Constitutional reform: then and now (1995-2020)

In the latest blog celebrating the Constitution Unit’s 25th anniversary, human rights academic and advocate Francesca Klug recounts how aspects of the constitutional agenda of the mid-1990s were realised, and what lessons we can learn about how to entrench its achievements, prevent democratic backsliding and stop erosion of hard-won rights.

When I was at school, I learned nothing about the British constitution, but one thing I did absorb was this: although we do not have a written founding document, our invisible constitution was apparently uniquely successful and therefore inviolable. However, during the 1980s, I gradually became aware that there was something a bit odd about this perfect constitution. In other democracies, many of the controversial or unpopular measures introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s governments – such as the ‘poll tax’ and broadcasting and book bans – could be challenged in the courts. In the UK, however, there was nothing citizens could do to overturn such policies, except take to the streets to protest or wait up to five years for another election. 

This powerlessness and lack of accountability was a major driver behind the founding of Charter 88 in 1988, led by Anthony Barnett and Stewart Weir. I was lucky as a relatively young activist to be asked to join its council. We called for holistic change: a democratic second chamber, electoral reform, devolution, freedom of information and a bill of rights. And we had one major overall objective: we wanted the people of this country to have more power over the decisions which affected them; what in today’s money might be called ‘taking back control’. We sought this not for its own sake, but as a means of making our society fairer. 

It took a little time, but this message started to persuade people at the highest levels of the Labour Party. John Smith succeeded Neil Kinnock as Leader following the Conservatives’ 1992 general election victory and the following year he gave a landmark speech to Charter 88, entitled ‘A Citizens’ Democracy. For the first time, he articulated a clear objective for wholesale constitutional reform. Its purpose, he said, was to ‘restore democracy to our people – for what we have in this country is not real democracy: it is elective dictatorship.’ The use of the term ‘elective dictatorship’ is interesting, as it partly echoed Lord Hailsham, a former Conservative Lord Chancellor, who had coined the phrase two decades earlier. Notably, in this speech Smith committed the Labour Party to the introduction of a human rights act based on the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which turned 70 years old this month. 

John Smith died unexpectedly the following year, but Tony Blair, despite some scepticism, largely kept faith with his predecessor’s commitment to constitutional reform. The precise objectives articulated by Smith, however, seemed to wither away and the purpose of the proposed policies became more obscure. In particular, there was no unified narrative to link them together and no sense of what might come next. 

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Braking the law: is there, and should there be, an executive veto over laws made by parliament?

During the Brexit crises of 2019, something exceptionally rare happened twice in less than six months: parliament passed legislation without the government’s consent. But are there constitutional veto mechanisms that governments can use to prevent this? In a new Unit report, Paul Evans explores this question in detail. He summarises his conclusions here.

What do executive vetoes look like? 

Many constitutional democracies include mechanisms whereby a head of state can veto a law made by the legislature, but few of these are absolute vetoes. Most are suspensory, inviting the legislature to think again, but giving it the last word. The US Constitution is the most obvious example of such an arrangement. France has a broadly similar system but, as with many if not most such vetoes, it isn’t used. Some states (for example Iceland) enable the president to put a law to a referendum. Others (such as Ireland) leave the last word with a constitutional court, but only on matters of constitutionality, not on grounds of political disagreement.

In the UK (and most of the old dominions which retain the Queen as head of state) such an arrangement looks impossible. The executive and the legislature are fused – they can’t have different views. The executive as a lawmaker in the UK only exists as an element of the sovereign parliament (the somewhat misleadingly titled ‘Crown-in-Parliament’). The sovereign has no personal stake in the making of law. They must do as parliament decides. As long ago as 1867, Walter Bagehot expressed this constitutional fact with typical rhetorical brio:

The popular theory of the English Constitution involves two errors as to the Sovereign. First, in its oldest form at least, it considers him as an ‘Estate of the Realm’, a separate co-ordinate authority with the House of Lords and the House of Commons. This and much else the Sovereign once was, but this he is no longer. That authority could only be exercised by a monarch with a legislative veto. He should be able to reject bills, if not as the House of Commons rejects them, at least as the House of Peers rejects them. But the Queen has no such veto. She must sign her own death warrant if the two Houses unanimously send it up to her. It is a fiction of the past to ascribe to her legislative power. She has long ceased to have any.

Withholding of royal assent

Nonetheless, when the first stirrings of what was to become the Cooper-Letwin Act (the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2019) began in the Commons in early 2019, it was suggested in some quarters that ministers could advise the sovereign to refuse royal assent to an Act agreed upon by parliament. The same argument re-emerged six months later in relation to the Benn-Burt Act (the European Union (Withdrawal) Act (No. 2) 2019), which Boris Johnson insisted on referring to repeatedly as the ‘Surrender Act’. But, despite these theoretical arguments, subsequent events appear to have confirmed that this concept of a royal veto is definitely a dead letter. Queen Anne was the last sovereign to decline the royal assent to an Act passed by parliament – in 1707 (or 1708 if you prefer to apply retrospectively the change of the new year from 25 March to 1 January in 1752). 

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Will the Lords block the UK Internal Market Bill?

Parliament will this week begin debating and scrutinising the UK Internal Market Bill, which the Northern Ireland Secretary has already acknowledged will, if passed in its current form, place the UK in breach of international law. When the bill reaches the upper chamber, what sort of treatment will it receive? Might the Lords block it? Unit Director and Lords expert Meg Russell offers her view.

Widespread shock greeted this week’s news that Boris Johnson hopes to set aside elements of the Withdrawal Agreement related to Northern Ireland – particularly when Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitted to the House of Commons that the UK Internal Market Bill drafted to achieve this ‘does break international law’. Former Conservative Prime Ministers Theresa May and John Major, and senior government backbenchers, loudly protested. Former Conservative Solicitor General Lord (Edward) Garnier expressed surprise that the government’s law officers – those ministers expressly charged with protecting the rule of law – hadn’t resigned.

After an emergency meeting, the European Commission vice-president demanded that the UK withdraw the plans. The Irish Taoiseach described them as ‘extremely divisive – and dangerous’, while the US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned that breaching international law would mean ‘absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement’.

There are clear questions over whether such a controversial bill – whose Commons second reading is on Monday – can secure parliamentary approval. Specifically will it, as some suggest, be blocked by the House of Lords? A prior question is whether these provisions will make it through the House of Commons. Despite Johnson’s majority, Conservative dissent is unusually intense. This is unsurprising since, as many have recently quoted, that most iconic of Conservative prime ministers Margaret Thatcher consistently emphasised respect for the rule of law as a core Conservative value.

There is actually a prior question even to this, regarding whether the Commons will actually be asked to approve the offending clauses. In parliament the ‘law of anticipated reactions’ generally applies: sensible governments facing a likely Commons defeat will retreat on legislation if they can. When Charles Walker, vice-chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, was asked whether Conservative MPs would vote against the bill (21:18), he responded ‘I doubt we are to get to the stage where we are asked’. This implied that the Prime Minister would hear the drumbeats, and back down.

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Why there is no such thing as the ‘Westminster model’

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgRuxandra.Serban.crop.jpgPractitioners and academics in comparative politics frequently refer to a set of ‘Westminster model’ countries which are similar in some way. But in a new article, summarised here, Meg Russell and Ruxandra Serban show that definitions of the ‘Westminster model’ tend to be muddled, or even absent, and that its meaning is far from clear. Insofar as defined political attributes are linked to the ‘model’, key countries associated with it now lack many of those attributes. The term has hence become increasingly outdated, leading the authors to suggest that it should now be dropped.

The term ‘Westminster model’ appears frequently both in the academic and practitioner literature, and will be familiar to many specialists in comparative politics, public administration and law. But what precisely does it mean, and is there consistency in its application? Our new newly-published paper in the journal Government and Opposition, ‘The Muddle of the ‘Westminster Model’: A Concept Stretched beyond Repair’, addresses this question – based on analysis of the term in the academic literature over the last 20 years. It demonstrates that the use of the term has become extremely confused, leading us to suggest that it should be retired from academic and practitioner discourse.

Authors have often deployed the term ‘Westminster model’ as shorthand for the UK system of government which Bagehot outlined in the 1860s. Bagehot never used the term himself, but it appeared a century later in a classic text by De Smith on ‘Westminster’s export models’. Hence it therefore does not simply describe the British system, but other systems which were modelled upon it. Comparative texts for example often suggest that there is a group of ‘Westminster model countries’, ‘Westminster democracies’ or members of a ‘Westminster family’. The term received a more recent boost when used in the widely-cited comparative texts by Arend Lijphart (1984, 1999, 2012), which classify countries based on whether they have characteristics of ‘majoritarian’ or ‘consensus’ democracy. Lijphart used the term ‘Westminster model’ interchangeably with ‘majoritarian democracy’, and cited Britain as ‘both the original and the best-known example of this model’. Yet – at Lijphart’s own admission – his ideal type did not precisely apply in any country. For example, he associated unicameralism with majoritarian democracy, while Britain has a bicameral parliament. Continue reading

Brexit and parliament: where did it all go wrong?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgParliamentary arguments over Brexit may now feel far behind us, but the bitterness of those arguments has left scars on our politics. Meg Russell examines four factors which contributed to the parliamentary ‘perfect storm’ over Brexit, concluding that ‘parliament’ largely got the blame for divisions inside the Conservative Party. This was fuelled by the referendum, minority government and the inability of parliamentary rules to accommodate a minority situation. The populist anti-parliamentary rhetoric which resulted was potentially damaging, with implications for the current Covid-19 crisis, when public trust in political decision-making is essential.

Amidst the current Covid-19 crisis, last year’s Brexit clashes already feel a long time ago. But at the time, they pushed Britain’s politics and constitution to their limits. Parliament was frequently at the heart of these conflicts – with angry headlines suggesting that parliamentarians were seeking to ‘block Brexit’, and branding them ‘wreckers’ or ‘saboteurs’. Twice questions of parliament’s proper role in relation to government ended up in the Supreme Court. Boris Johnson sought a lengthy prorogation of parliament, after which the Attorney General told MPs that they had ‘no moral right to sit’. How on earth did the UK, traditionally the most parliamentary of all democracies, get into such a mess? I dissect this question in a newly-published paper, ‘Brexit and Parliament: The Anatomy of a Perfect Storm’, in the journal Parliamentary Affairs. This post summarises the article’s key arguments. The full version is freely available to read online.

I suggest that four key political and constitutional features, all unusual in the UK context, contributed to this ‘perfect storm’. It was accompanied by a rise in populist and anti-parliamentary rhetoric – of a kind which would be destabilising and dangerous in any democracy, but particularly one based on a core principle of parliamentary sovereignty – as returned to at the end of this post. The four factors were as follows:

The referendum

As charted by the Independent Commission on Referendums, referendum use has grown in UK politics, but can sit awkwardly with traditional parliamentary sovereignty. Arguments for referendums on matters concerning EU powers were made over a long period (somewhat ironically) on the basis of protecting that very sovereignty. The 2016 EU referendum – eventually conceded by David Cameron, under pressure from Conservative Eurosceptics and UKIP – was very unusual, in two important ways. First, it was what the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (chaired by senior Brexit supporter Bernard Jenkin) criticised as a ‘bluff-call’ referendum: where the government’s purpose was not to seek approval for a change that it supported, but to shut down its opponents’ demands. Second, the referendum was held on a broad proposition (to leave the EU), rather than a detailed prospectus. Hence when the result came in, and was not the one the Prime Minister or most MPs (even on the Conservative benches at that time) wanted, parliament was left to decide how to put it into effect. Such circumstances generated clear tensions between parliamentary and popular sovereignty. Continue reading