material impact on parliamentary opinion, scrutiny and debate leading
to the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.
The Succession to the Crown Act 2013 reached the statute book on 23 April
2013. Blackburn's research and writings were persuasive factors in
parliamentarians and ministers taking up the case for modernising the law
on succession to the Crown and royal marriages, and in influencing how the
reforming legislation was framed so to achieve its social and political
objectives. Shortly after the Coalition government announced its intention
to introduce the Succession to the Crown Bill, Blackburn was requested to
give oral evidence to the House of Commons Political and Constitutional
Reform Committee on 10 November 2011 as one of only two experts .
Remarkably he was author of the only written memorandum of evidence for
the Committee on the subject published in its Report . The final
provisions of the Act reflect closely the detailed research, analysis and
proposals in Blackburn's book . In particular Section 1 superseded the
common law doctrine of male primogeniture, which reflected Blackburn's
argument that the law relating to the royal Head of State was of great
symbolic importance and must evolve to reflect changing social values.
Section 2 retrospectively applied removal of disqualification from
marriage to a Catholic where the person concerned is alive. The Royal
Marriages Act of 1772 was repealed and Section 3 introduced a new
statutory provision limiting the need for such consent to a small number
of persons closest in line to the throne, whilst removing the requirement,
as Blackburn had argued, for all descendants of George II to have
the Monarch's permission. All these provisions were highlighted to
policymakers on the basis of Blackburn's research and substantive
Sources to corroborate the impact
- Work cited in House of Commons Library Research Papers: Fixed Term
Parliaments, SN/PC/831, 2007, pages 5, 7, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17,
21; Fixed-term Parliaments Bill [Bill 64 of 2010-11], Research
Paper 10/54, pages 5, 7, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, 21, 27; Hung
Parliaments, SN/PC/04951, 2010, pages 17, 19, 23, 24, 26; The
Royal Prerogative, SN/PC/03861, 2009, p 5.
- Robert Blackburn, Ruth Fox, Oonagh Gay, Lucinda Maer, Who Governs?
(Hansard Society/Study of Parliament Group, 2010), 26 pp. The Society is
recognised as an independent and non-partisan authority on Parliament
with access to and influence over policy makers.
- Work cited in House of Commons Library Research Papers: Royal
Marriages and Succession to the Crown (Prevention of Discrimination)
Bill, Bill 29 of 2008-09, Research Paper 09/24, 2009, pages 9, 17,
19, 27, 28; Royal Marriages — Constitutional Issues,
SN/PC/03417, 2008, pages 6, 10; The Act of Settlement and the
Protestant Succession, SN/PC/683, 2011, pages 12, 13.
- Media coverage includes GMTV television interview (20 minutes) on
book, King and Country, 15 Oct 2006; BBC Radio 4 Today interview
on the future of the monarchy on 28 Dec 2007; BBC Radio 4 feature on
Prince William as heir to the throne on 1 Jan 2011; letter to the editor
of The Times, 28 Nov 2009.
- House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, The
Government's Constitutional Reform Programme, oral evidence 21
July 2010, HL 2010.
- House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Fixed-term
Parliaments Bill, 2010, oral evidence on 7 Sep 2010, and written
evidence, HC 436 (and mentioned in Government's response, Cm 7951).
- For example, lectures to the Study of Parliament Group (parliamentary
officials/academics) on "The Dissolution and Meeting of Parliaments",
House of Commons, 25 Mar 2009; "The House of Commons and Hung
Parliaments", House of Commons, 1 Mar 2010; and "The Fixed-Term
Parliaments Bill", House of Commons, 18 Oct 2010; and on "Fixed-term
Parliaments", to the Parliamentary All Party Group on the Constitution,
House of Lords, 7 Dec 2010.
- Citation in parliamentary debates on Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. Commons
Hansard: 13 Sept 2010, cols. 633, 642, 643, 646, 688, 691; 16 Nov
2010, cols. 772, 787, 788, 794, 815, 834, 838; 1 Dec 2010, cols. 866,
869; 18 Jan 2011, col. 802. Lords Hansard: 1 Mar 2011, cols.
941, 995, 996, 1043 (including statements by Lords Lloyd and Norton at
995); 12 Mar 2011, col. 479; 10 May 2011, cols 780, 781, 784.
- House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, The
Rules of Royal Succession, 2010-12, HC 1615, oral evidence session
on 10 Nov 2011 and written memorandum of evidence.
- Statement by the Chair of the House of Commons Political and
Constitutional Reform Committee & sitting Member of Parliament,
confirming the significant contribution by Blackburn to the work of the
Committee in considering the 2011 and 2013 Acts.