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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Government still lacks a strategic approach to research

 

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The Cabinet Office this week published the official Areas of Research Interest for six government departments, including the Department for Transport and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Tom Sasse, of the Institute for Government, welcomes the decision to publish, but claims that the quality of the output varies between departments. At a time when ministers have less money to spend on research, he argues that the government does not work well enough with academia and needs to change its approach if proper evidence-based policy making is to occur in the future.

Policy makers need to find the research and evidence they need to strengthen policy, and researchers need to identify the Government’s priorities so that they can provide input.

The 2015 Nurse Review of Research Councils called on the government to publish the priority questions it would like answered through new or existing research. Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, announced the first publication of the Cabinet Office’s Areas of Research Interest (ARI) last week.

Six government departments (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; Health; Transport; Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Cabinet Office; and the Foreign Office) have now published their ARIs, with the rest expected to follow soon.

These first six ARIs are mostly brief, high-level and of mixed quality. The Department for Transport’s ARI, however, stands out as an example for others to follow.

These ARIs are welcome, but government departments need to develop more comprehensive strategies for accessing the evidence and research they need.

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Constitution Unit publishes new study on non-executive directors in Whitehall

 

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In 2017, the Constitution Unit conducted the first-ever study of the work of non-executive directors (NEDs) within Whitehall. In this blog post, project leader Robert Hazell and Lucas Chebib, one of the project’s research volunteers, discuss the methodology and findings of the report. 

The Constitution Unit has just completed the first major study of non-executive board members in Whitehall (commonly known as non-executive directors, or NEDs). The report concluded that non-executives are high calibre, committed people, whose expertise is greatly valued by the civil service. However, NEDs themselves often said they find the role frustrating, and feel they could be much more effective if the system only allowed.

The study was carried out over 18 months by four former senior civil servants, with assistance from five research volunteers. The team compiled a detailed database of all NEDs; organised a survey; conducted almost 70 interviews; and tested their findings in private briefings and seminars. The full report is published here; what follows is a summary of the main points. Continue reading

Non-executive directors in Whitehall: how useful have they really been?

The role of non-executive directors in Whitehall departments has developed over recent decades. A new Constitution Unit project, led by former senior civil servants, aims to investigate the role of these outside experts and the impact they have had. David Owen introduces the project and invites contributions from those who have been involved with the work of non-executives.

What role is there for outside expertise in the running of a government department? For some time now in the UK, one way in which such input has been made has been through non-executive board members or non-executive directors. The Constitution Unit is undertaking a project to look at who non-executives are, what they do and the impact that they have had. The work is being led by former senior civil servants Alan Cogbill, Hilary Jackson and Howard Webber. We have felt encouraged following discussions with Cabinet Office, who have expressed interest in seeing the results.

Non-executives: the evolving government approach

Governments have drawn on external contributors for a long time, but the term ‘non-executive’ is thought to have been first used in the early 1990s. In 2005, the Treasury set out guidance on non-executives in its Corporate Governance Code.  The code commented that much what it said of non-executives, as well as of the operation of departmental boards, was new, ‘reflecting an agenda which has developed rapidly’. It recommended that each central government department board should have at least two non-executives, preferably more, with the aim of providing support and challenge.

Following the 2010 election, the use of non-executives developed with the appointment of a lead non-executive for government, former BP chief executive Lord Browne.

This drive formed part of Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude’s wider civil service reform plan for the civil service. He saw non-executives as having a key role in delivering savings, providing the kind of input for which consultants had previously been paid millions of pounds.

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How can referendums in the UK be improved? Lessons learned from the EU referendum

Today, the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) published a report on Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum. The report touches on a variety of areas in relation to the conduct of referendums, including the role of referendums, the role of the civil service during referendum campaigns and cyber security. PACAC’s chair, Bernard Jenkin, outlines his committee’s findings, which they hope that the government will take heed of so that the country is ready for any future referendums.

Today, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) has published its latest report on Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum. With Holyrood demanding a new Scottish independence referendum, it is clear that referendums have become a permanent part of the UK’s democratic system, with major implications for our system, which is based on representative democracy. PACAC’s report highlights the importance of clarity in relation to the role and purpose of referendums, and ensuring that referendums are conducted fairly and effectively.

PACAC argues that referendums are appropriate for resolving questions of key constitutional importance that cannot be resolved through the usual medium of party politics. PACAC also argues, however, that referendums are less satisfactory in the case of what might be called a ‘bluff call’ referendum when, as last June, the referendum is used by the government to try to close down an unwelcome debate. As well as a clear question, the outcome in either case must also be clear. That means there should be more clarity and planning by the government holding the referendum, so there is less of a crisis of uncertainty if they don’t get the answer they want, as in the EU referendum.

PACAC considered four other areas in relation to the conduct of referendums: the fairness of the so-called ‘purdah’ period; the administration of the referendum; the role of the civil service during a referendum campaign; and cyber security.

On purdah, the government claimed at the time that the purdah provisions would impair the functioning of government. However, these provisions were of critical importance to the fair conduct of the referendum. The purdah provisions should be strengthened and clarified for future referendums and PACAC supports the Law Commission’s proposals to consolidate the law regulating the conduct of referendums. Additionally, PACAC asserts that the purdah restrictions should be updated to reflect the digital age, and extended to cover the full ten weeks of the referendum period, as recommended by the Electoral Commission.

With regard to the administration of the referendum, the evidence gathered during PACAC’s inquiry suggests that, while not without some faults, the EU referendum was on the whole run well.  PACAC commends the Electoral Commission for the successful delivery of the referendum, which was of enormous scale and complexity.

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Definitely not business as usual: Predictions and preparations for May 2015

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On 12 March 2015 Lord Gus O’Donnell and David Cowling spoke at a Unit seminar entitled ‘Forecasting the 2015 Election result, and preparing for a hung Parliament’. Ruxandra Serban reports on the event.

With just 6 weeks left until polling day, the outcome of the May 2015 general election remains highly unpredictable. With few signs that either of the two main parties will secure an overall majority in the House of Commons, current predictions are predominantly based on the assumption of another hung parliament. On 12 March 2015 the Constitution Unit and the UCL School of Public Policy hosted a seminar with David Cowling (BBC Political Editor) and Gus O’Donnell (Cabinet Secretary between 2005 and 2011) to discuss whether any reliable predictions can be made about the election, given the current shifting political landscape, and whether the 2010 election is a useful guide in the preparation for another hung parliament.

David Cowling framed the discussion around the unique features that the 2010 election brought to the usually predictable two-party race for Westminster: the first televised leaders’ debates, changes to parliamentary boundaries, and the surge of the third party (Liberal Democrats) in the opinion polls. Cowling dubbed 2010 ‘the losers’ election’, as the Conservatives failed to win an outright majority for the fourth election in a row, Labour scored their second worst vote share in 80 years, and even the Lib Dems lost seats.

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The Prime Minister must ensure that he gets a chief executive at the centre

peter.riddell-99Peter Riddell argues the idea of appointing a full-time chief executive to lead the Civil Service is correct – provided the responsibilities and authority match the role. There are worrying signs in this month’s announcement that they will not, and we may have the second muddled reorganisation in three years.

There was an inevitability about yesterday’s announcement of Sir Bob Kerslake’s imminent departure as Head of the Civil Service, while remaining as Permanent Secretary at Department for Communities and Local Government until the end of next February. With an activist Civil Service Minister in Francis Maude, the space became too crowded for Sir Bob as the tensions over the pace and scale of reform increased. The political line was about a renewed drive on civil service reform; absolutely right, but it would be wrong to ignore the huge scale of changes since 2010 and the impetus for reform among most senior civil servants themselves.

The real problems in the civil service leadership are structural. It was right in January 2012 to split the functions of Cabinet Secretary and Civil Service Head since no one could perform both roles. However, it was a mistake for Sir Bob to double-hat as Head of the Civil Service and a departmental Permanent Secretary. That created impossible pressures on him, and, in this position, he never had the powers or authority to lead the changes expected of him.

However, yesterday’s announcement confuses as much as it clarifies. Sir Jeremy Heywood will take the title of Head of the Civil Service while maintaining his current responsibilities as Cabinet Secretary. That makes it clear who is in charge and who reports to the Prime Minister, and this we welcome. The problem is that the new chief executive, who will report to the Cabinet Secretary, is not really going to be a CEO of the Civil Service, but, rather, someone who is in charge of civil service transformation, efficiency and reform plus taking over responsibility for running the Cabinet Office. The inclusion of the latter muddles the tasks of running the headquarters operation with oversight of the whole civil service.

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