The EU referendum and some paradoxes of democratic legitimacy

Nat-le-Roux

In parliamentary democracies referendums generate alternative, competing sources of legitimacy. This has been clearly demonstrated by the EU referendum result, with the public voting to Leave despite a clear parliamentary majority for continued membership. Nat le Roux discusses this paradox and suggests that it would not be unreasonable for some MPs to choose to vote against the invocation of Article 50.  

In a parliamentary democracy, referendums are potentially destabilising because they generate alternative, competing, sources of democratic legitimacy. A majority of elected representatives may hold one view on a matter of major national importance. If a referendum demonstrates that a majority of the public hold the opposite view, which manifestation of democratic legitimacy should trump the other?

In Britain, parliamentary sovereignty is the governing norm of the constitution: it would seem to follow that a parliamentary majority can always overturn a referendum result. The reality, at least in the particular circumstances of the EU referendum, is less clear cut:

  • The referendum result will be implemented, effectively irrevocably, if Britain invokes Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. It may be that the Prime Minister can do this without consulting parliament. If that is so, it can be argued that we now have a new constitutional principle under which, at least in particular cases, popular sovereignty as expressed in a referendum trumps parliamentary sovereignty.
  • On the other hand, if the invocation of Article 50 does require legislation, we should ask under what circumstances, and by what arguments, MPs can overturn the directly expressed views of the electorate without severely damaging the democratic legitimacy of parliament itself.

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Brexit, the referendum and the UK parliament: some questions about sovereignty

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During the referendum campaign there was much talk about sovereignty, but little clarity on what it actually means. Sionaidh Douglas-Scott explains that there are at least three notions of sovereignty that are relevant in the context of Brexit which are often confused – parliamentary sovereignty, popular sovereignty and external sovereignty. The immediate aftermath of last week’s vote has shown how these can come into conflict.

So, we have the result of the referendum, and a majority of voters have voted to leave the EU. A mantra of Leave campaigners seems to have been the desire to ‘take back control’. There has been much talk of sovereignty, although less clarity on what it actually means. However, at its most basic, there are at least three notions of sovereignty that are relevant in the context of Brexit, and they are often confused. The first is parliamentary sovereignty, which is said to have particular resonance in the UK because, due to the vagaries of the uncodified UK constitution, the Westminster parliament has been recognised as a body with unlimited legislative power. Yet the parliamentary sovereignty of a representative democracy may seem to be at odds with popular sovereignty as exercised in a referendum. Popular sovereignty also has other implications, such as in Scotland, where an indigenous Scottish tradition claims that sovereignty resides in the Scottish people, in spite of the alternative claims of Diceyan parliamentary sovereignty. Thirdly, there is external sovereignty, whereby a country may be sovereign and recognised as independent by the international community. But states recognise that international agreements such NATO, or EU treaties, curb sovereignty in practice. However, these constraints are willingly accepted by states because of the benefits that pooling or ceding some sovereignty can bring – indeed it can even enhance sovereignty in another sense of a state’s power or ability to deal with certain issues.

These are three different concepts of sovereignty, but they have become very confused in the context of Brexit and the UK’s relations with the EU. Now we have the results of the referendum vote, what are the implications of ‘taking back control’ for sovereignty? This blog examines three specific issues arising in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote which reveal the extent of confusion over sovereignty.

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The 2016 Queen’s speech and the constitution

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Last week’s Queen’s speech included proposals to bring forward a British bill of rights and a commitment that ministers would ‘uphold the sovereignty of Parliament and the primacy of the House of Commons’. Mark Elliott suggests that if action was taken to implement them these measures would be highly significant. However, there is no sign of developed government thinking in these areas at this stage and so, in practice, they may amount to very little.

This year’s Queen’s speech touches on two possible constitutional reform measures. (I pass over the Wales Bill, which was published in draft in October 2015). The first concerns the replacement of the Human Rights Act 1998 with a ‘British Bill of Rights’, while the second concerns the sovereignty of parliament and the ‘primacy’ of the House of Commons. If implemented, these measures would be highly significant. But the signs are that, for the time being anyway, they may amount to very little in practice – not least because the Government’s thinking in relation to them appears to be undeveloped to say the least.

A British bill of rights

The Conservative Party has for some considerable time said that it wants to replace the Human Rights Act (HRA) with a bill of rights (albeit that exactly what would thereby be entailed has been, and remains, shrouded in uncertainty). Any attempt at reform in this area was stymied in the last parliament by the politics of coalition, the Conservatives’ Liberal Democrat partners being staunchly committed to the retention of the HRA. The most that could be managed then was a Commission on a Bill of Rights, whose proposals, such as they were, came to nothing.

Freed from the shackles of coalition, the Government promised in last year’s Queen’s speech to bring forward ‘proposals for a British Bill of Rights’. This year’s speech contained an almost identically worded undertaking promising ‘proposals’ but not a bill as such. The fact that little, if any, progress appears to have been made in this area is testament to the legal, constitutional and political difficulties that arise (matters that I consider further here). In political terms, the government appears to be divided on the question of whether the UK should remain a party to the ECHR – the Home Secretary thinks not – while the politics of devolution represent a major complication.

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How EU membership has transformed the constitution

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A timely new book examines the implications and consequences of a British exit from the European Union. In this post Patrick J. Birkinshaw and Mike Varney summarise the first chapter, which discusses how our EU experience has changed our notion of sovereignty. They argue that, even if the UK leaves the EU, the effects of decades of European influence would not be reversed and there would be no return to a pre-1972 prototype.

Will Brexit restore sovereignty? This is the question at the heart of our chapter that introduces the recently published Britain Alone! The Implications and Consequences of United Kingdom Exit from the EU. Voters will no doubt be motivated by the widest variety of factors in how they vote. Sober judgement and mature reflection have not been assisted by an absence of informed debate on the major principles and values at issue. The Prime Minister’s frantic negotiations leading to the Best of Both Worlds paper in February 2016, as required under the European Union Referendum Act 2015, which sets out the advantages of remaining in the EU with a ‘special status’ ensuring that the UK will not be a part of a ‘European super-state’, probably represents the best outcome for a member state that has long been semi-detached to the European project. Whether it will sway many voters is another matter.

Restoration of sovereignty may well feature in a large number of voters’ thinking – it is a commonplace among Brexit supporting politicians: not being bossed about, controlling our own laws and borders, controlling the public purse, not being a part of an alienating globalisation process. But it seemed to us that sovereignty as a constitutional legal concept needed to be unpacked. Our focus is on the sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament as a legislator.

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In order to sustain itself, the UK must become a new and different Union

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Jim Gallagher reflects on what the Scotland Bill tells us about the Scotland-UK relationship and devolution more broadly. He argues that the Bill presents a challenge to the unwritten constitution, and that now is the time to clarify and codify the territorial aspects to make a statement about how and why the Union hangs together.

The Scotland Bill calls to mind, irresistibly, the aphorism of Lampedusa: if things are to stay the same, they’ve got to change. If it is to sustain itself as a Union, the UK must become a new and different one. The Scotland Bill should be the catalyst for change, but this isn’t only about Scotland.  It is about how the UK understands itself as a territorial state. Like Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland understand the UK as a voluntary association bound together by common interests and shared experience, in many ways like a federal country. But too many at the centre of the UK see a unitary state with some untidy territorial edges. In essence this understanding is based on a half-baked notion of parliamentary sovereignty. If the UK wants to stay together, this has to change.

The Scotland Bill makes the nature of Scotland-UK relationship more explicit, and implies similar things about Wales and Northern Ireland too. The UK is a multinational state, an association whose membership is voluntary, and that is now very explicit for both Northern Ireland and Scotland. Scotland has always had its own institutions, separate from the UK’s. For first three centuries after the union, these were Scottish, but undemocratic. For the last 15 years, Scottish institutions have been accountable through the Scottish Parliament. The Scotland Bill puts it beyond doubt that this is irreversible. Devolution is permanent, and the Scottish Parliament is master in its own house: its power is paramount in devolved matters, and it controls its own composition. That is the point of the constitutional provisions of the Bill: statements of the obvious if you like, but that will be true of many constitutions–if you know how the institutions work in practice, you will find the constitutional legislation almost banal.

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