Beyond Brexit: Towards a British Constitution

vb_image_70x90Brexit is a major constitutional change. It creates considerable constitutional uncertainty, but also opportunity. It could prove Britain’s constitutional moment. Vernon Bogdanor argues that just as joining the EU fundamentally altered the UK constitution, so Brexit could, by exposing the very nakedness of Britain’s uncodified arrangements, prove a catalyst for a written constitution.

During the period of membership of the European Communities/European Union, the UK was subject to a written or codified constitution, which was entrenched. Brexit is a process rare if not unique in the modern world, involving as it does disengagement from a codified to an uncodified system. It is just possible indeed that Brexit will lead to a codified constitution for the United Kingdom that would bring us into line with virtually every other democracy in the modern world.

At a seminar at King’s College, London shortly after the 2016 EU referendum, Takis Tridimas, a professor of European Law at King’s said that the result represented the most significant constitutional event in the UK since the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, since it showed that on the issue of Europe, the sovereignty of the people trumped the sovereignty of Parliament. Of course, from a legal point of view, the referendum was merely advisory, but the government committed itself to respecting the result and the outcome was seen by the majority of MPs as decisive. Since June 2016, therefore, both government and parliament have been enacting a policy to which they are opposed. That is a situation unprecedented in our long constitutional history. Europe, therefore, has been responsible for the introduction of a new concept into the UK constitution, the sovereignty of the people. On this issue, the people have in effect become a third chamber of Parliament, issuing instructions to the other two. The sovereignty of Parliament is now being constrained not by Brussels, but by the people.

The effects of the European Communities Act on the UK constitution

The main constitutional consequence of our EU membership was to restrict the sovereignty of parliament. Parliamentary sovereignty must be distinguished from national sovereignty, with which it is often confused. National sovereignty is engaged whenever a country signs a treaty. It is not an absolute, it can be pooled or shared with other countries, and it is a matter of political judgement how far it should in fact be shared. But parliamentary sovereignty – the notion that Parliament can enact any law it chooses – is not like that at all. It is an absolute. One either has it or one does not. One can no more be a qualified sovereign than one can be a qualified virgin. Continue reading

On restoring responsible political parties

picture.52.1535547351DtrC8R1XQAIIktGAs calls for another Brexit referendum grow ever louder, Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro discuss their new book, Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself, in which they argue that attempts to decentralise political decision-making in the US and UK have made governments and political parties less effective and damaged their ability to address constituents’ long-term interests. 

Since the 1960s, powerful movements across the democratic world have sought to bring politics closer to the people. Party members more often elect their leaders directly. There has been greater use of referendums and plebiscites. Many political parties have adopted decentralised ways of choosing candidates. Boundaries have been redrawn to create ‘majority-minority districts’ – in which the majority of the constituents in the district are non-white – and thus ensure selection of racial and ethnic minorities. In many (especially newer) democracies, proportional representation (PR) is favoured as more inclusive of non-majority voters. Unlike single member district systems, which generate two big catch-all parties, parties proliferate under PR; minority groups can all vote for parties they expect to fight for them in the legislature. These changes are touted as democratic enhancements that move decisions closer to the people and elect politicians who are less remote from – and more responsive to – the voters.  

Paradoxically, however, this decentralisation has been accompanied by dramatic increases in voter alienation. Poll after poll reflects historic lows of citizen trust in politicians, parties and institutions, dramatically underscored in 2016 by the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s populist stampede to the US presidency. Similar patterns prevail in many democracies, where anti-establishment parties and candidates enjoy unprecedented support from voters. They reject government recommendations in referendums and plebiscites, and elect anti-establishment figures who would not have been taken seriously half a generation ago. Incumbency, which used to be a decisive advantage, seems increasingly to be a liability as ‘tossing the bums out’ shortens political half-lives at every turn. Angry voters flail at their own impotence, waging semi-permanent war on their representatives. Continue reading

How long would it take to hold a second referendum on Brexit?

jess_sargent.000alan_renwick.000Meg.Russell.000 (1)With exit day less than seven months away, one of the perceived obstacles to a second Brexit referendum is time. Here, in the second in a series of posts on the mechanics of a second referendumJess Sargeant, Alan Renwick and Meg Russell discuss the constraints, concluding a new referendum could be held much more quickly than previous polls but a delay to exit day would most likely still be needed.

In order for a referendum to be held in the UK, various processes must be completed, all of which take time. Many political commentators have dismissed the possibility of a second referendum on Brexit on the basis that there is insufficient time to hold one before the UK leaves the European Union, citing the EU referendum’s 13-month timetable as evidence of its impossibility. By contrast, many proponents of a ‘People’s Vote’ have argued that time is not a problem: earlier this month Vince Cable argued that a referendum could be legislated for ‘in a matter of weeks’.

The reality lies somewhere between these two positions: while the timing is challenging, it does not present an unsurmountable obstacle to a referendum.

What is required for a referendum to be held in the UK?

  • Legislation – Primary legislation is needed to provide the legal basis for the referendum and to specify details that are not in standing legislation, including the referendum question, the franchise, the date of the referendum, and the conduct rules for the poll (although the latter two are often ultimately left to secondary legislation).
  • Question testing – The Electoral Commission has a statutory duty to assess the ‘intelligibility’ of the referendum question, a process that usually takes 12 weeks.
  • Preparation for the poll itself – The Electoral Commission and local officials need time to prepare for administering the poll and regulating campaigners. The Commission recommends that the legislation should be clear at least six months before it is due to be complied with.
  • Regulated referendum period – The UK’s referendum legislation – the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) – specifies a minimum 10-week campaign period, during which campaign regulation applies.

Continue reading