The House of Commons and the Brexit deal: A veto player or a driver of policy?

pastedgraphic-1-e1494926560214With parliament set to vote on the government’s Brexit deal today, there is much speculation about what will happen if it is rejected. Here, former Clerk of Committees Andrew Kennon analyses the potential scenarios, including whether or not the House of Commons could end up running the country directly.

A key concern for the House of Commons when voting on the proposed deal with the European Union will be not only the merits of the agreement itself, but what happens if it is defeated. In theory, parliament – and in particular the House of Commons – is the ultimate source of constitutional authority within the UK system. But, in this particular circumstance, if MPs reject what is on offer, will they be able to take the initiative and impose a different course of action, or will they simply have to wait for the government to act?

The key problem for MPs wanting to implement other solutions to the Brexit deal is time – not just 29 March but debating time on the floor of the House. The government has complete control of the business and time of the House – with the exception of specific time set aside for the opposition and backbench business. Furthermore, any solution which requires legislation could only get through parliament with the government’s support.

But is it possible to contemplate the House taking the initiative in finding a solution to Brexit? If the government’s deal does not pass in the House on 15 January, might the government really say ‘we want to hear what the House thinks of the various options’?

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An ‘All-Options’ debate?

At this point many MPs will want – and the public might expect – a debate leading to a vote on a whole range of options. In procedural terms, there is a clear precedent from 2003 when the House voted on a variety of options for the composition of a reformed House of Lords – though the salutary lesson from that experience is that each option was rejected. One group of MPs will be solidly opposed to opening up the options like this: those who oppose the government’s deal and want a no-deal exit. Continue reading

Elections, referendums, political parties and the Constitution Unit

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In the third of our series of posts adapted from presentations at the Unit’s 20th anniversary conference, Alan Renwick documents on how the UK’s electoral framework has evolved since 1995 and illustrates how the Unit has shaped the implementation of changes. Looking forward, he identifies the franchise and the current gulf between citizens and politicians as key areas for future research.

Respondent Ben Seyd adds that the TV leader debates during the election would also benefit from clear guidelines and Jenny Watson reflects on how the Electoral Commission is building on the foundations that the Unit helped to establish.

Electoral law in the UK is sometimes described as unchanging. Speaking in 2011, for example, David Cameron declared that, ‘Throughout history, it [the electoral system] has risen to the demands of the time’. But this is inaccurate. In fact, if we contrast the electoral framework in place today with that in place in 1995, we find many changes.

Transformation of elections and referendums in 1995

Regarding the core of the electoral system, in 1995, all elections in Great Britain used First Past the Post (FPTP); other systems were used only in Northern Ireland. Today, by contrast, voters in Northern Ireland are unique in having to deal with only one system other than FPTP. Three different forms of proportional representation are used: for European Parliament elections in Great Britain; for elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and London Assemblies; and for Scottish local elections and most elections in Northern Ireland. The supplementary vote is used for mayors and/or Police and Crime Commissioners throughout England and Wales. Even the Alternative Vote system – rejected by voters for Westminster elections in the 2011 referendum – is used for local council by-elections in Scotland.

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A referendum on Britain’s EU membership is a sure fire way to encourage the breakup of the UK

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David Cameron has pledged to hold a referendum on the UK’s EU membership if his Conservative party wins a majority at the British general election in May. Jo Murkens writes on the impact an EU referendum would have on the UK’s place in Europe and on the UK as a whole.

A referendum on European Union membership has been a longstanding demand from the Eurosceptic/phobic wing of UK politics. They regard the plebiscite and the prospect of withdrawal as a rejuvenation of national sovereignty and democracy. Over the past few years David Cameron has acceded to the demands by promising a referendum on EU membership in 2017. The three main obstacles he needs to overcome before then are concluding negotiations on reforming the European Union, or changing the UK’s current terms and conditions of EU membership – and, of course, the small matter of winning the May 2015 general election for the Conservatives with an overall majority.

The idea of a referendum opens up a space for discussing the principle of UK membership as well as the details of EU policy, institutional reform, and possible alternatives. This short piece is a comment on the UK’s continued failure to contribute to the EU’s political goals as well as on its failure to understand the EU’s relevance for the integrity of the United Kingdom.

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Will the Scottish referendum produce ‘a decisive and respected outcome’?

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With exactly one month to go until the referendum in Scotland, Barry K Winetrobe challenges the assumption that the outcome will resolve the independence debate. He explores scenarios where even a Yes vote might not (or perhaps even should not) produce an independent state.

As the Scottish independence referendum campaign reaches its final days, it may be worth highlighting a little-discussed aspect which may become very relevant immediately after 18 September – the assumption that the referendum will resolve the matter, either by a Yes vote inevitably leading to independence, or a No vote leading to the continuation of the present UK, probably with more devolution.

Is this assumption valid, especially if there is a Yes vote? Will any Yes outcome inevitably and irrevocably lead, in some to-be-determined process over the coming months, to the creation of an independent Scotland outside the UK?

This assumption seems to derive from the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement between the UK and Scottish Governments, certainly in the view of the Lords Constitution Committee in its recent inquiry on the constitutional implications of the referendum. Its May 2014 report stated that

the UK Government…in the ‘Edinburgh agreement’ of October 2012, agreed to accept as binding the result of a referendum held before the end of 2014 (para 3) and the Edinburgh agreement was for a ‘decisive’ referendum whose outcome will be respected on both sides (para 67).

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The Consequences of a “No” Vote: Scotland’s Choices as Seen from Canada

7th Novemeber 2013

In his recent Constitution Unit seminar, Jim Gallagher walked us through the impact of a win for the “no” side in the Scottish referendum. As the co-author of Scotland’s Choices with Iain McLean and Guy Lodge, Gallagher argues that a “no” vote is not necessarily a vote for the status quo. Instead such a result can represent the desire to stay within the UK, but continue further on the devolution path.

The question of further devolution is at the crux of Gallagher’s argument. He promotes the idea of a territorial constitution which allows for devolved powers to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland but does not create a separate devolved jurisdiction for England. This is one of the significant differences between a territorial and federal constitution; a federal system creates a national government that governs concurrently with sub-national or regional governments, of which there is one for every region, and powers are divided between the different orders of government. In contrast, a territorial constitution is fundamentally asymmetrical and does not require a sub-national government for each region. For the UK, Gallagher envisions a territorial constitution that links the Scots and the rest of the UK (rUK) in three types of union: a political union where the national parliament takes care of foreign affairs and other national level items; an economic union that maintains the common currency and the trade benefits of a single market; and a social union for the national social security programs that are better managed at the national level by the UK government to ensure a standard level of services across the country.

When devolving further powers to Scotland, Gallagher is firm on shifting some taxation powers from the national government to Scotland. This encourages accountability – if there is a more equal relationship between the money raised and spent by the Scottish government then there is a greater degree of budget responsibility. Currently Scotland receives a block grant from the UK government, which is determined by the Barnett formula and is transferred without any strings attached. If Scotland does vote “no,” then the Scotland Act 2012 will come into force in 2016 and bring in many of the Calman Commission’s recommendations that assign the Scottish Parliament more taxation and borrowing powers.

Gallagher’s triple union and territorial constitution negates the large-scale devolution of powers to Scotland that have been recommended under more radical devolution models (such as the devolution “max” and welfare nationalism models discussed in Scotland’s Choices). This is particularly true of the social union which relies on the presence of a strong, unifying social safety net with programs such as NHS, old age pensions, and unemployment insurance. With the UK government retaining control of social programs, it naturally follows that a number of taxation powers will remain in the hands of the national government rather than being devolved to Scotland to ensure proper funding for the social union. But, in order to balace Scottish revenue with expenditure, some tax points could be transferred. An example would be reducing the UK personal income tax rate in Scotland to allow more room for the Scottish Parliament to introduce its own personal income tax.

Gallagher’s presentation was of particular interest to me as a Canadian. Canada has been torn apart by numerous rounds of mega-constitutional politics that have tried to bring Quebec into the Canadian constitutional fold. Quebec nationalism entered the national discussion in the 1960s with the re-imagining of the French Canadian people as the Quebecois and the agenda has been subsequently driven by the Parti Quebecois and its federal counterpart, the Bloc Quebecois. Despite the fact that there have been two referendums on independence, the sovereigntist cause remains very much alive in Quebec and the PQ currently holds a minority government in Quebec.

The Canadian experience clearly shows that even if the Scottish people reject independence next year, the status quo will be over-turned: after the 1980 referendum, in a bid to get Quebec to sign onto the constitution, the federal government entered into a series of constitutional talks with the provinces and negotiated the Constitution Act, 1982. But having been betrayed during the infamous “Night of Long Knives,” Quebec refused to sign and subsequently there were two more unsuccessful rounds of constitutional talks. Despite these failures, bilateral agreements between the federal government and Quebec have created some asymmetry in the Canadian federation: Quebec can opt out of federal programs and receive compensation to run its own version of those programs, such as the provincial pension plan, and has its own tax collection agency. These concessions move Canada towards asymmetrical federalism although the asymmetry has gone nowhere near far enough for the Quebecois and those who support Charles Taylor’s concept of “deep diversity,” which embraces asymmetrical federalism to protect and promote the smaller nation within a larger multi-national state.

In the long-run, the Quebec government, whether headed by the PQ or the anti-separatist but still pro-Quebecois Liberals, has been successful at advancing its cause and regularly opposing the federal government to extract concessions for Quebec. Therefore, there is no reason not to expect that a “no” result in 2014 will eliminate the SNP’s press for independence or at least further concessions in Scotland – especially if more devolution beyond the Scotland Act 2012 fails to occur in response to continued demands. The case of Quebec demonstrates that opposition to the central government can drive the separatist party’s policy agenda for decades after a referendum.

Gallagher’s presentation proves that regardless of the referendum result the status quo cannot be maintained. Since the current outcome looks to be a win for the “no” side, it is important that the UK as a whole considers what the consequences are for the union if Scotland votes to remain. There are many facets of the relationship between Scotland and rUK that must be unpacked to determine how further devolution – i.e. beyond the Scotland Act 2012 – might unfold.
To watch the seminar presentation by Jim Gallagher click here

Video: What Place for the Referendum in the UK?

11 March 2013

Prof Vernon Bogdanor

Venue: Archaeology Lecture Theatre G6, Gordon House

The referendum is an instrument of popular sovereignty, an institutional expression of the doctrine that political sovereignty derives from the people. In Britain, it has been used on a small range of issues, primarily to secure legitimacy. Some matters, especially those which involve a transfer of sovereignty, are so fundamental that the public may not accept a decision made by parliament alone as legitimate. In the 1970s, it has been suggested, Edward Heath took the British establishment into Europe, but it was left to Harold Wilson to bring the British people into Europe. Today, the establishment continues to favour membership, the people do not. That is the basic case for an `in-out’ referendum.

One difficulty with the referendum is that the question is decided by the politicians, not by the voters. The questionthat the voters wish to answer may not be on the ballot paper. In 2011, survey evidence indicated that the favoured option for most electoral reformers was proportional representation, not the alternative vote. Yet that option was not on the ballot paper. In Scotland, survey evidence indicates that further devolution is the favoured option rather than the status quo or independence. Yet that option is not to be on the ballot paper. On Europe. David Cameron proposes a referendum on renegotiated terms of membership, but survey evidence indicates that people favour an in/out referendum. Some means, therefore, should be found for taking the referendum out of the hands of the politicians.

Prof Vernon Bogdanor CBE will is Professor of Government at the Institute of Contemporary History, King’s College, London. He was formerly for many years Professor of Government at Oxford University. He is a Fellow of the British Academy, Honorary Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Legal Studies, and a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences.

Find out more about the Constitution Unit’s seminar series or the SPP seminars 

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