Brexit and the constitution: seven lessons

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The process of exiting the European Union has revealed that the relationship between law and politics was perhaps not as sound as it might once have appeared. Jack Simson Caird believes that we are in the midst of a constitutional moment that has taught us seven key lessons.

Brexit can plausibly be described as a ‘constitutional moment’. The decision to leave the EU will shape the UK constitution over the coming decades. Even if the full extent of the constitutional changes that will flow from Brexit are not yet known, future Prime Ministers will be defined (in part, at least) by their ability to oversee successful constitutional reform. The post-referendum period has revealed a great deal about the relationship between the UK’s political system and its constitutional framework. Those responsible for changing the constitution moving forward will need to learn the lessons from this tumultuous period.

1. Governing without a majority needs a change of approach

One of the principal causes of the current crisis has been the way in which Theresa May’s government approached the task of governing without a majority. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, members of the government stressed the need to deliver on the referendum result without delay. The overwhelming sentiment was that the government, led by the Prime Minister and her Cabinet, should be left to get on with the task of negotiating a deal: a majoritarian mindset disconnected from the reality of a divided Cabinet and parliament. Instead, the government should have sought to build a majority for its proposed approach to delivering Brexit before it triggered Article 50 (or at the beginning of the 2017 Parliament).

Any future government that wishes to deliver constitutional change without a majority should look to the example of 2010 Coalition government. The coalition agreement struck between the Conservative and Liberal Democrats specified the constitutional changes that the two parties would agree to support. Theresa May’s government should have done the same and at the outset sought support for the substance of its approach for delivering Brexit.

2. Identify processes that can help to build consensus

The domestic process by which Brexit was to be delivered was not given sufficient attention early enough. Constitutional change gives rise to cross-cutting issues deserving of a special form of public and parliamentary scrutiny. In the absence of a rock-solid parliamentary majority, a special process needed to be constructed to deliver the constitutional transformation of the scale required by Brexit. The commitment to construct such a process at an early stage would have sent a positive message to other parties – and to the public – that the government was committed to finding a compromise that commanded wide support.

In the absence of a formal agreement with another party, the government could have sought to construct a bespoke process that might have facilitated cross-party support for delivering Brexit.

In the early stages of the process, suggestions that parliament should have more input in the negotiations were rejected on the basis that the government should not have its hands tied. Rather than treating these suggestions as an opportunity to bring MPs onside, they were treated as threats that could derail the process. Theresa May’s government only resorted to indicative votes and cross-party talks after the negotiations with the EU finished (and her deal or no deal strategy had failed) which did little to inspire the sense that the desire to engage was genuine.

3. Parliament needs to develop new forms of influence

The Article 50 process has demonstrated that parliament is a powerful constitutional actor. Since the Withdrawal Agreement was published in November 2018, the majorities against the Withdrawal Agreement and against a no deal exit shaped the debate. However, the Article 50 process has also shown that parliament’s influence on the substance of treaty negotiations and the legislative process is limited. Over the course of the 2017 parliament, the House of Commons inched its way to more control through innovative uses of parliamentary procedure, such as through business of the House motions and the Humble Address. The problem is that MPs only realised the extent of their power when it was too late. This meant that compromises were put together and agreed in haste. Essentially, backbench MPs made the same mistake as the government by not prioritising their influence over the process at an earlier stage.

4. The values of liberal democracy should be robustly defended

During the Brexit process, parliamentary scrutiny and debate has been characterised by some as anti-democratic. However, one of the central tenets of liberal constitutionalism is that proposals to change the constitution should be subject to scrutiny and debate. Constitutional democracy is in a very difficult place if this scrutiny and debate is not valued and defended. The core of the case for a carefully constructed procedure for constitutional change is that it enhances the democratic legitimacy of the end-product. How can constitutional reformers build the case for properly constructed change, if deliberation itself is undervalued in UK political culture?

The House of Commons and the Civil Service are restricted in their ability to defend their constitutional role by the requirements of impartiality. So, advocates of constitutional democracy need to robustly defend the role that institutions play in empowering citizens through democratic deliberation. No one is suggesting that politicians or institutions should be free from criticism (on the contrary, criticism is critical to their health and development). However, Brexit has highlighted a need for the values that underpin the basic elements of the democratic process to be defended far more vigorously.

5. Reframe the language of constitutional democracy

Prior to the referendum vote, the Vote Leave campaign demonstrated that a constitutional argument could be framed and communicated in a way that could cut through. Restoration of sovereignty (‘take back control’) was central to the Vote Leave campaign narrative. However, in the post-referendum period, the government has struggled to find a way of communicating the message that leaving the EU with a deal would empower ordinary citizens.

Of course, the reality of constitutional change is more complex than the messaging during the referendum campaign conveyed. However, it is clear that the constitutional ambition of the government was limited by its ability to communicate the value of democratic institutions. Implementing Brexit through radical constitutional change (by, for example, devolving power to English regions) would have required innovative ways of communicating this change to voters – and the government did not have this capacity.

6. Bring law and politics closer together

The Brexit process has exposed a fairly dysfunctional relationship between law and politics in Westminster. Parliamentarians have often been called out for misunderstanding some of the legal fundamentals of the Brexit process. The level of understanding of international law and EU law has been particularly problematic (although this perhaps reflects the limited incentives that parliamentarians have so far had to engage with either of these areas of law). At the same time, it is important to recognise that lawyers are not best equipped to engage with politics. As a result, the Brexit process has often been characterised by a frustratingly circular discourse. To improve the quality of debate over constitutional change, we need to bridge the gap between law and politics.

7. We need politicians that want to build a constitutional consensus

It may be that the UK’s constitutional democracy is in such difficulty that it cannot be repaired through piecemeal change. However, a more radical constitutional overhaul (perhaps in the form of a written constitution) will require politicians that are willing to prioritise finding a new constitutional settlement to resolve the post-Brexit divisions. At present, there are very few frontline politicians that prominently advocate constitutional change. It is not a message that seems to garner support.

Professor Jeff King’s inaugural lecture – delivered at University College London in April 2018 – persuasively argued that moving towards a written constitution in the UK would provide a means for citizens to take ownership over the UK’s constitutional democracy. In order to revitalise constitutional democracy in the UK post-Brexit, political leadership will need to harness this insight and communicate it to the public at large.

This article originally appeared in the June issue of Counsel and is reprinted with permission.  

About the author

Dr Jack Simson Caird is Senior Research Fellow in Parliaments and the Rule of Law at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law. He tweets as @jasimsoncaird

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Towards a Devolution Backstop? UK government-devolved government relations after Brexit

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Two years after the invocation of Article 50, Nicola McEwen analyses the state of relations between London and the devolved administrations, warning that if Brexit damages the autonomy of the devolved institutions without increasing their influence, relationships between the UK’s territories may become ever more strained.

The Brexit process has undoubtedly brought about an upswing in engagement between the UK and devolved governments. Leaving aside the Joint Ministerial Committee (Europe) which since 1999 has met ahead of European Council meetings, there have been considerably more formal meetings between Scottish, Welsh and UK ministers in the 32 months since the 2016 referendum than in the 17 years of devolution that preceded it. In 2016, a Joint Ministerial Committee for EU Negotiations — JMC (EN) — was set up to foster intergovernmental collaboration and provide oversight of EU negotiations. Last year, a Ministerial Forum for EU Negotiations was set up to consider more detailed Brexit effects in particular policy spheres.

For most of the time since the referendum, Northern Ireland has not had a governing executive and so it hasn’t had a voice in interministerial meetings. Ministers from the Scottish and Welsh governments, by contrast, have had ample opportunity to make their voices heard. Whether the UK government is listening is another matter.

The devolved governments have had most difficulty in influencing the UK’s negotiating position with the EU. The Scottish government opposes Brexit in all forms – a position reflecting the big Remain vote in Scotland in 2016. The next best thing is continued membership in the EU single market and customs union. While respecting the narrow Leave majority in Wales, the Welsh government, too, has favoured continued membership in the single market and customs union. But, despite the JMC (EN) terms of reference committing the governments to seek ‘a common UK approach’ to Brexit, the devolved governments have had little impact in shifting the Prime Minister’s red lines. The UK approach to Brexit, it seems, is the UK government’s approach alone. Continue reading

Article 50: two years on


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On 29 March, The UK in a Changing Europe published Article 50 two years on, summarising what has happened during the Article 50 process, where we are now, and what might happen in the future. Here, its director Anand Menon offers his own view of how Brexit has been handled since Article 50 was invoked by the government, and offers an insight into some of the topics contained in the report.

Two years on. So little progress made. As metaphors go, watching parliament hold a series of eight votes and fail to muster a majority on any of them was not too bad at all.

And yet, and yet. For all the outward signs of chaos emanating from Westminster, things are moving. It was never going to be easy for MPs to ‘take control’ of Brexit, if only because all they control even now is the parliamentary diary. Parliament isn’t set up to make it easy for MPs to both set their own agenda and make decisions.

Moreover, it strikes me as slightly misguided to criticise the House of Commons for failing to come to a clear decision on Brexit. For on this if on nothing else, our MPs represent us faithfully. Like the public at large, they are deeply divided on the question of leaving the European Union, and therefore – again like us – it is not clear which if any of the possible outcomes a majority of them might agree on. Continue reading

Unionism and the Conservative Brexit deal rebellion

jack_sheldon.1image_normalThis week, MPs voted in favour of renegotiating the parts of the Withdrawal Agreement that relate to the ‘backstop’. The backstop and the land border between the UK and Ireland has been one of the most divisive Brexit issues for the Conservatives. Jack Sheldon and Michael Kenny discuss what this tells us about the party’s attitude to the Union.

‘Something ghastly called UK(NI) has been created. Northern Ireland will be under a different regime. That is a breach of the Act of Union 1800’. Owen Paterson MP

I am concerned about the prospects of a Northern Ireland that risks being increasingly decoupled from the United Kingdom, and about how that could undermine the Union that is at the heart of the United Kingdom’. Justine Greening MP

‘I would really like to support the deal of this Prime Minister and this Government, but the issue for me is the backstop. I served in Northern Ireland and I lost good colleagues to protect the Union. I will not vote for anything that does not protect the Union’. Sir Mike Penning MP

Concerns about the implications of the Irish backstop for the integrity of the domestic Union contributed significantly to the scale of the 118-strong backbench rebellion that led to Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement being defeated on 15 January, by the extraordinary margin of 432 to 202. Following a debate and vote on 29 January, the Prime Minister has now committed to seek legally binding changes to the backstop, in the hope that this might win over at least some of the rebels before the next vote.

What do the arguments that have been made about the backstop tell us about the nature of the ‘unionism’ that prevails in the contemporary Conservative Party? This is a pertinent question, given that the sincerity of professed support for the Union from Conservatives has regularly been called into question by academic and media commentators in recent years, with increasing numbers of critics suggesting that leading figures from the Tory Party have harvested ‘English nationalist’ sentiments and are willing to put the future of the Union at risk. Continue reading

A second Brexit referendum looks increasingly likely: what key questions need to be addressed?

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Widespread negative reactions to Theresa May’s Brexit deal have focused increasing attention on a possible further EU referendum. With MPs appearing poised to vote down the Withdrawal Agreement, a referendum could provide a way out of the apparent deadlock. But how would it work in practice? Ahead of the parliamentary debate, Meg Russell and Alan Renwick summarise the conclusions of their recent report on this topic.

When the Constitution Unit published The Mechanics of a Further Referendum on Brexit in October, it was still unclear if the government would successfully reach a deal with the EU, what that deal would contain, or how parliament and the public would react. Now that those facts are known, increasing numbers of MPs are demanding that the Brexit issue be returned to the public in a fresh referendum. But many unanswered questions about the practicalities remain. Here, we offer short responses to the most pressing of those questions, drawn from our report, to inform the parliamentary and growing public debate.

1. Is a referendum possible in the time available?

To hold a referendum, the UK parliament must first pass legislation. Before the bill leaves parliament, the Electoral Commission must assess the ‘intelligibility’ of the wording of the proposed referendum question – which usually takes ten weeks. This limits the ability to pass a bill very rapidly. Once the bill has received royal assent, sufficient time must be set aside to allow the Electoral Commission to designate lead campaigners, and for the campaign to take place.

In total, we estimate that the whole process – from introducing legislation to polling day – could be compressed to around 22 weeks. This is significantly less time than for previous referendums: for example the equivalent gap for the 2016 EU referendum was 13 months. But similar levels of urgency did not apply in these earlier cases.

The timetable could potentially be compressed even further, but doing so would risk delegitimising the result of the referendum – it is important given the sensitivity of the topic that the legislation is seen to be fully scrutinised, the question fair, and the campaigns adequately regulated. Continue reading