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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The next PM’s territorial challenges

jack_sheldon.1The next stages of Brexit are now set to happen under a new Prime Minister. The chosen candidate will have to work with governments in Wales and Scotland that are openly critical. Northern Ireland may be without a government and the English regions may lack a unified voice, but neither can be taken for granted, especially as the new PM will rely on the DUP for confidence and supply. Leaving the European Union therefore cannot be separated from the challenges of maintaining the domestic union, as Jack Sheldon explains.

Following the announcement of Theresa May’s imminent resignation, the long-anticipated contest within the Conservative Party to succeed her has begun.

The campaign will inevitably be dominated by Brexit. But events over the past three years have shown that the future of relations with the EU cannot easily be separated from the future of the domestic Union. The candidates will thus need to give careful thought to how they will approach the major statecraft challenges presented by territorial politics across the UK if they become Prime Minister.

Renegotiating the Northern Ireland backstop will be popular with Conservative MPs – but a new Prime Minister might soon face the same dilemma as Theresa May

The Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ has been the main driver of opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement within the parliamentary Conservative Party and their confidence-and-supply partners the DUP. Consequently, there are strong short-term incentives for leadership contenders to commit to renegotiating it, in the hope that it might yet be possible to get a deal that doesn’t cut across Brexiteer red lines on the Single Market and customs union through the House of Commons. Pledges to this effect have already been made by Jeremy HuntBoris JohnsonEsther McVey and Dominic Raab.

In reality, substantive changes to the backstop will be extremely difficult to deliver. It remains the position of the EU27 and the Irish government that the Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened.  Keeping an open Irish border has become highly salient in Ireland and the EU, and the new Prime Minister will need to appreciate that this means there is next to no chance that they will be open to trading the guarantees provided by the backstop for the loosely-defined ‘alternative arrangements’ envisaged by many Conservative MPs. The same dilemma Theresa May faced might thus soon confront her successor – whether, as an avowed unionist, to recoil from a no-deal scenario that would undoubtedly have disruptive effects at the Irish border and strengthen the case for an Irish border poll, or whether the delivery of Brexit trumps everything else.

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The myth of a growing sense of English identity

IMG_20181213_223144England remains the only country in the UK to lack its own national parliament, and there is no indication that this is likely to change in the near future. Here, Sir John Curtice discusses the extent to which those who identify as having a distinctive English identity have grown in number, and if this translates into greater support for separate English institutions.

One of the key features of the devolution settlement in the UK is that it has become increasingly asymmetric, as both the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have gradually gained more powers. In contrast, only relatively minor changes have been introduced in England – (i) changing the procedures of the House of Commons so that laws that only affect England have to have the backing of English MPs as well as the House as a whole and, (ii) introducing in some of England’s major metropolitan areas city regions run by a directly elected mayor and a combined authority but with limited powers. This contrast means that a debate continues to bubble away about the fairness and effectiveness of the way in which England is governed, prompting the recent publication of a book, Governing England, that reports the fruits of a major investigation undertaken by the British Academy into how England might best be governed in future.

One of the seemingly important issues in the debate about the governance of England is the country’s sense of identity. An England that predominantly feels British might be thought to be happy to be governed by UK-wide institutions. But one that feels mostly English might be expected to take a very different view. It has been argued that the sight of devolved institutions elsewhere in the UK has made people in England more aware of their English rather than their British identity and that they now seek to have that identity acknowledged politically. That English identity is becoming politically more important appeared to be confirmed by the well-documented evidence that those who think of themselves as English were more likely than those who regard themselves as British to vote to Leave the EU.

But how many people south of the border claim these days to be English rather than British? Is there any evidence that there has been an increase in English identity? And is there any reason to believe that those who do feel English have become more likely to want their sense of identity reflected in how England is governed?  These are some of the questions addressed by me in Governing England. Continue reading

Understanding English identity and institutions in a changing United Kingdom

_MIK4650.cropped.114x133image_normaliainmclean200pxThe current devolution settlement has left England as the only UK country subject to permanent direct rule from Westminster, which has the dual role of governing both the UK and England. In their new book, Akash Paun, Michael Kenny and Iain McLean have been exploring some of the key arguments concerning the status of England within the Union, who speaks for England politically, and the concept of an English national identity.

Governing England, a new volume published today by the British Academy and Oxford University Press, explores whether, why and with what consequences there has been a disentangling of England from Britain in terms of its governance and national identity. The book concludes that the English have grown dissatisfied with their constitution and relationship with the wider world (as reflected in England’s decisive vote in favour of Brexit), and less content for their nationhood to be poured into the larger vessel of Britishness. But England’s national consciousness is fragmented and embryonic – unlike the other UK nations, it has yet to engage in a reflective national conversation about how it wishes to be governed – and, as Brexit unfolds, England is struggling to reshape its relationship with the other UK nations and the wider world without a cohesive national narrative to guide the way.

England, alone among the nations of the UK, has no legislature or executive of its own, and remains one of the most centralised countries in Europe. It is ruled directly from Westminster and Whitehall by a parliament, government and political parties that simultaneously represent the interests of both the UK and England. Correspondingly, at the level of identity, the English have historically displayed a greater propensity than the Scots and Welsh to conflate their own nationhood with a sense of affiliation to Britain and its state. As Robert Hazell noted in 2006, writing for the Constitution Unit on The English Question, ‘in our history and in our institutions the two identities [of English and British] are closely intertwined, and cannot easily be unwoven’.

As a result of devolution to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, Westminster and Whitehall frequently oversee legislation that applies entirely, or predominantly, to England. But the government and most politicians at Westminster tend to elide these territorial complexities, talking of setting policy or legislating for ‘the nation’ or ‘the country’, whatever the precise territorial application of the announcement in question. Governing England is rarely considered as an enterprise separate from the wider governance of the UK. Continue reading

Devolution in England: a review

On Monday 10 April Professor Tony Travers of the London School of Economics (LSE) spoke at a Constitution Unit seminar on devolution in England. The talk covered the history of English devolution, international comparisons, and some thoughts for the future amidst the current Brexit-dominated political landscape. Kasim Khorasanee reports.

English devolution – the delegation of powers, responsibility, and accountability from central Whitehall/Westminster government to sub-national levels – has had a fitful and uneven history. Its inevitable comparators are the devolution processes to Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales which took place from the late 1990s onwards. All three received national devolved governments and legislatures. More recently, Scotland and Wales have been the subjects of significant fiscal devolution. England, on the other hand, appears to have been left out in the cold – having no devolved government outside London, and both fewer MPs and lower public expenditure per head of population than other parts of the UK. Professor Travers explained that historically this trade-off was seen as necessary to maintain the Union – it was felt that an assertive England would dominate any federal union, for example its budget would be significantly larger than a federal UK government’s. However, devolution to the other UK nations had stirred something of a burgeoning sense of English identity.

English devolution – a brief history

Taking us on a canter through the history of English devolution, Travers began with Labour’s aborted attempts in the 1970s. The Kilbrandon Report (1973) recommended regional devolution within England, as well as legislatures for Wales and Scotland. The Layfield Report (1976) emphasised the importance of local accountability and responsibility for financial matters. Both failed to be implemented, and attempts at Scottish and Welsh devolution played a key part in the fall of the Labour government. The ensuing Conservative government in the 1980s brought to an end a number of significant devolved entities – metropolitan counties, the Greater London Council, and the Greater Manchester County Council. It was under Tony Blair’s Labour government that devolution received its new life. However, while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland received devolved assemblies, regional devolution within England was stopped short by the North East referendum (2004). But the North East was offered ‘nothing like’ the powers devolved to Scotland and Wales. An opposition campaign, illustrating their point with a life-sized white elephant, convincingly defeated the devolution proposal by 78 per cent to 22 per cent. This left the idea of regions ‘doomed – possibly forever’. In terms of new elected bodies, the only significant change was hence the resurrection of London-wide government, with the establishment of the Greater London Assembly and London Mayor in 2000.

City regions and fiscal devolution

Travers flagged that ‘city regions’ have since taken over as the focus of English devolution efforts. He drew a parallel between Tony Blair’s presidential governing style, and his push for city regions to be led by further directly-elected mayors. This enthusiasm was carried on by David Cameron, who continued to build on his predecessor’s policy. City regional mayors were made a condition of greater devolution to combined authorities. Travers emphasised that the current legislative framework for English devolution envisaged highly ‘bespoke’ devolution across the country. In doing so he highlighted that this could result in wide – seemingly random – disparities in the functions devolved to different city regions. One area which appeared quite resistant to change, however, was fiscal devolution. Although the aforementioned Layfield Report, and more recently the London Finance Commission’s reports (2013 & 2017), called for localised responsibility for taxation, central government has traditionally been highly reluctant to implement this. Travers acknowledged that responsibility for local business rates was being devolved to local government by 2020, but pointed out that it was being offset by the phasing out of the central grant to councils.

To put the UK’s lack of fiscal devolution in context Travers drew on international comparisons. He cited OECD statistics setting out the UK’s sub-national tax-raising as 1.6 per cent of GDP. By comparison Sweden, Canada, and Germany all had figures of over 10 per cent, the OECD average sitting at 8.8 per cent. The UK was very much an outlier in this respect (see below).

Similarly there are far fewer taxes devolved to London when compared with other capitals such as New York, Berlin, Tokyo, and Paris. In sum there would have to be far more radical change than currently envisaged to bring the UK into alignment with OECD trends.

Current government policy

From speaking to civil servants, Travers identified that Theresa May’s Conservative government intended to shift its emphasis away from devolution. The current ongoing processes for the May 2017 elected mayors, the 2018 mayoral election in Sheffield, and the potential for a ‘North of Tyne’ combined authority and mayor, were the extent of the devolution policy horizon. In a piece of analysis which drew chuckles from the audience he cited the number of UK budget mentions of the phrases ‘devolution’, ‘Northern Powerhouse’, and ‘mayor’ between March 2013 and March 2017. There was a spike in mentions after the coalition – between 2015 and 2016 the average number of mentions of the three phrases per budget document was 31, 14, and 13 respectively. However this dropped sharply in Philip Hammond’s March 2017 budget to eight, one, and zero mentions respectively.

Mayors and communal identities

Travers suggested that the experience of London indicated that the introduction of directly elected mayors for city regions across the UK could have significant implications. As well as having a generally higher turnout compared to local elections, London’s mayoral elections have helped cement the idea of London as a political unit in people’s minds. Devolution can reinforce a sense of difference from the whole, and Travers drew attention to the fact that the three significant ‘Remain’ regions in the EU referendum – Greater London, Northern Ireland, and Scotland – were also the subjects of significant devolution (though the balance of votes in Wales was for ‘Leave’). In the case of London this sense of civic identity had not yet gained enough momentum to push for Scottish or Welsh-style devolution. However, Travers did note an increase in the number of news articles discussing London independence. He suspected that the incoming 2017 elected mayors would – as London’s mayor had historically done – lobby for increased powers once in office. As a body the mayors could hence potentially become a lobby for English devolution. Given the consistent electoral popularity of London’s mayors, and some of the high profile candidates for the incoming May 2017 mayoral elections, these positions might also increasingly prove a staging ground for national political careers.

Reflections

In considering why England was so centralised Professor Travers reflected on a variety of explanations – the historic power of the Crown, the end of Empire, and the conflicts with local government across the 1970s and 80s. Ultimately, he expressed uncertainty about the reason, but suggested that national politicians in the UK appear to instinctively have little faith in sub-national government. Ultimately the future of English devolution is tied up with wider forces – the fate of the Union, austerity and the financing of the state, and the Brexit process.

About the speaker

Professor Tony Travers is a Professor at the LSE, and Director of the LSE London research centre

About the author

Kasim Khorasanee is a Research Volunteer at The Constitution Unit

One year of EVEL: evaluating ‘English votes for English laws’ in the House of Commons

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A major report on how the new ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL) procedures in the House of Commons have operated since their introduction in October 2015 is published today. The authors, Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny, argue that the current version of EVEL has avoided many of the problems predicted by its critics. However, they recommend changes to facilitate greater expression of England’s voice (as opposed to simply a veto right), to apply the ‘double veto’ principle that is central to the reform more consistently, to reduce the complexity of the system and to improve its legitimacy. The report is summarised here.

finding-the-good-in-evelIt is now just over a year since the House of Commons adopted a new set of procedural rules known as ‘English votes for English laws’ (or EVEL). Put simply, EVEL provides MPs representing constituencies in England (or England and Wales) with the opportunity to veto certain legislative provisions that apply only in that part of the UK. (For a reminder of how the process works, see here). Introduced with some fanfare by the Conservative government following the 2015 election – and criticised heavily by its political opponents – these procedures have quickly faded from public view. But, one year on, what lessons can be drawn from how EVEL has operated so far?

Over the past year, we have been conducting an in-depth academic investigation into the implementation of EVEL. This work has been supported by the Centre on Constitutional Change and the Economic and Social Research Council. It has involved a detailed analysis of the main arguments for and against this reform, and a full assessment of how the procedures have worked in practice during their first 12 months in operation (October 2015–October 2016). Today we publish our findings in a new report, Finding the Good in EVEL, which also includes a number of proposals for how this system could be significantly improved.

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Beyond metro mayors and ‘secret deals’: rethinking devolution in England

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As the guard changes in Westminster and new government seeks to differentiate itself from its predecessor, it is timely to review the state of the devolution debate, argues John Tomaney. Policymakers need to learn from the US experience and reconsider the fixation on mayors. Just as importantly, the problem with ‘secret deals’ must be addressed if devolution is going to have any real democratic credentials.

The Cameron/Osborne approach to devolution had a number of distinctive features. Chief among these was its fixation with the directly elected metro-mayor as the answer to urban governance problem. In the government’s diagnosis this model of governance addresses weaknesses in fragmented systems, improves democratic accountability and bring city- regions together round common economic development strategies. The government claimed:

The experience of London and other major international cities suggests that a directly elected mayor can cut through difficulties [of urban governance]. The government has therefore been clear that devolution of significant powers will rest on cities agreeing to rationalise governance and put in place a mayor to inspire confidence.

But there is limited evidence to support these claims about the impact of directly elected mayors on local economic growth and the improvement of local services. Many of the assertions made in the English debate rest on more or less persuasive anecdotes drawn principally from the US experience and the limited experience in London.

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