The Constitution Unit Blog

Braking the law: is there, and should there be, an executive veto over laws made by parliament?

During the Brexit crises of 2019, something exceptionally rare happened twice in less than six months: parliament passed legislation without the government’s consent. But are there constitutional veto mechanisms that governments can use to prevent this? In a new Unit report, Paul Evans explores this question in detail. He summarises his conclusions here.

What do executive vetoes look like? 

Many constitutional democracies include mechanisms whereby a head of state can veto a law made by the legislature, but few of these are absolute vetoes. Most are suspensory, inviting the legislature to think again, but giving it the last word. The US Constitution is the most obvious example of such an arrangement. France has a broadly similar system but, as with many if not most such vetoes, it isn’t used. Some states (for example Iceland) enable the president to put a law to a referendum. Others (such as Ireland) leave the last word with a constitutional court, but only on matters of constitutionality, not on grounds of political disagreement.

In the UK (and most of the old dominions which retain the Queen as head of state) such an arrangement looks impossible. The executive and the legislature are fused – they can’t have different views. The executive as a lawmaker in the UK only exists as an element of the sovereign parliament (the somewhat misleadingly titled ‘Crown-in-Parliament’). The sovereign has no personal stake in the making of law. They must do as parliament decides. As long ago as 1867, Walter Bagehot expressed this constitutional fact with typical rhetorical brio:

The popular theory of the English Constitution involves two errors as to the Sovereign. First, in its oldest form at least, it considers him as an ‘Estate of the Realm’, a separate co-ordinate authority with the House of Lords and the House of Commons. This and much else the Sovereign once was, but this he is no longer. That authority could only be exercised by a monarch with a legislative veto. He should be able to reject bills, if not as the House of Commons rejects them, at least as the House of Peers rejects them. But the Queen has no such veto. She must sign her own death warrant if the two Houses unanimously send it up to her. It is a fiction of the past to ascribe to her legislative power. She has long ceased to have any.

Withholding of royal assent

Nonetheless, when the first stirrings of what was to become the Cooper-Letwin Act (the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2019) began in the Commons in early 2019, it was suggested in some quarters that ministers could advise the sovereign to refuse royal assent to an Act agreed upon by parliament. The same argument re-emerged six months later in relation to the Benn-Burt Act (the European Union (Withdrawal) Act (No. 2) 2019), which Boris Johnson insisted on referring to repeatedly as the ‘Surrender Act’. But, despite these theoretical arguments, subsequent events appear to have confirmed that this concept of a royal veto is definitely a dead letter. Queen Anne was the last sovereign to decline the royal assent to an Act passed by parliament – in 1707 (or 1708 if you prefer to apply retrospectively the change of the new year from 25 March to 1 January in 1752). 

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The role of monarchy in modern democracy

In the 21st century, monarchies remain pivotal parts of several democratic countries across Europe, including the UK. In a new book, edited by Unit founder Robert Hazell and Bob Morris, contributors from across Europe consider the constitutional and political role of monarchy, its powers and functions, how it is defined and regulated, the laws of succession and royal finances, relations with the media, its popularity, and why it endures.

Monarchy has a long history in Europe, being the predominant form of government from the Middle Ages until the First World War. At the turn of the twentieth century every country in Europe was a monarchy with just three exceptions: France, Switzerland and San Marino. But by the start of the twenty-first century, most European countries had ceased to be monarchies, and three quarters of the member states of the European Union are now republics. That has led to a teleological assumption that in time most advanced democracies will become republics, as the highest form of democratic government. 

But there is a stubborn group of countries in Western Europe which defy that assumption, and they include some of the most advanced democracies in the world. In the most recent Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, six out of the top ten democracies – and nine of the top 15 – in the world were monarchies. They include six European monarchies: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and the UK.

This paradox of an ancient hereditary institution surviving as a central part of modern democracies prompted the comparative study which led to our latest book, The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy: European Monarchies Compared. Our study, written by 20 academic experts, includes the six countries listed above, plus Belgium and Spain. 

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A question of confidence? The Constitution Committee’s view on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011

Nine years after the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, both government and opposition have expressed a desire to repeal it, following two general elections: one brought about about using the provisions of the Act and another by circumventing them. The Constitution Committee has produced a report setting out what any replacement legislation needs to address. Its Chair, Baroness Taylor, discusses the Committee’s conclusions below.

On its introduction in 2011, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) was heralded by the then Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, as a ‘constitutional innovation’ that would no longer allow the timing of general elections to be a ‘plaything of Governments’. Nine years on, it is safe to say that the FTPA has not had the effect that he and others envisaged. The FTPA has been stress-tested and found wanting by political parties and commentators alike. 

The FTPA sets the length of parliaments at five years and requires the approval of the House of Commons for an early general election. It removed the longstanding prerogative power of the monarch to dissolve parliament at the request of the Prime Minister and instead vested this authority in Members of Parliament. In 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May proved that a government that wanted an election could secure one using the provisions of the FTPA. In 2019, at the helm of a minority government that was thrice denied an early general election under the FTPA, Prime Minister Boris Johnson sidestepped its requirements with the Early Parliamentary General Election Act.

These events prompted proposals from both the Conservative and Labour parties to repeal the FTPA. The current government has reiterated that commitment since taking office. However, repealing the FTPA is not straightforward, given its constitutional and legal implications. It is in this context that the House of Lords Constitution Committee published its report on the FTPA on 4 September, exploring its effects and the questions that need to be addressed for any future reform.

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Should the government be able to suspend parliament?

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Petra Schleiter and Thomas Fleming examine the power to prorogue parliament. They outline the legal basis of prorogation, survey how it is used in the UK and other Westminster systems, and discuss how the UK could reform its prorogation process.  

The UK government has the power to suspend parliament, in a process known as prorogation. Prorogation is usually a routine measure, used to schedule gaps between sessions of parliament. But it became highly controversial in 2019, when the government tried to prorogue parliament for five weeks shortly before the scheduled Brexit date of 31 October. This decision caused uproar, and was ultimately quashed by the Supreme Court.

This controversy prompted discussion of whether the UK’s prorogation rules should be reformed. In particular, some have asked whether this power should be considered as part of the forthcoming review of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which is legally required to take place this year. Here we outline the consequences of the current rules, showing that they are unusual, and suggesting possible ways for them to be reformed. Fuller versions of our arguments can be found in our recent articles in Political Quarterly and Parliamentary Affairs (forthcoming).

What are the consequences of the current prorogation rules?

Prorogation ends a parliamentary session. It means that neither House of Parliament may sit, and parliamentary business is almost entirely suspended. Though prorogation is formally a prerogative power of the monarch, she acts on the advice of the Prime Minister. In practice, therefore, the timing and length of prorogation are decided by the government. Parliament has no power to insist on sitting once it has been prorogued: only the government can shorten or prolong a prorogation. This situation makes it possible for the government to use prorogation for political purposes when its interests conflict with those of parliament.

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Choosing a Prime Minister: their exits and their entrances

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Seventeen of the Prime Ministers to take office since 1900 left office for reasons other than defeat at a general election. In this blogpost, Rodney Brazier, author of the recently published Choosing a Prime Minister, reflects on how those Prime Ministers have secured and surrendered the keys to Number 10, and the Queen’s role in their appointment.

It’s unlikely that Boris Johnson spends much time thinking about the next election. Thanks largely to him the government obtained an 80-seat Commons majority at the polls just over six months ago, and each member of his Cabinet gave pledges of personal loyalty before getting their jobs. What could possibly go wrong? But if any of his close advisers were to read my book Choosing a Prime Minister then brows might furrow. The book notes that 17 of the two-dozen individuals who have occupied Number 10 since 1900 were forced to leave without any push from the voters. Illness or old age, revolts in the governing party, loss of the confidence of the House of Commons, or personal political blunders all contributed to that high total. Indeed, three of Johnson’s four immediate predecessors (Tony Blair, David Cameron and Theresa May) quit without the electorate’s help. Ill health and party coups were the main, but not at all the only, causes of all those 17 exits. Johnson himself had a brush with death in March. I would bet good money against the present Prime Minister leading the Conservatives into the next general election.  Continue reading

‘Palace letters’ show the Queen did not advise, or encourage, Kerr to sack Whitlam government

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Four decades after the dismissal of the Whitlam government, letters between the Palace and the Governor-General of Australia have been made public. Anne Twomey explains that they show the Queen acted properly, neither advising nor encouraging the government’s dismissal, recommending simply that he obey the Australian Constitution.

For more than four decades, the question has been asked: did the Queen know the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, was about to dismiss the Whitlam government, and did she encourage or support that action? The release of the ‘palace letters’ between Kerr and the palace can now lay that question to rest. The answer was given, unequivocally, by the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, in a letter to Kerr on November 17 1975. He said:

‘If I may say so with the greatest respect, I believe that in NOT informing The Queen what you intended to do before doing it, you acted not only with perfect constitutional propriety but also with admirable consideration for Her Majesty’s position.’

Certainly, Kerr had kept the palace up to date with the various developments in Australia. While governors-general usually communicate with the Queen only three or four times a year during ordinary times, it is common during a crisis for updates on the political situation to be made every few days – particularly if there is a risk of the Queen becoming involved or the exercise of a reserve power drawing the palace into the crisis.

In 1975, there were multiple issues that might have drawn the palace into the crisis. First, there was the question of whether Kerr should exercise a reserve power to refuse royal assent to an appropriation bill that had been passed by the House of Representatives but not the Senate. Fortunately, Whitlam dropped this idea, so that controversy disappeared.

Then there was the question of whether state premiers would advise state governors to refuse to issue the writs for a half-Senate election, and whether Whitlam would then advise the Queen to instruct the governors to issue the writs. This didn’t happen either, because Whitlam did not get to hold his half-Senate election. But the prospect was enough to worry the palace. Continue reading

Coronavirus: how Europe’s monarchs stepped up as their nations faced the crisis

bob_morris_163x122.jpgprofessor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgLast Sunday, the Queen spoke to the nation in a rare televised address. The speech was widely praised, and several other European monarchs have made similar attempts to connect with the public. Bob Morris and Robert Hazell argue that her intervention demonstrates the value of an apolitical head of state that remains compatible with modern democracy. 

The British Queen’s address to the nation on Sunday, April 5 evoked huge interest, respect and widespread appreciation. Nearly 24 million people in the UK watched her deliver the four-minute speech, which paid tribute to National Health Service and other key workers, thanked people for following government rules to stay at home and promised ‘we’ll meet again’.

Her words were greeted with almost universal praise from politicians, press and the public alike. But what made it so special? Who advises the Queen on such occasions? And what does it tell us about the monarchy – what can monarchs do that political leaders cannot?

It was special because of its rarity – this was only the fourth occasion on which Elizabeth II has addressed the nation other than in her annual Christmas message. All have marked particular national moments: war in Iraq, the deaths of Princess Diana and the Queen Mother, her thanks for the celebrations for her diamond jubilee. In different ways they bring the nation together – her heartfelt address before Diana’s funeral was especially effective in bringing her people to understand why she had prioritised consoling her bereaved young grandchildren.

The coronavirus speech – a little over 500 words – came invested with the authority of someone able to draw on long personal experience of the country’s trials. Instancing her own message as a 14 year-old to child evacuees wrenched from their families in 1940 was but one way of giving the speech a depth of field to which no politician could aspire. Continue reading