Brexit and the constitution: seven lessons

NGQojaZG_400x400 (1)

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

Continue reading

The Human Rights Act 1998: past, present and future

922526_10151901526119008_68577225_o

The UK government intends to replace the Human Rights Act with a new ‘British bill of rights’. However, any change to existing human rights law promises to be a complex and difficult project. On March 7 Dr Jeff King, Senior Lecturer at UCL Faculty of Law, explored the current state of play and considered the past, present and future of the HRA. Laëtitia Nakache reports.

After the 2015 general election David Cameron said that the repeal of Human Rights Act (HRA) would be brought forward rapidly. The Conservative party had pledged in their 2015 manifesto to abolish the HRA and replace it with a British bill of rights, in order to ‘break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights, and make our [the UK] Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK.’ Since then the government’s plan to scrap the HRA has been delayed a number of times, with the consultation on the proposed British bill of rights now not expected to be published until after the EU referendum. In this political climate, Dr Jeff King came to the Constitution Unit on March 7 to discuss the past, present and future of human rights law in the UK.

The past: genesis, aims and impact of the HRA

The United Kingdom acceded to the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) in March 1951. Though it was obliged under Article 46 to give effect to judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), it was not until the 1960s that British citizens were able to bring claims in the Strasbourg court. Since then, the evolution of the UK law has been influenced by the Strasbourg jurisprudence and by 1998 a broad political consensus existed that UK involvement in the Strasbourg system was politically desirable.

Continue reading

The proposal for a UK constitutional court is half-baked, unnecessary and potentially dangerous

jeff-king

Recent media reports have suggested that the government plans to introduce a new ‘constitutional court’, based on the model of the German Federal Constitutional Court, in an attempt to assert parliamentary sovereignty ahead of the upcoming EU referendum. Jeff King argues that, for a variety of reasons, this is not a sensible proposal.

Of all the rushed ideas for major constitutional reform that could be adopted by the current government, the one for a UK constitutional court (UKCC) as a solution to the perceived EU problem is by far the worst. The President of the Supreme Court Lord Neuberger told The Times last week that the idea is a ‘recipe for complication, for cost and for unnecessary duplication’, and the cross-bench peer Lord Pannick added that ‘the proposal has no merit’. In this post, I am less kind to the idea. I argue that it is half-baked, unnecessary, and potentially dangerous, regardless of one’s view of the desirability of an entrenched constitution protected by constitutional judicial review.

Half-baked

The idea of a constitutional court emerged in the writings and political activism of the great Austrian jurist, Hans Kelsen, and was a component of a vision of constitutions as higher law operating within a refined and stratified system of private and public law (see Hans Kelsen, ‘La garantie juridictionnelle de la constitution’ (1928) 45 Revue de Droit Public 197; ‘Judicial Review of Legislation: A Comparative Study of the Austrian and American Constitution’ (1942) 4 J of Politics 183, and General Theory of Law and the State (1945) Part I chs. IX; Part II, chs. II and III). These ‘Kelsenian constitutional courts’ (as they are often called) account for the majority of the world’s highest courts with constitutional jurisdiction. They typically have multiple chambers. They normally centralise all judicial review of legislation instead of permitting its review by other courts. They are distinct from administrative law and social courts pursuant to well-developed doctrinal systems of law. And the appointments process for the judges are usually deliberately politicised.

Continue reading