As was the case last year, 2019 has been a fascinating time to be writing about the UK constitution, its institutions and those involved in working within them. As the year draws to a close, blog editor Dave Busfield-Birch offers a roundup of the blog year just gone, as well as a look at the reach of the blog through the lens of its readership statistics.
2019 has been a year of constitutional flux and tension, with a new Prime Minister, a new Brexit deal and a new parliament, with a significant number of new MPs. The blog has benefited both in terms of increased general interest as a result, but also because there are niche topics being discussed in public now that would have generated little interest in other years. Few, for example, would have predicted in June 2016 that prorogation of parliament would be a hot topic and pose a constitutional dilemma that only the Supreme Court could solve.
Below are our most popular blogs from the past year, which follow a personal selection from me, at the end of my second year as blog editor.
Editor’s picks by category
Written back in June, but still relevant today, the Bingham Centre’s Jack Simson Caird discussed how the process of exiting the European Union has revealed that the relationship between law and politics was perhaps not as sound as it might once have appeared, and what lessons that had to teach us.
This may well have been the post that I found most fascinating this year (in a very tight contest). Alexandra Meakin (now Dr Meakin — many congratulations) discusses the relationship between the UK’s upcoming departure from the EU and the plans for MPs and peers to temporarily move out of the Palace of Westminster. Her analysis shows that there is a correlation between an MP’s stance on Brexit and their position on how best to handle the restoration and renewal programme.
I also want to offer a special mention to the trilogy of articles on the role of parliamentary legal advisers and the desirability of publishing their advice, which you can read here, here and here. They make fascinating reading, despite (in the case of the first two) coming to oppposite final conclusions.
Elections, referendums and democratic engagement
Digital technology has transformed the way we access information and interact with services. Democratic services have not kept up, risking a situation where democracy is seen as out of date. Joe Mitchell argues that it’s time to dream big: the UK has an opportunity to create a new digital-first office of civic education and democratic information, to restore trust and grow public understanding of our democracy.
Monarchy, church and state
The recent controversy about the unlawful attempt to prorogue parliament and the judicial review that followed has given rise to renewed calls for the codification of the royal prerogative or the enactment of a written constitution. Anne Twomey argues that there are benefits to a looser prerogative power, and that experience in other countries has shown that codification should be undertaken with caution.
Brexit is likely to pose numerous legal questions about how the various parts of the UK relate to each other once the UK leaves the EU. Deborah Mabbett argues that the recent Supreme Court decision on prorogation is therefore unlikely to be the last time the judiciary is called upon to decide a matter related to Brexit.
This was also in my running for one of the most interesting blogs of the year. In the summer, the UK’s MEPs took their seats in the parliament of a Union it should no longer have been a part of. In the wake of that election, Simon Usherwood outlined what they legally had the power to influence, and what the political consequences of that influence might be.
Our most popular new blogs by month
Unit Director Meg Russell argued that there’s nothing unusual about a democratic parliament controlling its own procedure and business. Indeed, the core principle of parliamentary sovereignty already gives the Commons control by default.
Beyond Brexit: towards a British constitution, by Vernon Bogdanor.
Summarising the arguments of his book, Beyond Brexit: towards a British constitution, Vernon Bogdanor argues that just as joining the EU fundamentally altered the UK constitution, so Brexit could, by exposing the very nakedness of Britain’s uncodified arrangements, prove a catalyst for a written constitution.
Some, controversially including then Prime Minister Theresa May, accused parliament of failing on Brexit. The Article 50 extension in March gave parliament responsibility for solving the crisis. Here, Meg Russell reflected on why parliamentary agreement had thus far been difficult, and what parliament needed to do next.
Despite writing this at a time when it wasn’t even certain they would take place, Unit Deputy Director Alan Renwick prepared this excellent guide to how the European Parliament elections were expected to work and what we could expect to learn from them.
Following on from the success of his April post, Alan followed up with this sequel, in which he examined the impact on the results of both the rules that governed the election and the strategies of the parties.
As soon as Theresa May confirmed her intention to resign as Conservative leader, speculation was rife about how her successor might handle Brexit and parliament differently, and whether or not they would necessarily be the next Prime Minister. Here, former Unit Director Robert Hazell joined with his successor, Meg Russell, in attempting to answer some of the key constitutional questions posed by the election that resulted in a Boris Johnson premiership.
In March, Sir David Natzler retired as Clerk of the Commons after over 40 years in the House. Now, he is the co-editor of Erskine May, the 25th edition of which is the first new version in eight years, and is freely available to the public: a significant change. Here, Sir David discusses some of the key changes to the text after what can only be described as an eventful eight years for the Commons.
In early August, controversy was swirling over the extent to which Boris Johnson’s government must be bound by parliament, particularly regarding a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Some had even suggested that Johnson could flout a Commons vote of no confidence and pursue this outcome contrary to parliamentary support. Meg Russell and Robert Hazell explored such questions, concluding that both convention and parliamentary logic mean Johnson could not ultimately force a ‘no deal’, but only if MPs were organised and determined.
Before the UK Supreme Court declared it unlawful, the Unit’s senior team argued that the decision to suspend parliament for five weeks was an improper use of executive power, set dangerous precedents, and undermined fundamental principles of our constitution. Additionally, they argued that the preferable route was for the government to recognise its mistake and reverse it, rather than require MPs or the courts to do so.
Political journalists play a vital role in reporting constitutional developments and holding politicians to account. But unfamiliarity with the workings of parliament can leave them vulnerable to spin. Lisa James and Meg Russell argue that when it comes to key aspects of parliamentary procedure, the present climate of anonymous briefings and counter-briefings may make reporters’ traditional sources less trustworthy than usual. But there are other sources which they could, and should, have used.
Tensions over Brexit led some public figures to adopt a narrative of ‘parliament versus the people’. But, Meg Russell argues, this is the language of corrosive populism, designed to exploit dissatisfaction with the institutions of democracy – and points to a dangerous path. In troubled times, it is the job of responsible politicians to seek to rebuild, not drive down, public trust in politics.
Prince Andrew has withdrawn from public life and his royal duties. Robert Hazell, who has just completed work on a comparative study of European monarchies, offers six lessons that the monarchy can learn from the events that led to the prince leaving a front-line royal role. This blog also wins the prize for being the most popular blog that had nothing to do with Brexit.
The year in numbers
Our total blog hits for 2019 are up on last year, from 149,507 to just under 224,000 (at time of writing).
And as you can see in the image below, we are passing 20,000 views per month on a regular basis. We will see if the new Conservative majority generates the interest necessary to keep the readers coming in such numbers.
As shown below, the majority of our readers come from the UK, but the blog has been read by people from 189 different countries and territories, including Turkmenistan, Lesotho, Syria, Cuba, Greenland and Vanuatu. The graphic shows the countries in which we were most popular.
What is it about the blog that makes us more popular in Malaysia than in bigger countries such as Japan or India? Answers on a postcard…
The blog would be nothing without its contributors, who are too great in number to list here, but to whom everyone at the Unit is very grateful for the time and effort they have put into the posts that we have published this year. In addition, I am personally grateful for the support I have had from everyone at the Unit during my second year as editor of the blog and Monitor. Meg Russell and Alan Renwick (our Director and Deputy Director respectively), as well as our former Director, Robert Hazell, deserve a special mention on that front: the blog would not be what it is without them.
We hope that you have enjoyed our content in 2019, and that you continue to read the blog in the 12 months ahead. It promises to be another interesting year: what will the Conservatives do with their majority; when and how will Brexit happen; and how the other UK and devolved institutions will respond to the actions of the Johnson government are all open questions right now. Come back in 2020 and perhaps together we will learn the answers.
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