The sovereignty conundrum and the uncertain future of the Union

Brexit has led to numerous clashes between London and the devolved governments, raising fundamental questions about the very nature of the United Kingdom, in a context where the European Union is no longer available as an ‘external support system’. Michael Keating argues that we need to find new constitutional concepts for living together in a world in which traditional ideas of national sovereignty have lost their relevance.

Since the Brexit vote, there have been repeated clashes between the UK and devolved governments. Some of these concern policy differences, notably over the form Brexit should take. Some reflect the inadequacies of mechanisms for intergovernmental relations. There is an inevitable rivalry between political parties at different levels. Beneath all this, however, are fundamental questions about the nature of the United Kingdom as a polity and where ultimate authority lies, especially after 20 years of devolution.

On the one hand, there is the classic or ‘Westminster’ doctrine, according to which sovereignty resides with the Monarch-in-Parliament. In the absence of a written, codified and enforceable constitution, this is the only foundation of authority. In this view, Westminster has merely ‘lent’ competences to the devolved legislatures, which can be taken back at any time, however politically imprudent that might be. Westminster may not often exercise this power but it provides a trump card in any conflict with the devolved authorities.

This is a powerful doctrine but at the same time an empty one since it rests on a tautology. Westminster is sovereign because, by dint of its sovereign authority, it says it is. The point was illustrated in the debates on the 1978 devolution legislation when an alliance of unionists and nationalists defeated a clause asserting that Westminster remained supreme, the nationalists because they did not want it to be true and the unionists because it was redundant. Westminster sovereignty is a myth, that is a story that may be true or false but works as long as people believe it. When the spell is broken, as it has in recent years, its supporters have to fall back on other arguments. There is a historical argument, that parliamentary sovereignty is rooted in constitutional practice; a normative argument, that in an age of universal suffrage, it really amounts to popular sovereignty; and an instrumental argument, that it allows for powerful and effective government. All are open to question. The historical argument is based on English practice and challenged in Scotland. The normative argument assumes that there is a single UK people with one channel for expression, rather than multiple peoples, the smaller nations having more inclusive electoral systems. The instrumental argument needs to be proven empirically rather than asserted.

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Five key questions about coronavirus and devolution

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The coronavirus is a once in a generation event that has required an almost unprecedented response from government at all levels, from Westminster to West Lothian. Akash Paun argues that it has raised five crucial questions about the politics of devolution at a time when efficient and effective intergovernmental relations are crucial. 

Coronavirus has hit all parts of the UK and has required a comprehensive response by government at all levels – central, devolved and local. The crisis has raised (at least!) five big questions about devolution, intergovernmental relations and the politics of the Union:

  • Does the crisis show that the UK and devolved governments can cooperate effectively?
  • To what extent does devolution enable policy divergence between the UK nations?
  • How is the crisis affecting the operation of the devolved institutions themselves?
  • How is the pandemic response being funded – and with what impact on devolution?
  • What might this period mean for wider constitutional debates and the Union?

It is too early to give a definitive answer to any of these questions. But developments over the past few months already point to some preliminary conclusions, as well as identifying important lines of investigation for future research.

The UK and devolved governments can work together – at least in a crisis

One important finding, as the Institute for Government (IfG) recently concluded, is that the UK and devolved governments have shown the ability to work together well at various points over the past three months. Given the many disputes over Brexit, the Union and other matters in recent years, and the underlying weaknesses of the UK’s system of intergovernmental relations, it was far from a foregone conclusion that the different administrations would be able to cooperate at all.

But credit should be given where it is due. In early March, the UK and devolved governments published a joint Coronavirus Action Plan – a rare sighting of a government policy paper that was co-branded by the four administrations. There was close working too on the Coronavirus Act, which was drafted with significant devolved input before being passed at Westminster with devolved consent under the Sewel Convention. And devolved leaders participated in meetings of the COBRA emergency committee throughout this period, helping to ensure that major announcements, not least the imposition of the lockdown in late March, were coordinated between the capitals. Continue reading

Politics, courts and the UK’s single market

image_preview.jpgBrexit is likely to pose numerous legal questions about how the various parts of the UK relate to each other once the UK leaves the EU. Deborah Mabbett argues that the recent Supreme Court decision on prorogation is therefore unlikely to be the last time the judiciary is called upon to decide a matter related to Brexit.

Even among those who welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision on the prorogation of parliament, there has been concern that it has entered into dangerous new territory. It might have been forced there by a Prime Minister who failed to observe convention, or by a parliament that resiled from its duty to remove a government which has no majority, but forced it was, and this is a source of concern and regret. Several commentators have argued that the decision paves the way for a nasty and unpredictable election structured around a populist opposition of courts and parliament versus ‘The People’, and indeed those who see Dominic Cummings as an evil genius fear that this was the intention of the prorogation in the first place.

For those seeking a calmer view, the Court is clear in its self-assessment that, far from entering new territory, it is firmly placed on ground it has held all along. It has upheld the rule of law, in the specific sense of imposing limitations on arbitrary authority. This is the daily bread and butter of administrative law, of which there is a great deal more than excitable commentators seem to realise. Below the public gaze, the courts have dug in their heels over countless daily exercises of executive power, including the mistreatment of immigrants, the removal of welfare rights and the denial of access to justice. True, the arbitrary power challenged in these cases is not exercised by the contemporary king—the Prime Minister—but by the agents and minions of the state. Escalating the level of scrutiny to the actions of high political figures makes the prorogation decision a matter of constitutional rather than administrative law, but law it is.

On what grounds can it be claimed that the Supreme Court’s decision is ‘political’? The domains of law and politics cannot be defined by their subject matter, which clearly overlap across great swathes of social issues. We must look instead for differences in method and modes of reasoning. The characteristic method of politics is the structured antagonism of government and opposition, organised around the general political orientations of left and right. The belief that the Court had made this kind of decision seems to be behind the claim of Toby Young and Douglas Carswell, among others, that the prorogation judgment calls for action to ferret out and expose the partisan leanings of the justices. Yet left and right partisanship was obviously beside the point in the decision. Continue reading