Beyond Brexit: Towards a British Constitution

vb_image_70x90Brexit is a major constitutional change. It creates considerable constitutional uncertainty, but also opportunity. It could prove Britain’s constitutional moment. Vernon Bogdanor argues that just as joining the EU fundamentally altered the UK constitution, so Brexit could, by exposing the very nakedness of Britain’s uncodified arrangements, prove a catalyst for a written constitution.

During the period of membership of the European Communities/European Union, the UK was subject to a written or codified constitution, which was entrenched. Brexit is a process rare if not unique in the modern world, involving as it does disengagement from a codified to an uncodified system. It is just possible indeed that Brexit will lead to a codified constitution for the United Kingdom that would bring us into line with virtually every other democracy in the modern world.

At a seminar at King’s College, London shortly after the 2016 EU referendum, Takis Tridimas, a professor of European Law at King’s said that the result represented the most significant constitutional event in the UK since the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, since it showed that on the issue of Europe, the sovereignty of the people trumped the sovereignty of Parliament. Of course, from a legal point of view, the referendum was merely advisory, but the government committed itself to respecting the result and the outcome was seen by the majority of MPs as decisive. Since June 2016, therefore, both government and parliament have been enacting a policy to which they are opposed. That is a situation unprecedented in our long constitutional history. Europe, therefore, has been responsible for the introduction of a new concept into the UK constitution, the sovereignty of the people. On this issue, the people have in effect become a third chamber of Parliament, issuing instructions to the other two. The sovereignty of Parliament is now being constrained not by Brussels, but by the people.

The effects of the European Communities Act on the UK constitution

The main constitutional consequence of our EU membership was to restrict the sovereignty of parliament. Parliamentary sovereignty must be distinguished from national sovereignty, with which it is often confused. National sovereignty is engaged whenever a country signs a treaty. It is not an absolute, it can be pooled or shared with other countries, and it is a matter of political judgement how far it should in fact be shared. But parliamentary sovereignty – the notion that Parliament can enact any law it chooses – is not like that at all. It is an absolute. One either has it or one does not. One can no more be a qualified sovereign than one can be a qualified virgin. Continue reading

Should we worry if MPs seize control of the parliamentary agenda?

download.001Ahead of Tuesday’s votes on Brexit, attention has focused on the rights and wrongs of the House of Commons seeking to ‘seize control’. Meg Russell argues that there’s nothing unusual about a democratic parliament controlling its own procedure and business. Indeed, the core principle of parliamentary sovereignty already gives the Commons control by default.

With stalemate over the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, rejected dramatically by the House of Commons on 15 January by 432 votes to 202, there is increasing talk of parliament ‘seizing control’. On Tuesday, following the Speaker’s controversial decision to allow a vote on Conservative backbencher Dominic Grieve’s amendment speeding up the timetable, MPs will vote on a series of propositions about what should happen next. These include a further proposal by Grieve that the government’s usual control of the agenda should be set aside on specified days to allow MPs to make decisions on Brexit, and a proposal from Labour’s Yvette Cooper that such control be set aside to allow time to debate a private member’s bill demanding that ministers avoid a no deal Brexit by requesting an extension to Article 50.

Consequently, some inside government have expressed concerns that the Commons, with the Speaker’s assistance, is overreaching itself. It has been reported that an internal government document warns of MPs’ moves ‘represent[ing] a clear and present danger to all government business’, and even meaning that ‘the government would lose its ability to govern’. One senior legal figure (whose career was spent inside the government) has argued that changes of this kind could set dangerous precedents for the future, even potentially dragging the monarch into a constitutional crisis (though other legal experts have firmly rebutted such claims).

So are we entering dangerous constitutional territory? What is, after all, so odd about the idea of a democratically-elected chamber gaining greater control over its own time, and its own rules? Continue reading

The executive’s Brexit: the UK Constitution after Miller

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The judgment of the Supreme Court in R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union required the government to seek parliamentary approval (through legislation) for the triggering of Article 50, which formally started the Brexit process. In this post, Mark Elliott, Jack Williams and Alison Young argue that parliament has failed to capitalise on the court’s decision and that it is the executive, not parliament, that is truly in control of the Brexit process.

Whether you like your Brexit ‘hard’, ‘soft’, or ‘red, white and blue’, one thing is clear – this will be the executive’s Brexit. Despite the Supreme Court decision in Miller handing parliament a golden opportunity to shape Brexit, Theresa May’s government has been in the driving seat, largely unimpeded, ever since the 2016 referendum in favour of leaving the EU. Parliament has consistently been a passenger.

The first pitstop on the executive’s journey to Brexit was the triggering of Article 50. As is by now well known, the government claimed that it already had the power to trigger the process of the UK’s leaving the EU by virtue of its foreign relations prerogative. Indeed, the government’s initial intention was to trigger Article 50 by the end of 2016, necessitating an expedited process in the Miller litigation, leapfrogging the Court of Appeal to ultimately reach the Supreme Court by the end of the year. If one believes that the triggering of Article 50 (in March 2017) was premature, then it is troublesome to imagine what would have happened if, in the absence of the litigation, it had been triggered six months earlier.  

The Supreme Court came down firmly in favour of parliament, ruling that the government would be able to initiate Brexit only if parliament were to empower it to do so, albeit that the UK parliament could lawfully go ahead and authorise the triggering of Article 50 whether the devolved legislatures liked it or not. This was on the basis that the foreign relations prerogative does not extend, by its very nature, to changing or affecting domestic law or rights. At the time, Miller therefore appeared to be of immense political significance because it put parliament so firmly in the Brexit driving seat. However, 18 months on, the picture looks rather different, and the judgment has proven to be far from the final word on the underlying controversies. Continue reading