Spotlight on Prof Robert Hazell

pRof Robert Hazell, UCL Constitution Unit
pRof Robert Hazell, UCL Constitution Unit

This week we meet Robert Hazell, Professor of Government and the Constitution, in the Department of Political Science. Robert tells us about the UCL Constitution unit, his work inside, outside, and about government, the monarchy and his recent brush with fame on Netflix!

What is your role and what does it involve?

I am Professor of Government and the Constitution, in the Department of Political Science. I founded the Constitution Unit in 1995, as an independent think tank specialising in constitutional reform. The Unit has published detailed reports on every aspect of Britain’s constitutional reforms: devolution, the Human Rights Act, parliamentary reform, Lords reform, freedom of information, referendums, Scottish independence, electoral reform and more.

In 2015 when I was 67 I handed on the reins to my excellent colleague Prof Meg Russell, who became Director of the Unit, and I took flexible retirement. In my old age I have begun to work on things more out of academic curiosity than for their policy relevance. My last book, The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy (2020) was a comparative study of the other monarchies in Europe. That led on to my latest book, Executive Power: The Prerogative, Past, Present and Future , a study of the royal prerogative. But it has turned out to be surprisingly relevant: the prerogative includes the power to dissolve and prorogue parliament, to make treaties and trade agreements, to give royal assent to legislation - things which became highly contested during the parliamentary wrangling over Brexit.

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

This is my fourth career. I started working life as a barrister, and was then a civil servant in the Home Office for 14 years. I left to become Director of the Nuffield Foundation; and it was from there that I founded the Constitution Unit in 1995. We started as a short term project, with funding for 18 months: it is thanks to Prof Dawn Oliver that we came to UCL. And I feel very lucky that we are still here, almost 30 years later: there is no shortage of constitutional issues for us to work on!

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

I have to mention my appearance in Episode 1 of Harry and Meghan on Netflix: never again will my thoughts on the monarchy be broadcast to 28 million households!

More seriously, working with volunteers. My latest book on the prerogative was written with a brilliant young barrister called Timothy Foot. And my previous book on the other monarchies in Europe was written with Dr Bob Morris, a retired senior civil servant who has led our work on church and state for 20 years. I am now 74, and Bob is ten years older than me!

And producing the Cabinet Manual. Before the 2010 general election we published a report warning that we were ill prepared for a hung parliament. We suggested guidance should be issued in the form of a new Cabinet Manual. The Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell was very receptive, and I was one of a small group of experts who helped the Cabinet Office to draft the guidance.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list?

When Charles became King, we re-issued two reports: on the Accession and Coronation Oaths , and The Coronation of Charles III. I cannot wait for the coronation to see if our recommendations have been accepted!

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

Schubert’s piano Impromptus, played by Alfred Brendel. My film is very unoriginal: Casablanca - I know the lines by heart. Choosing a novel is harder; one I have read and re-read, and would gladly read again, is Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour war trilogy.

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey and Shirley Williams: great conversationalists, and great politicians too

What advice would you give your younger self?

I love canoeing, and when I first came to UCL I joined the University of London canoe polo club: I was older than anyone else by 30 years. I learned (just) to do an Eskimo roll in the pool, but have never managed it in white water. Message to my younger self: learn to do an Eskimo roll before you get too old!

What would it surprise people to know about you?

I don’t have a PhD, nor a Master’s degree. I feel very lucky to be accepted by UCL, and to be made a Professor. I hope UCL continues to open its doors to people with non-academic backgrounds but wider experience: it all helps to add to the diversity of a lively university

What is your favourite place?

Where I have found perfect peace is sitting in a tree above the badger sett in Edgeworth, deep in the Cotswolds. My parents had a cottage there, and I used to go and watch the badgers playing whenever I could. And not just the badgers; I remember an owl alighting to sit on the branch next to me; and a fallow deer walking directly underneath - I could have jumped on its back...

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