Life & Culture

Jewniversity: Vernon Bogdanor

The latest in David Edmonds' series on leading Jewish thinkers is a constitutional expert whose advice is sought after by politicians


What is a constitutional expert?  Vernon Bogdanor, widely acknowledged as one of the UK’s leading constitutional experts, jokes that it’s an historian who’s passed their telephone number to a journalist.

Many journalists seem now to have his number on speed dial. Professor Bogdanor is in much demand at present - for obvious reasons.  But before we get to the B-word, what does he make of the other constitutional changes in recent years?  There have, in fact, been many radical reforms, and Bogdonor is frustrated that so few people seem to have noticed!

As well as devolution to the nations, there’s been reform of the House of Lords, the fixed Parliament Act and the Supreme Court, elected mayors and the introduction of new voting systems – such as the Supplementary Vote system used in mayoral contests. Bogdanor, who regards himself as a few millimetres to the left of centre, is broadly supportive of these measures, which, cumulatively, have had the effect of weakening the power of central government. (He says Tony Blair has never received enough credit for initiating many of these reforms). But the constitutional revolution is incomplete.

Britain is one of only three democracies – the others being Israel and New Zealand – without a written constitution, which is why Bogdanor once conceded that he’s “made a living out of something that doesn’t exist”. Which brings us to Brexit.

It’s been said that the British system of government is based on convention and tacit understandings but the understandings are not always understood. Bogdanor says that “politicians, including Boris Johnson, have been testing these tacit understandings almost to destruction”. Pre-EU membership, the British system was grounded in parliamentary sovereignty. The Brexit car crash, Bogdonor believes, is in large part the result of parliament being asked to implement a policy in which only a minority of parliamentarians believe.


What of the future? As members of the EU, citizens’ rights have been protected through the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights. That’s a particularly important safeguard for vulnerable minorities, such as asylum seekers. If that protection goes, Vernon Bogdanor, argues, the judges may be forced to step in, and we can expect even more tension between parliament and the judiciary. His solution is to codify individual rights explicitly, as well as to set out the limits to government power. Ideally, this process should result in a formal constitution that would also encompass the nature of the relationship between the branches of government and between Whitehall and the regions.   

Born in July 1943, Professor Bogdanor was brought up in an orthodox family; his father was a pharmacist whose parents had arrived in London’s East End from Ukraine.  His mother was born in Poland and came to the UK in the 1930s. Almost her entire family were wiped out in the Holocaust.

Bogdanor was raised in Uxbridge. He won a scholarship to Oxford, going on to gain a (very rare) Congratulatory First. Oxford (and Brasenose College) was home for the bulk of his academic career; he became professor of government in 1996.  He’s now based at King’s College, London.  By all accounts he was a popular Oxford tutor – one former student and now journalist (Toby Young) said that “Vernon’s guiding principle at Brasenose was to treat all his students as if they might one day be Prime Minister”. No profile of Bogdanor is complete without mentioning that one of his ex students managed to achieve just this. Perhaps when David Cameron called the EU referendum in 2016 he should have consulted his erstwhile politics teacher on the constitutional risks.

Bogdanor’s Jewish identity is not easy to characterize.  He’s entirely secular and believes it “absurd” to take pride in one’s ethnic origins. “Being Jewish is a fact which it is both foolish and cowardly to deny or ignore”. But he’s also a committed Zionist who’s advised many Israeli politicians over the years (and he sits on the International Advisory Board of the Israel Democracy Institute, a non-partisan think tank.)  He says he regrets never having settled in Israel.

In the past three years he’s spoken out strongly against rising antisemitism.  He regards Britain as an unusually tolerant society, traditionally the “least antisemitic of countries” and says he’s barely ever been on the receiving end of bigotry. But he charges the educated, progressive left with being shockingly indifferent to, and so complicit in, the racism within Labour Party ranks.  His constitutional advice is often sought by politicians and political parties, and as a matter of principle he always agrees to help – whether the request comes from the Conservatives, Lib Dems, the Brexit Party or the SNP  But he now makes one exception – he used to advise the Labour Party but will do so no longer.

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