Verbal dexterity, inconsistency and ‘spin’ are part and parcel of normal politics but the exaggerations and distortions of the EU referendum campaign has led to concerns about ‘post-truth’ politics. Nicholas Allen and Sarah Birch write there is a need for someone to provide a moral lead, and argue the Committee for Standards in Public Life could play a valuable role by establishing some relevant basic markers.
The recent EU referendum campaign has focused and fuelled concerns about the rise of ‘post-truth’ politics in Britain. Politicians seem readier than ever to base their campaigns on grossly distorted ‘facts’, dismiss impartial expertise and evidence, and make manifestly contradictory promises. To some extent, these concerns are nothing new. Verbal dexterity, inconsistency and ‘spin’ are part and parcel of normal politics. Coalition-building requires leaders to create and take advantage of wiggle room.
But as it has broken other things, so the referendum seems to have broken new ground in British politics. Both campaigns made exaggerated and misleading pronouncements, with Vote Leave’s claims about imminent Turkish membership and the £350-million-a-week of EU membership being perhaps the most blatant.
Then there was the case of Michael Gove, who, during a televised debate, dismissed his leadership ambition by emphasising his unfitness for office and declared he was ‘absolutely not’ going to stand in any future Conservative leadership campaign. There was no ambiguity in Gove’s declaration, no wiggle room. Many journalists noted the subsequent u-turn, when Gove decided to stand after all, but then they moved on.
Much of the media reaction to the Chilcot report has inevitably focused on what it says about Tony Blair. However, the report also offers plenty of powerful long-term insights about decision making. David Laughrin suggests that there is a danger that these lessons will not reach their intended audience. Sir John Chilcot and his team should therefore be urged to build on their seven years’ lifetime investment, and invest some more on its implementation. They would have much to contribute.
My wife has just finished reading War and Peace, a long read though apparently shorter than the Chilcot report. She believes that everyone should read Tolstoy’s gripping thesis about why countries should not go to war lightly and why older men and women should not be trusted to put young men’s or women’s lives at risk. But she suspects that this will not happen in these days when tweets are more read than novels or newspapers or indeed the Chilcot Report.
After reading the 911 paragraphs of the Executive Summary of the Chilcot report – surely some kind of record for an Executive Summary? – I fear the same fate for Chilcot as for Tolstoy. But future academics and deliverers of learning and development for civil servants, themselves a scarce commodity at present, surely need to bend their efforts to ensure that we do better.
For although Chilcot acknowledges that the particular set of circumstances that led to the war in Iraq and its inadequate follow up are unlikely to be repeated, there are plenty of powerful long term insights lurking in the lucid prose. Some are so stark that they do not even lurk, but jump out of the pages.
Amongst the recent political upheaval, the Wales Bill’s progress through the House of Commons has been somewhat overlooked. Alan Cogbill discusses how the version currently being debated has changed from last year’s much criticised draft bill. He suggests that the new bill is a significant improvement but still leaves fundamental questions unanswered.
Amidst the excitement and despair of the EU referendum, leadership contests, and the new UK Government, a constitutional measure is hastening through parliament with relatively little attention. The Wales Bill, which puts the legislative powers of the Welsh Assembly on a new footing, and reframes the powers of Welsh ministers, was introduced on 7 June, and has already completed second reading and committee stages in the House of Commons.
The government’s 2015 draft bill ran into heavy criticism, in the Assembly, Commons, and outside. A joint Wales Governance Centre/ Constitution Unit report, which reviewed the draft bill in detail, found it severely flawed. In February then Secretary of State for Wales Stephen Crabb announced a re-think. It fell to his successor, Alun Cairns, to introduce the revised Bill.
The new bill has tried to respond to many of the criticisms made – although its authors have not resisted a little mischief. A new duty on the Assembly to require ‘judicial impact assessments’ of Assembly bills was seen in Wales as importing another (covert) fetter, but it appears not; Alun Cairns said on second reading that appraisals would not give rise to any ‘veto’ by the UK. The bill is deliberately declaratory in high constitutional matters, but whether it needs to highlight a small and inconsequential item of inter-government relations seems questionable.
The EU referendum has led to doubts about referendums as an instrument of public policy. Albert Weale suggests that the good conduct of referendums depends on the question being well defined and voters having easy access the relevant evidence. The EU referendum failed both of these tests. Future referendums should be on well defined questions and steps should be taken to provide access, in one convenient place, to the basic data necessary for votes to make a decision.
After the Brexit referendum result, many of those who think of themselves as democrats but who voted Remain are having doubts about referendums as an instrument of public policy. Some are appealing to the purely advisory status of any referendum in the UK constitution. Those who were already sceptical of the use of referendums now have their beliefs confirmed. However, one case no more makes a good argument in political theory than one swallow makes a summer. We should reflect on the Brexit referendum process, but we need to ask how we can define well justified principles governing the use and conduct of referendums in the light of that reflection.
The basic case for holding a referendum is that there are some issues that arise on the political agenda of societies that cannot realistically be handled by the normal processes of contest among political parties. Existential issues that change the standing and status of the country typically fall into this category. Extensions to the power of the European Union or secession are two obvious examples. Even in these cases, however, depending on history and tradition, referendums are not always the answer. In societies governed by strong principles of legal constitutionalism, supreme courts decide such matters, as has been true of the German Constitutional Court over successive European Union treaties. However, in political systems where supreme courts cannot play this role, referendums may be the only device available. What matters in such cases is that they should contribute to resolving the issue, at least for some years, not worsening the problem.
In parliamentary democracies referendums generate alternative, competing sources of legitimacy. This has been clearly demonstrated by the EU referendum result, with the public voting to Leave despite a clear parliamentary majority for continued membership. Nat le Roux discusses this paradox and suggests that it would not be unreasonable for some MPs to choose to vote against the invocation of Article 50.
In a parliamentary democracy, referendums are potentially destabilising because they generate alternative, competing, sources of democratic legitimacy. A majority of elected representatives may hold one view on a matter of major national importance. If a referendum demonstrates that a majority of the public hold the opposite view, which manifestation of democratic legitimacy should trump the other?
In Britain, parliamentary sovereignty is the governing norm of the constitution: it would seem to follow that a parliamentary majority can always overturn a referendum result. The reality, at least in the particular circumstances of the EU referendum, is less clear cut:
- The referendum result will be implemented, effectively irrevocably, if Britain invokes Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. It may be that the Prime Minister can do this without consulting parliament. If that is so, it can be argued that we now have a new constitutional principle under which, at least in particular cases, popular sovereignty as expressed in a referendum trumps parliamentary sovereignty.
- On the other hand, if the invocation of Article 50 does require legislation, we should ask under what circumstances, and by what arguments, MPs can overturn the directly expressed views of the electorate without severely damaging the democratic legitimacy of parliament itself.
In a paper published this week by Nuffield College, Oxford Jim Gallagher argues that in responding to June’s Brexit vote the UK and Scottish governments must proceed rationally, on the basis of the evidence, and pursue the national interest. They should not feel bound by the Leave campaign’s promises and should seek to stay in, or as close as possible to, the single market. The paper is summarised here.
In an attempt to unite the Tory party David Cameron has split the country. He has left the governments of the UK with a shambles to clear up. It is not at all easy to see a path through the rubble, but if governments focus on the things that really matter – the economy, the territorial integrity of the UK – then perhaps they will be able to discern a way forward.
The first thing they need to do is understand the nature of the vote. Just like the vote in the Scottish referendum, it was as much a cry of distress as a political statement. Like the Leave campaign, the Leave vote is more protest than proposal. Of course, there are those in the UK who are ideologically opposed to Europe, but what got leave over the line in the referendum were the votes of the politically alienated and economically distressed. The present setup, economic or constitutional, is not working for them, and they were led to believe (by a notably mendacious campaign) that leaving the EU would solve their problems. Those who thought things couldn’t get any worse for them were not put off by George Osborne’s warnings about risk.
In that sense voters are like students – they give the answer to the question they would have liked the examiner to ask. But in this referendum, it was the question setters who failed.
The UK parliament’s collaborative e-petitions site celebrates its first birthday today. Over the last year over 18,000 petitions have been submitted, a level not seen since the 19th century. In this post Cristina Leston-Bandeira discusses how this has been achieved, pointing to the success of the new Petitions Committee and in particular the way that it has engaged with other parliamentary activities. The next challenge may be to consider how to maximise the number of petitions that can realistically lead to some sort of outcome.
The UK parliament’s new collaborative e-petitions site went live one year ago. Nine petitions were submitted and 60,580 signatures were added on that single first day, 20 July 2015. Twelve months on, a total of 18,767* petitions have been submitted and millions of people have signed at least one petition. This is a stark contrast with the story of decline the UK parliament’s petitions system had known since the 19 century. From a highly used tool in past centuries, namely from the 17th century to the beginning of 19th, a time when thousands of petitions were presented annually with the back-up of millions of signatures, the number of petitions submitted fell to about 35 yearly in 1970s, rising slightly in the 1980s and 1990s, but never to their previous glory. Move forward to the 21st century, and, in one year, we are back to early 19th century levels of support for petitions – not a mean feat. But are petitions achieving anything?
The key to answer this question lies in the new Petitions Committee, in place since June last year. Equipped with a small support team but oozing with enthusiasm and ideas, the committee has achieved much over the past year. The system established that petitions with a threshold of 100,000 signatures should be considered for a debate and those with 10,000 signatures should receive a response from government. The Petitions Committee has hosted 20 debates in Westminster Hall on petitions with over 100,000 signatures, and the government has responded to 257 petitions (with only 17 still waiting for a government response at the time of writing). In short, a very small proportion of the petitions submitted have led to a specific action. But this is a very simplistic summary of the work developed by the committee to support the dissemination and effectiveness of petitions, where three key elements have made a clear difference: cross-fertilisation with other ongoing parliamentary work, openness in working methods and a strong focus on public engagement.