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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Constitutional Change and Upper Houses: the Italian Case

downloadOn 11 and 12 June 2018 the Constitution Unit co-hosted a workshop at Rome LUISS university, on ‘The challenges of reforming upper houses in the UK and Italy’. This is the second in a series of posts summarising the speakers’ contributions. Professor Carlo Fusaro, a leading proponent of Matteo Renzi’s failed Senate reform of 2016, reflects on why the proposals were defeated and what wider lessons can be learned from their failure.

In a previous blog, Constitution Unit Director Meg Russell set out some more general obstacles to bicameral reform. In this post, reflecting on the recent Italian experience, I argue that the challenges of reforming second chambers have changed, and grown, significantly in recent years.

Constitutional change is difficult by design. Transformation of those constitutional bodies which have a say in the decision making process of constitutional revisions is even more difficult, the most difficult of all. This is something we all have been acutely aware of for decades both in Italy and abroad. Continue reading

Canada returns to the constitution? The new government’s agenda for constitutional reform

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Canada’s federal election on October 19 returned to power a Liberal government with a wide-ranging programme for constitutional reform that touches on the electoral system, parliament and relations with the provinces. David Brown offers an overview of this agenda, which includes several reforms introduced or discussed in the UK in recent years.

The election of a Liberal government with a solid majority opens a new chapter in Canada’s enduring fascination with its constitution. The party’s election platform includes an impressive range of promises that touch on the operations of the constitution – many of them intended to remedy or undo measures taken by the outgoing Conservative government led by Stephen Harper – although it is more cautious on the larger structural issues lurking below the surface. Evoking the ‘sunny ways’ of Wilfrid Laurier, a Liberal predecessor, incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is offering a change in tone and style in the day-to-day running of national institutions. Determined to be his own man he is, however, moving cautiously in approaching the larger constitutional reform stage that preoccupied his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Canadian constitution, likes its British parent, is a work in progress. The original federal Constitution was enacted in 1867, the year that Bagehot published The English Constitution. The British North America Act (now the Constitution Act), neatly resonates with his distinction between the dignified and the efficient features of the Constitution. The written Canadian Constitution provides for the Crown, Privy Council, parliament, the courts and parallel institutions at the provincial level (along with lists of enumerated powers of the two levels of government),  cumulatively providing the enduring framework within which the real business of governance is transacted. These efficient elements, including the Prime Minister, Cabinet, public service and the day-to-day operations of parliament and the federal system, emanate solely from the laconic observation in the Preamble to the Constitution Act that Canada has ‘a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.’ Changing the written Constitution involves use of a demanding amending formula that in several areas requires unanimity among the federal and provincial governments. The unwritten is the realm of constitutional convention.

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The new opposition: How will SNP MPs influence Westminster politics?

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Louise Thompson argues that the constitutional challenges we will see over the next 5 years will be a product of the changed composition of Parliament. Here, she specifically considers how SNP are likely to try and amend proposed constitutional reforms announced in the Queen’s Speech last week.

We are only a couple of weeks in to the 2015 Parliament, but we can already see signs of big changes from the previous Parliament, as well as some major parliamentary and constitutional challenges ahead. Last week’s Queen’s Speech proved what most commentators had already suspected; the first majority Conservative Government for nearly two decades will oversee a period of major constitutional change. This includes greater devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as to English cities and an In-Out referendum on membership of the European Union to be held by the end of 2017. The constitutional ground is beginning to move already. The Prime Minister has already met with the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to discuss the devolution of more powers to the Scottish Parliament.

As returning MPs took their seats in the chamber following the Queen’s Speech last week, they were met with a sea of unfamiliar faces as 182 new Members took their seats in the chamber. There is nothing new about a high turnover of MPs – the 2010 General Election saw an even higher turnover of Members. But the composition of the new intake, with record numbers of women and ethnic minority MPs, a massive drop in the number of Liberal Democrat MPs and the arrival of a much larger number of SNP MPs is very different to what the House has seen before. The challenges we will see over the next five years to the government’s planned constitutional reforms are very much a product of this changing composition.

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The Nineteenth Amendment is a constitutional milestone in Sri Lanka’s ongoing political development

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At the end of April, the Sri Lankan President’s 100-day programme of governance reforms culminated with the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment to reduce the powers of the presidency. Asanga Welikala reviews the progress that has been made since January, and argues that despite difficulties and necessary compromises, the Amendment represents a change for the better in Sri Lanka’s governing arrangements.

With the election of Maithripala Sirisena to the presidency in January 2015, Sri Lanka embarked on a 100-day programme of constitutional and governance reforms. The promise of far-reaching changes to abolish, or at least substantially reduce, the powers of the executive presidency had been the keystone of Sirisena’s presidential campaign. The previous President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had not only constitutionally extended the powers of this already over-mighty institution, but had also extra-constitutionally instituted a control regime based on nepotism, clientelism, ethnic chauvinism, and corruption. Sweeping away this institutional apparatus of authoritarianism and its more informal – but also more ingrained – network of patronage and protection through constitutional reforms brought together the otherwise disparate coalition of political forces that supported Sirisena’s candidacy.

While reforming executive presidentialism was the centrepiece of the 100-day programme, it also included a raft of other proposals, including freedom of information legislation and reforms to the parliamentary committee system, as well as economic reliefs. This collection of policy proposals did not make for the most coherent of programmes, and neither did it seem realistic within a 100-day period. Predictably perhaps, the government’s energies have been focused on the presidential reforms and other proposed measures have fallen by the wayside, bar some measures to ease the cost of living, and some small but symbolically significant steps toward ethnic reconciliation. Corruption prosecutions in particular have been conspicuous by their absence. However, the excesses of the Rajapaksa regime had been such that the majority that voted for its ouster has been willing to settle for progress on the main issue.

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Solomon Grundy does constitutional change: The Smith Commission timetable to transform the Scottish Parliament

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Stephen Tierney expresses concerns over the Smith Commission timetable, highlighting that the speed leaves little time for appropriate due diligence and detracts from the democratic credibility of the process. He argues that there is a need for restraint, and a more independent and inclusive review over a longer period.

In the month of November the Smith Commission is set to draw up the most significant programme of constitutional change for the United Kingdom since 1998. Already the period within which citizens could submit their views on this process has passed; the Commission having set a deadline of 5 p.m. on 31 October.

Such a rapid process runs counter to both the due diligence that is surely needed before any decision is taken to restructure the UK tax (and possibly welfare) systems so radically and the due process which ought to accompany such a seminal constitutional development. Unfortunately the principles of deliberative constitutional decision-making and popular democratic engagement which figured strongly in the recent independence referendum are unlikely to gain much traction in the current rush to change.

The referendum campaign was indeed a remarkable period of citizen empowerment. The turnout of 84.7% is only one dimension of this; in a deeper way many citizens were greatly invigorated by the referendum and the role they had in discussing and ultimately in making such a huge decision. The Smith Commission process, by contrast, bears all the hallmarks of a return to elite-led constitutional change; and it is deeply ironic that the impetus for such a rapid and party-led process should be the independence referendum itself. As the 18th of September approached and the polls seemed to tighten, the leaders of the main unionist parties issued ‘The Vow’, promising more powers for the Scottish Parliament and setting out a firm timetable for change.

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An English Constitutional Convention could benefit both main parties in the face of the UKIP threat

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Last week Robert Hazell set out some of the options for a possible UK constitutional convention. Here Meg Russell proposes some more specific answers to the questions that he posed: for example on what a constitutional convention should be tasked to do, timescale, and membership. She suggests that a more limited convention than Labour proposes, to a faster timetable, could offer a compromise to the benefit of all main parties.

Context

Last week on this blog Robert Hazell set out the alternate options for a UK constitutional convention. Such a body has been proposed by various democracy groups (such as the Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy) since before the Scottish referendum. Immediately afterwards Labour leader Ed Miliband threw his weight behind these calls, proposing that a convention should meet in autumn 2015. The idea also has the support of the Liberal Democrats, Greens and UKIP. In the Commons debate on devolution earlier this week William Hague indicated that the government was prepared to consider the proposal (col. 179).

Yet behind this apparent consensus there are huge splits between the parties, and the debate was otherwise highly polarised along party lines. Immediately after the Scots had voted Prime Minister David Cameron raised the issue of so-called ‘English votes on English laws’ at Westminster (a long-standing Conservative commitment), on which Hague is now chairing a Cabinet Committee and promising action by late November. Labour alleges that this is amounts to sorting out the constitution in haste ‘on the back of a fag packet‘, while Conservatives view Miliband’s convention plan as ‘the long grass‘. Labour clearly has the most to lose from ‘English votes on English laws’, given its relative strength in Scotland – and is thus reluctant to engage with the Cabinet committee process. The Liberal Democrats are at best ambivalent, making it doubtful that any proposals will get through. It is tempting for the Conservatives to make political capital out of this. But party political game-playing on both sides carries major risks. First, allegations and counter-allegations followed by failure of the Westminster parties to agree may simply fuel grievances and boost the UKIP vote. Second, inaction could leave the UK in a very difficult position after the May 2015 general election. Should Labour win the greatest number of Commons seats without being the largest party in England, immediate cries of ‘crisis’ could ensue.

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