Monitor 65: Testing constitutional times

The latest issue of Monitor, the Constitution Unit’s regular newsletter, has been published today. The issue covers all of the major UK constitutional developments over the past four months, a period that has included the High Court and Supreme Court rulings in the Article 50 case, the unveiling of Theresa May’s Brexit plan and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, plus much else besides. The front page article is reproduced here. You can read the full issue at this link

monitor-65-coverPolitics remains fast-moving. Its unexpected turns have raised fundamental questions about the constitutional order, in the UK and beyond – including the rightful place of voters, elected legislators, governments and judges in political decision-making – as well as the media’s role in questioning those decisions.

Here, Brexit remains the dominant preoccupation. The previous issue of Monitor reported how ‘ministers have repeatedly insisted that they are in charge of the Brexit negotiations and that to reveal their hand to parliament in advance would weaken their negotiating position’. A lot has changed since then.

Following rulings by the High Court on 3 November, and Supreme Court on 24 January, ministers had to accept that they require parliamentary approval to trigger Article 50; at the time of writing, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill has now passed through the Commons and awaits scrutiny in the Lords (see page 3). Even before the bill’s introduction, the government had conceded (in December) that its Brexit plan would be published prior to triggering Article 50, and (in January) that this would include a white paper – commitments necessary in order to see off potential Commons defeats. With help from the courts, parliament has rediscovered some of its teeth.

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More than just populism: Renzi, the Italian Senate referendum and the perils of second chamber reform

Roberta Damiani passport-styleMeg-RussellOn 4 December Italians decisively rejected Matteo Renzi’s proposed constitutional reforms, which centred on reforming the Senate – leading to his resignation as Prime Minister. The international media widely reported this as a victory for populism. In this post Roberta Damiani and Meg Russell argue that the referendum result was more complex than that. It demonstrated the perils of referendums on detailed constitutional matters and in particular – with echoes of Nick Clegg’s experience in the UK – of attempted second chamber reform.

Italian ‘perfect’ bicameralism has dodged another bullet. After a long, fragmented, and highly personalised referendum campaign, on 4 December the Italian electorate voted against Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s constitutional reform by 59 per cent to 41 per cent, on a turnout of 65 per cent. The main elements of the reform would have been to drastically cut the powers of the upper chamber (the Senate), reduce its membership from 315 to 100, and turn it from a directly elected chamber into an indirectly-elected one, comprising representatives of the regions. Vincenzo Scarpetta has previously described what else the reform entailed on this blog.

Opinion polls over the last few months showed a shift towards a No outcome. The latest, published before the two-week ‘electoral silence’, indicated that 54 per cent of respondents would vote against the reform. This time, the polls showed the correct outcome. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who had linked the passage of this reform to his government’s survival, resigned the following day. In an emotional speech delivered on the evening of the defeat, he claimed: ‘I wanted to get rid of some seats in Italian politics. I failed, and hence the only seat I can get rid of is my own’.

Many commentators described the possibility of a No victory as the third anti-establishment vote of the year, following the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election. The main reason for this interpretation was that Renzi, a little too confident of the merits of his reform, highly personalised the campaign, and bet his political career on it. This naturally meant that his opponents would vote against him, and turned the referendum into a protest vote against the government. Renzi eventually personalised the loss just as much as the campaign: ‘To all my friends from the Yes front I say that you didn’t lose. I lost’, he said in his speech.

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Will Congress be able to hold President Trump in check?

nigel-bowlesDonald Trump will become the 45th President of the United States in January, but will he actually be able to carry out his agenda? Nigel Bowles writes that he will largely be able to. In the areas of trade, security, taxation and judicial appointments Congress will struggle to constrain him under current law and politics. Changing immigration law and reforming the Affordable Care Act are likely to prove more challenging. Nonetheless, during the first year of the Trump presidency American politics is likely to give the appearance of being what it only rarely is: a presidential system. For better or for worse, President Trump really will be in charge.

The United States constitution is Madisonian in design and spirit. Separation of powers and federalism in combination are the structure against which, through which, and by which American politics plays out. Much else matters: party, ideology, public opinion, crises external and internal, leadership’s quality of imagination and purpose, especially. But the system’s architecture is Madisonian. It is not (not usually, at least) a presidential system. Instead, federal government comprises separate but coordinate institutions sharing in authority and in power. Article I of the US Constitution places Congress first in this separated Madisonian order. The symbolism of first place reflects Congress’s abundant richness in authority.

Yet Congress’s authority is limited by recurrent and systematic collective action problems. Those problems spring from Congress’s bicameralism, from its four-party organisation across the two chambers, and from its committee structure. They arise, too from electoral bases of legitimacy: from Senators’ identifications with state interests and cultures, from Representatives’ dependence upon their districts’ majority party voters and party activists for biennial re-election. The collective action problems are exacerbated in the early twenty-first century by ideologically distinct, and typically hostile, Congressional parties; and they are complicated by clashing personal ambitions of legislators. These constraints upon Congress’s authority in turn limit its political effectiveness and, accordingly, its collective capacity to bring about intended effects – in other words, its political power.

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The Codes of the Constitution: how the the UK constitution has been expressed in writing over the past century

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Over the past century there has been an enormous growth in the number of publicly available codes providing accounts of various constitutional rules and principles. In a new book Andrew Blick explores this phenomenon and its implications for the UK constitution. He offers an overview here.

Towards the end of this year the Cabinet Office marks its hundredth anniversary. This institution traces its origins to the secretariat David Lloyd George attached to the war cabinet he formed upon becoming Prime Minister in December 1916. Accounts of this administrative innovation tend to focus on its making possible the proper recording and circulation of the decisions of cabinet and its sub-committees. But the instigation of the war cabinet secretariat also prompted another process that has, in the intervening century, become a prominent feature of arrangements for the governance of the UK. It is the subject of my new book, The Codes of the Constitution.

9781849466813In January 1917, the Secretary to the War Cabinet, Maurice Hankey, produced a document entitled Rules of Procedure, circulating it to government ministers. Its ten paragraphs contained a series of stipulations about the operation of the War Cabinet and the implementation of the conclusions it reached. Rules of Procedure was probably the first example of a genre of official texts setting out official accounts of the principles, rules and practices of the UK governmental system. Having passed through a series of transitions Rules of Procedure remains with us today as the Ministerial Code, the latest version of which was published in October 2015. In 31 pages this informs ministers about a range of issues from their participation in cabinet, to their making of appointments, to their relations with their departments, the civil service and parliament, to their political and private business, to their media relations, and even their travel arrangements.

Since 1917, numerous other codes have appeared – so many that no one public official could possibly be familiar with the existence, let alone the content, of all of them. Such was the scale of growth that, in 2000, the Cabinet Office saw a need to codify codification itself, issuing a two-volume Directory of Civil Service Guidance, a compilation of existing texts either in full or summarised form. The Cabinet Office has been a key producer of these documents; and the Treasury has also made significant contributions, through documents such as Managing Public Money. The existence of a unified permanent civil service, which properly came into being shortly after the First World War, has also been a general driver of codification.

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All you need to know about the Italian constitutional referendum

Vincenzo Scarpetta, Political Analyst

On 4 December Italians will vote in a referendum on a major constitutional reform. The referendum is highly significant both constitutionally and, given Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s pledge to resign if the reform is defeated, politically. In this post Vincenzo Scarpetta offers an overview of the proposed reform and the key objections to it that have been raised by opponents. Despite an apparent change of tack from Renzi in recent weeks he suggests that a ‘No’ vote would almost certainly result in his resignation.

On Sunday 4 December, Italians will head to the polls to either approve or reject what is, in fact, a major constitutional reform tabled by the government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and adopted by the Italian parliament earlier this year. I say major because the reform, if confirmed by the referendum, would modify a third of the Italian Constitution – 47 articles out of a total 139. Most importantly, it would overhaul the country’s parliamentary system.

The Italian parliamentary system is unique in Europe

 Italy’s current parliamentary system, unique in Europe, finds its rationale in the historical context in which the Italian Constitution, which entered into force on 1 January 1948, was written. Italy had gone through two decades of fascist dictatorship and a civil war. Hence, the willingness to avoid future anti-democratic drifts explained the choice of a parliamentary system whereby the two chambers, both directly elected, have equal powers and can oversee one another. As a result, a government needs the backing of both chambers to enter office and must resign if it loses the confidence of one of them. Furthermore, no bill can become law unless it is adopted by both chambers – meaning that it can potentially go back and forth indefinitely.

Seventy years later, however, the context has changed significantly. Italy’s parliamentary system has increasingly been singled out as one of the reasons why the country has so far failed to undertake a number of wide-ranging reforms. Two chambers with equal powers, it has been argued, slow down the law-making process. Therefore, it came as no surprise that Renzi included this constitutional reform among his flagship pledges when he took over power in February 2014.

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Draft Constitution for New Zealand proposed in new book

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In a previous blog post former New Zealand Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer explained why he believes that a single written Constitution for New Zealand is needed. Here, he sets out the key provisions of a draft Constitution included in a new book that he has written with Dr Andrew Butler. Comments on the proposals are now being sought from the general public and it is intended that an amended document will be published in a year’s time.

14359097_1118090968227118_3483734773962979601_nOn 21 September at the New Zealand parliament A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand, written by myself and Dr Andrew Butler, was launched by Grant Robertson MP. In the book it is argued that a single written Constitution for New Zealand is needed and a draft is proposed. The effort to create a conversation on these issues flows from the fact that two official reviews of New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements in recent years have produced no change. We think that the absence of a model with which to engage is partly responsible for this situation.

The draft Constitution itself contains 118 articles and the text covers 43 pages. It is called Constitution Aotearoa and is based on ten principles:

  •  Accessibility and certainty
  •  Education
  •  Rule of law
  •  Democratic accountability
  •  Transparency
  •  Protection of the rights of people
  •  A sense of national identify
  •  A New Zealander as Head of State
  •  Protections against the abuse of public power
  •  Recognition that the Constitution belongs to the people

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Eastminster: the Westminster model in British Asia

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The ‘Westminster model’ outside the British Isles tends to be associated with the former British settler colonies such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand. In a new book the influence of British ideas on democracy and institutions across the Asian continent is examined. Here the book’s editor, Harshan Kumarasingham, discusses how the ‘Eastminster’ countries developed political systems with strong institutional and political resemblances to the British system, albeit with cultural and constitutional deviations from Westminster.

 Imagine the following:

  1. Brexit doesn’t mean Brexit. Theresa May has been unable to deliver Britain’s withdrawal from the EU or assuage those who wish the UK to remain closely connected with the EU, which has caused anarchic public discord where the Queen wants harmony. The Union risks being dissolved. The Queen sacks her without advice and asks the unelected 7th Marquess of Salisbury to be Prime Minister as a family friend.  Like the first Elizabeth the Queen has a Cecil to advice her and be responsible only to her. The public and establishment approve.
  2. Scotland decides to become independent, but the government are against this assertion despite historical legitimacy to Scotland’s claim and send in the army to subdue the errant Scots. Utilising dormant laws London suspends the Scottish Parliament and direct rule is imposed.
  3. Parliament decides to limit the prerogatives of the Crown but, before the bill passes both houses, the Queen dissolves parliament to prevent it for affecting her powers. The Queen then, through her supporters in the establishment, directs policy through an Order in Council, which does not require parliament’s approval.
  4. To pacify English nationalists legislation is passed in the Houses of Parliament removing the official use of Welsh in Wales. As the main political parties are desperate for English votes in the majoritarian system of Westminster they cooperate and remove the rights of the Welsh with a healthy majority.
  5. During riots in London sparked by draconian law enforcement and spurred by hateful rhetoric by populist politicians involving a potent cocktail of racism, poverty, discrimination, and the sense of being left behind a major breakdown of control occurs and the police are called in to restore order. The Prime Minister unwilling to take responsibility for tough actions against her natural constituency abnegates from the scene and leaves the Queen as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and Head of State to restore order and provide safety for all citizens.
  6. Perhaps most shocking of all the cellars of government buildings are emptied and the Palace, Parliament and Whitehall are declared teetotal after the extravagance and alcoholic peccadillos of the previous era.

These six fantastical scenarios seemingly from the outer realms of political science fiction did in fact occur with different contexts and actors in Asia using the Westminster system following the end of British rule. India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Nepal operated under institutions and conventions directly and openly derived from Britain’s Westminster system. Exported across the world more than any other political system the British parliamentary model remains more commonly associated with the British settler countries like Australia, Canada and New Zealand if it is examined at all outside the British Isles. The situation described by Graham Wilson over 20 years ago, echoing Leon Epstein earlier still, remains largely true that for most British political scientists ‘far from seizing the opportunity to study the essentials of their system of government in different settings’ they instead ‘turned inward’ and most courses on British politics in British universities ‘are taught as if the Westminster model existed only in Britain’. Instead an analysis shows Asia in terms of scale and scope providing the most dramatic experiment of Westminster abroad.

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