The sovereignty conundrum and the uncertain future of the Union

Brexit has led to numerous clashes between London and the devolved governments, raising fundamental questions about the very nature of the United Kingdom, in a context where the European Union is no longer available as an ‘external support system’. Michael Keating argues that we need to find new constitutional concepts for living together in a world in which traditional ideas of national sovereignty have lost their relevance.

Since the Brexit vote, there have been repeated clashes between the UK and devolved governments. Some of these concern policy differences, notably over the form Brexit should take. Some reflect the inadequacies of mechanisms for intergovernmental relations. There is an inevitable rivalry between political parties at different levels. Beneath all this, however, are fundamental questions about the nature of the United Kingdom as a polity and where ultimate authority lies, especially after 20 years of devolution.

On the one hand, there is the classic or ‘Westminster’ doctrine, according to which sovereignty resides with the Monarch-in-Parliament. In the absence of a written, codified and enforceable constitution, this is the only foundation of authority. In this view, Westminster has merely ‘lent’ competences to the devolved legislatures, which can be taken back at any time, however politically imprudent that might be. Westminster may not often exercise this power but it provides a trump card in any conflict with the devolved authorities.

This is a powerful doctrine but at the same time an empty one since it rests on a tautology. Westminster is sovereign because, by dint of its sovereign authority, it says it is. The point was illustrated in the debates on the 1978 devolution legislation when an alliance of unionists and nationalists defeated a clause asserting that Westminster remained supreme, the nationalists because they did not want it to be true and the unionists because it was redundant. Westminster sovereignty is a myth, that is a story that may be true or false but works as long as people believe it. When the spell is broken, as it has in recent years, its supporters have to fall back on other arguments. There is a historical argument, that parliamentary sovereignty is rooted in constitutional practice; a normative argument, that in an age of universal suffrage, it really amounts to popular sovereignty; and an instrumental argument, that it allows for powerful and effective government. All are open to question. The historical argument is based on English practice and challenged in Scotland. The normative argument assumes that there is a single UK people with one channel for expression, rather than multiple peoples, the smaller nations having more inclusive electoral systems. The instrumental argument needs to be proven empirically rather than asserted.

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Can Boris Johnson stop Indyref2?

With the Scottish Parliament elections approaching, the Unit gathered together three experts to discuss the prospect of Boris Johnson seeking to block a second Scottish independence referendum, and how the Scottish government might respond to such efforts. Charlotte Kincaid summarises the contributions.

With the May 2021 Scottish Parliament elections approaching, and the recent attention on the continuing political conflict between First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her predecessor Alex Salmond, eyes are very much on Scotland and the prospect of a second independence referendum (‘Indyref2’). Boris Johnson has said he would refuse a referendum, but is this possible, and what would be the ramifications? To explore the possibility of Indyref2 and how such a referendum would be brought about, the Constitution Unit hosted a webinar with three experts: Professor Aileen McHarg of Durham Law School; James Forsyth, political editor of The Spectator magazine; and Dr Alan Renwick, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit. The summaries below are presented in order of the speakers’ contributions.

Professor Aileen McHarg

Professor McHarg explored a number of pathways to a referendum from a legal perspective. She first addressed if the UK government can prevent a second Scottish independence referendum: it can, and it isn’t required to agree to a Section 30 order, or amendments to the Scotland Act to enable Holyrood to legislate for a second referendum – as was the case for the 2014 referendum.

But can the Scottish Parliament legislate for a referendum without a Section 30 order? This is less clear. The SNP has marked its intention to unilaterally introduce a referendum bill with or without a Section 30 order if it wins a majority in Holyrood following the May elections. If the bill passed, it would be subject to legal challenge. If the bill were judged as beyond the Scottish Parliament’s competence, any referendum which followed would not have a legal grounding, and in Aileen’s view, the idea of a referendum was ‘a non-starter’. She described talk of a wildcat referendum – such as that experienced in Catalonia in 2017 as ‘entirely misplaced’. There would be questions concerning the legitimacy of a unilaterally-called referendum, even if it were ruled lawful by the Supreme Court; unionists may be unwilling to engage in such a referendum.

Another possible pathway, although unlikely, is Westminster legislating to dissolve the Union. This is possible because a referendum on Scottish independence is not a legal requirement of independence.

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Northern Ireland on the brink, again: the responsibility of London

As political tensions rise and riots erupt, or are provoked, on the streets of Belfast, the suggestion is now widely heard that the Northern Ireland institutions may again collapse before long. But London appears at present to have a limited grip of the Northern Ireland situation, suggests Alan Whysall, and if it does not change its approach markedly, it – and others – may face great grief soon.

Lessons of history

London governments were hands off in Northern Ireland until the late 1960s. Meanwhile conditions developed there that provoked protest, which was then hijacked by terrorism. Over several decades they painfully learned again about Ireland, the need to give its affairs at times a degree of priority, and the importance of working with Dublin. That approach led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and an intensive cooperative effort between the governments to implement it and keep it on the road.

Since 2016, matters have changed. In settling the UK’s approach to Brexit, it has generally been regarded as a side issue, to be resolved once the grand lines of the withdrawal plan were settled. The May government, under much pressure from Brussels, Belfast and Dublin, eventually recognised that the architecture of Brexit must accommodate Northern Ireland concerns. In 2019, however, policy shifted from the May backstop to the Johnson Protocol, and there is a strong perception that Northern Ireland has chiefly been valued as a battleground for the government’s trench warfare with the EU.

The build-up to the recent violence

Brexit is of course not the sole cause of what is now going wrong. In various ways, the underpinnings of the Agreement have been weakening for eight or nine years; and a number of factors led to the Executive collapsing in early 2017. But the tensions that Brexit has provoked, and the necessity to create a border somewhere – across the island, around the two islands, or between Great Britain and Ireland (the inevitable choice, because the other two are unfeasible) have seriously envenomed matters.

Nevertheless, Julian Smith, the last Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, developed a strong rapport with all the main Northern Ireland parties, and the Irish government, and was able to reach the New Decade, New Approach agreement to bring the institutions back early last year. But he was promptly sacked, apparently for having offended Number 10, a step widely seen in Northern Ireland as indicating the government’s general lack of concern for its affairs. He was replaced by Brandon Lewis.

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Wales has put effective legislation in place to make the Senedd polls COVID-safe

For the sixth time since devolution in 1999, voters in Wales have the opportunity to participate in a Wales-wide election, with all 60 seats of the Welsh Parliament in play. Elections across the UK were postponed last May due to COVID-19, but the ones set for this spring look like they will go ahead. Toby James and Alistair Clark argue that Wales has taken significant steps to ensure that voters are able to participate in a safe and fair election.

To postpone or not to postpone? That has been the question facing elections scheduled for May across the UK. All of these contests are important, but those being held in Wales have a special importance for Welsh citizens. They will have the opportunity to elect all 60 members to the Senedd Cymru (Welsh Parliament). It will be the sixth general election since devolution in 1999 – but the first time that 16- and 17-year-olds will be able to take part.

The pandemic, however, has led to arguments about whether elections should be postponed. There is a health argument for postponement. Restrictions have been put on many aspects of life in order to prevent the spread of the virus. But the quality of the election can also be compromised by the pandemic. Restrictions on campaigning might be in place, such as bans on leafleting, which smaller parties have complained are unfair on them. So what should be done?

The evidence from around the world

As part of an ESRC-funded research project, we have been tracking how elections have been run around the world since the pandemic began, in collaboration with International IDEA and the Electoral Integrity Project. We have published case studies that have described the experience on the ground, alongside data on the measures put in place to make elections COVID-safe.

Many countries did postpone for a while. Elections have been postponed in at least 75 countries since last February. But at the same time, over 100 eventually held their contests. Proposals to postpone elections are at first glance associated with undermining the democratic process and denying citizens their right to vote. Postponements, as was shown in a recent article in Election Law Journal, are not all just power grabs by would-be dictators or incumbent governments. They can be for multiple different reasons, and there is a humanitarian case for postponement where there is a threat to human life. 

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