The latest edition of Monitor, the Unit’s regular news update on constitutional issues, was published today. In this lead article from Monitor 78, Meg Russell and Alan Renwick discuss the continuing uncertainty about the future of the Union, government plans to change how and when we elect our political leaders, the rolling disputes about the Northern Ireland Protocol, plans to rebalance the constitution and reform the judiciary, and the increasingly relevant debate about ministerial standards.
There has been no sign of let up in the pace or breadth of constitutional developments since the last edition of Monitor in March. Voters across Great Britain went to the polls in a bumper crop of elections in May (following cancellation of last year’s round due to COVID-19). In the Queen’s Speech a few days later, the government promised several major constitutional bills.
Two overarching themes have dominated: significant uncertainty about the future of the UK Union; and pressing concerns around the risk of democratic backsliding – associated with declining constitutional standards and a weakening of checks and balances. Both themes were explored in depth at a major online conference on the Johnson government’s constitutional reform agenda co-organised by the Unit in June.
Starting with the Union, the Scottish Parliament elections – heralded by many as a make-or-break moment – ended up a score draw. The pro-independence parties – the SNP and Greens – both gained seats, securing together a comfortable overall majority and, in their view, a mandate for a fresh referendum. But for now they are biding their time, because support for independence itself has ebbed. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon knows the dangers of losing a second vote, and so Scotland’s constitutional debate is in a period of relative calm. The prospects of a referendum and the form it might take were discussed at a Unit event in March.
‘Calm’ is not a word that characterises recent months in the politics of Northern Ireland. Amidst anger over lockdown breaches and the effects of post-Brexit trade arrangements, riots broke out in loyalist areas in April. First Minister Arlene Foster was forced to resign as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) following a revolt by party hardliners. But her successor, Edwin Poots, lasted just three weeks before he too fell, leaving Jeffrey Donaldson picking up the pieces. The ructions showed unionism to be in trouble. How Brexit’s ripple effects will impact Northern Ireland’s politics in the medium and long terms remains highly uncertain.
In this shifting context, the Unit’s Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland published its Final Report. This analyses how any future referendums on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future would best be designed and conducted, and concludes that careful planning for numerous aspects of any such poll would be needed before one was called. It is the latest in a long line of Unit studies that examine possible constitutional futures dispassionately, while remaining neutral on their desirability.
In Wales, meanwhile, Labour remains in power following May’s election, with exactly half the Senedd seats – equalling its best ever performance. Unlike in Scotland and Northern Ireland, constitutional debate is not polarised between remaining in or leaving the UK. At the end of June, First Minister Mark Drakeford confirmed his longstanding commitment to pursuing a federal UK (under the label of ‘entrenched devolution’) and the establishment of ‘an independent Commission to consider the constitutional future of Wales’. In England, Labour also performed well in many mayoral contests, but most media attention focused on the party’s loss of the Hartlepool by-election to the Conservatives. A lively panel on ‘Devolution and the Future of the Union’ at our June conference reflected on the overall picture, including expert speakers from all four of the UK’s constituent parts.
The Queen’s Speech in May confirmed the government’s intention to press ahead with repeal of the Fixed-term
Parliaments Act, an Electoral Integrity Bill and an Online Safety Bill – the latter shorn of any of the previous government’s intentions to focus on protection of democracy. It also promised a judicial review bill, the contents of which remain unknown. In its response in March to the report of the Independent Review of Administrative Law (IRAL) chaired by Lord (Edward) Faulks, the government indicated that it wanted to go further than the panel had suggested, and commenced a fresh consultation process. Speaking at the Unit’s conference, Lord Faulks and a distinguished panel of legal experts expressed concerns about the lack of clarity over the government’s plans. The conference keynote address, by Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland, also attracted significant controversy, discussing alleged judicial encroachment on politics suggesting that the ‘rule of law’ may be more a political than a legal concept, and trailing government proposals for further reform, including to the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 (which established the Supreme Court).
Other central government moves which have raised eyebrows include the continued sidelining of parliament over COVID-19 regulations, proposals to increase political oversight of the Electoral Commission and an unexpected announcement of plans to change the electoral system for mayoral elections.
Ministerial standards have continued to cause concerns, with the new Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests Lord (Christopher) Geidt not empowered to instigate investigations, as favoured by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL), and discussed by his predecessor at a Unit event in May. The circumstances of Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s departure have brought fresh focus to the appointment of Whitehall non-executive directors, which both CSPL and the Commissioner for Public Appointments, Peter Riddell, (who spoke at a Unit event in April) have said need tighter regulation.
Our June conference ended with a panel on ‘rebalancing between parliament, executive and courts’ – reflecting the words in the 2019 Conservative manifesto. Panellists expressed anxieties about a possible accrual of executive power and decline in constitutional ‘checks and balances’, with – at the very least – a need for vigilance.
Monitor 78 is available on the Unit website. To get future issues direct to your inbox, you can subscribe to Monitor and sign up to our other mailing lists, for news of events and publications. You can also subscribe to the blog for free in the left sidebar of this page. If you value the blog and Monitor, you can also donate to the Unit here.
About the authors
Professor Meg Russell FBA is Director of the Constitution Unit, a Senior Fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe studying ‘Brexit, Parliament and the Constitution’ and co-author of Taking Back Control: Why the House of Commons Should Govern its Own Time.
Dr Alan Renwick is Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit and the Chair of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland.