Today, the Unit published the 80th edition of Monitor, which provides analysis of the key constitutional news of the past four months. In this post, which also serves as the lead article for Monitor 80, Meg Russell and Alan Renwick reflect on risks to democracy at home and the appalling invasion of a democratic nation, Ukraine, which could have long-term repercussions for the health of democracies across Europe.
Monitor has in recent years catalogued a succession of astonishing events in British constitutional politics: the 2014 Scottish independence referendum; the 2016 Brexit referendum; the parliamentary battle that ensued under Theresa May’s divided minority government post-2017; Boris Johnson’s unlawful parliamentary prorogation of 2019; and the politics of COVID-19 lockdown post-2020.
The shock likely to dominate memories of 2022 – Russia’s appalling invasion of Ukraine – is of a different order. The war is a terrible tragedy for all those directly affected; on the world stage it is Europe’s darkest and potentially most dangerous moment at least since the Cold War standoff of the 1960s, and perhaps since 1945. In response, British constitutional politics has seen a suspension of normal working. Hostile exchanges at Prime Minister’s Questions have been replaced by pledges of unity. The House of Commons has given standing ovations to Ukraine’s ambassador in London, and then to its President, Volodoymr Zelenskyy. A mutinous Conservative Party that had been gearing up, perhaps, to topple its leader now bides its time.
How Putin’s war might shift British politics beyond the short term remains to be seen. In this edition of Monitor, the developments discussed mostly predate the invasion. Some of these – notably, a raft of bills and consultations – have a momentum that will run on. As has been true for several years, these developments give some considerable cause for concern.
Recent constitutional controversies have been primarily of two now familiar kinds, relating to standards and government attitudes to scrutiny. The most high-profile of these reached the news day after day for weeks before and after Christmas, regarding allegations of social gatherings in 10 Downing Street which breached the COVID-19 regulations in place at the time. Initially denied, these were then handed to Cabinet Secretary Simon Case to examine, before the investigation was subsequently passed to another senior official, Sue Gray. The drip-drip of allegations fed growing concern on the Conservative backbenches, with some members calling for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s resignation or submitting letters to the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee demanding a no-confidence vote in his leadership of the party. Matters seemed to be reaching a head until the Metropolitan Police announced its own investigation, leading to a delay in the publication of Gray’s final report. The repeated pleas by Johnson loyalists to ‘wait for Sue Gray’ before passing judgement now meant waiting somewhat longer.
Alongside these developments, other concerns have included continued controversy about the oversight of government activity by both parliament and the courts. In November, two House of Lords committees published strongly-worded reports condemning ministers’ overuse of delegated legislation, including during the pandemic. Meanwhile, ministers announced a ‘Brexit Freedoms Bill’, which would make it easier to amend retained EU law: this seems to augur further delegated law-making, and has led to a degree of expert alarm. Parliamentary specialists at the Hansard Society are conducting their own parallel review. Primary legislation, too, seems on occasion to be subject to only superficial scrutiny. The government’s attempt to make significant late changes to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill led to an unprecedented number of Lords defeats on 17 January. The Elections Bill sailed through the Commons, but key provisions were sharply criticised by the relevant select committee, by the Electoral Commission, and by numerous peers as it began scrutiny in the Lords. Simultaneously, ministers are pressing ahead with plans to rein in the courts, including through reform of the human rights framework, where they seem determined to (once again) go further than the recommendations of their own independent review.
All of these developments sit awkwardly with public opinion, as demonstrated through Constitution Unit research published in January. A major survey conducted last summer as part of the Democracy in the UK after Brexit project found that people in the UK wanted politicians who are honest, have integrity, and operate within the rules, and valued these characteristics far higher than ‘delivery’. It also found public wariness about concentrated power in the hands of government ministers, with high levels of support for oversight by parliament, judges, civil servants, regulators, and the public themselves. These findings will be bolstered next month by publication of the results of the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK, which ran in the autumn as part of the same project.
Meanwhile, the future of the Union remains contested. Northern Ireland’s First Minister resigned over the Brexit Protocol, leaving its Executive barely able to function. Fresh elections take place for the Northern Ireland Assembly in May, but few are hopeful of a resumption of constructive politics thereafter. Relations within the Conservative Party between London and Edinburgh broke down over ‘partygate’. The Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales began its work. Within England, the government announced plans for further devolution.
In the face of war in Europe, these UK constitutional tussles may appear somewhat trivial. The horrors in Ukraine have galvanised much of the international community into a robust defence of democracy and the rule of law. Importantly, they have shaken some out of complacency about the need to protect and celebrate those values. In the immediate term, all eyes are on the conflict, and the absolute priority is to halt it and to support those whose lives have been shattered by it. Beyond that, it is incumbent on all leaders, and all of us who have the privilege to live in democratic societies, to nurture them and defend them from casual erosion.
Monitor 80 is now available to download, free of charge.
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About the authors
Meg Russell FBA is Professor of British and Comparative Politics and Director of the Constitution Unit. She is currently a Senior Fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe, working on ‘Brexit, Parliament and the Constitution’.