Parliament, politics and anti-politics

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgThis week, the Constitution Unit and UK in a Changing Europe publish a new report, Parliament and Brexit, which contains expert analysis how parliament has handled Brexit in the near four-year period since the 2016 referendum victory for the Leave campaign. It also includes discussion of parliament’s future scrutiny functions, as Brexit continues to take shape in increasingly difficult political times. In this, the first excerpt from the report to appear on our blog, Unit Director Meg Russell outlines how the tussle between parliament and government over Brexit harmed the former’s reputation, to the detriment of our parliamentary democracy.

Parliament sits at the heart of the UK’s democracy, with core functions of holding the government to account, scrutinising and legitimising its actions. Through local representation and the representation of political parties, it links citizens to the key political decisions that are taken in their name.

In all democracies parliaments are central – it’s impossible to be a democracy without a parliament. But this centrality is particularly so in the UK, for two fundamental reasons. First, as a ‘parliamentary’ (rather than presidential) democracy the government ultimately depends on the confidence of the House of Commons for its survival. Second, the UK puts the principle of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ at the core of its constitution (as discussed in Barnard and Young’s contribution to the report). Challenges to the authority of parliament are thus challenges to UK democracy, and potentially to our constitution itself. Yet such challenges occurred, increasingly, during the Brexit process.

That process saw unprecedented levels of conflict between government and parliament, and perceived conflicts between ‘parliament and people’, precipitated by a unique chain of events. The 2016 referendum handed voters the in-principle decision over the UK’s membership of the EU, at a time when most MPs supported Remain (see contributions in the report from Philip Lynch and Richard Whitaker). This already promised tensions, given that parliament and government were left to navigate the more detailed questions about the form that Brexit should take. The Conservatives were highly divided on Brexit, while most Labour MPs instinctively opposed it. Delivering such a controversial policy with the narrow parliamentary majority that Theresa May inherited from David Cameron looked risky, so she gambled on a general election in 2017 to improve matters; but this resulted in an even weaker minority government. Her authority was undermined, and parliament more divided than before. Continue reading

More than just populism: Renzi, the Italian Senate referendum and the perils of second chamber reform

Roberta Damiani passport-styleMeg-RussellOn 4 December Italians decisively rejected Matteo Renzi’s proposed constitutional reforms, which centred on reforming the Senate – leading to his resignation as Prime Minister. The international media widely reported this as a victory for populism. In this post Roberta Damiani and Meg Russell argue that the referendum result was more complex than that. It demonstrated the perils of referendums on detailed constitutional matters and in particular – with echoes of Nick Clegg’s experience in the UK – of attempted second chamber reform.

Italian ‘perfect’ bicameralism has dodged another bullet. After a long, fragmented, and highly personalised referendum campaign, on 4 December the Italian electorate voted against Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s constitutional reform by 59 per cent to 41 per cent, on a turnout of 65 per cent. The main elements of the reform would have been to drastically cut the powers of the upper chamber (the Senate), reduce its membership from 315 to 100, and turn it from a directly elected chamber into an indirectly-elected one, comprising representatives of the regions. Vincenzo Scarpetta has previously described what else the reform entailed on this blog.

Opinion polls over the last few months showed a shift towards a No outcome. The latest, published before the two-week ‘electoral silence’, indicated that 54 per cent of respondents would vote against the reform. This time, the polls showed the correct outcome. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who had linked the passage of this reform to his government’s survival, resigned the following day. In an emotional speech delivered on the evening of the defeat, he claimed: ‘I wanted to get rid of some seats in Italian politics. I failed, and hence the only seat I can get rid of is my own’.

Many commentators described the possibility of a No victory as the third anti-establishment vote of the year, following the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election. The main reason for this interpretation was that Renzi, a little too confident of the merits of his reform, highly personalised the campaign, and bet his political career on it. This naturally meant that his opponents would vote against him, and turned the referendum into a protest vote against the government. Renzi eventually personalised the loss just as much as the campaign: ‘To all my friends from the Yes front I say that you didn’t lose. I lost’, he said in his speech.

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We need to talk about our democracy

me 2015 (large)Meg-RussellRecent days have seen ferocious attacks against the roles of both judges and parliamentarians in our democratic system. Alan Renwick and Meg Russell write that this assault is just the latest in a series of signs that the quality of our democracy is under threat. In light of this they argue for concerted efforts to defend that democracy: by pushing back hard against immediate challenges to the rule of law, resisting the lures of populism, and listening to those tempted by populist and anti-political rhetoric.

Thursday’s High Court ruling on Article 50 (assuming it is confirmed by the Supreme Court), means no more than that the government cannot legally begin formal Brexit negotiations without parliament’s consent. The judges did not question the validity of the referendum result or try to block the UK’s withdrawal from the EU – they just clarified the law. Parliament – as demonstrated by many MPs’ reactions – will almost certainly feel politically bound to respect the referendum outcome and authorise the Article 50 trigger.

Yet, as is now well known, the judgement has unleashed a wave of vitriol from parts of the press, from some politicians, and even from certain government ministers. The Daily Mail labelled the judges who delivered the ruling as ‘enemies of the people’. The Telegraph presented the issue as one of ‘judges vs the people’. Nigel Farage talks of a ‘great Brexit betrayal’. The Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, referred to the case as ‘a clear attempt to frustrate the will of the British people’. Hearing such reactions, many ordinary citizens are understandably outraged by what they perceive as the scheming duplicity of an arrogant governing elite.

This gross overreaction is deeply worrying and potentially dangerous. We tend to presume that the democratic system in the UK is rock solid. Yet the democracy indices produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit and Freedom House have charted declining democratic quality in recent years in many long-standing democratic countries, including Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands. In the United States, commentators and senior political scientists are greatly troubled by how Donald Trump’s behaviour and rhetoric of rigged elections could weaken the foundations of the democratic system. Democracy faces similar challenges here in the UK too. In light of this, we need to cool the passions and encourage a national conversation about what democracy is and what sustains it.

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