On 22 July, the Unit, in association with The UK in a Changing Europe, hosted four experts on the legislative process, including our Director, Professor Meg Russell, for a panel discussion of parliament’s handling of Brexit. Sam Anderson summarises the main contributions.
On 22 July, the Constitution Unit held a packed event entitled ‘Brexit and Parliament: an end of term report’. As well as launching Unit Director Professor Meg Russell’s new Senior Fellowship with The UK in a Changing Europe, it offered a key opportunity to reflect on parliament’s recent performance on Brexit and what may lie ahead. The other contributors were Hilary Benn MP, Labour Chair of the Commons Exiting the European Union Select Committee; Chris White, Managing Director of Public Affairs at Newington Communications and former adviser to two Conservative Leaders of the House; and Dr Brigid Fowler, Senior Researcher at the Hansard Society, who leads its work on parliament and Brexit. The event was chaired by Dr Daniel Gover, Research Fellow at the Constitution Unit and Lecturer in British Politics at Queen Mary University of London. The discussion included whether parliament had used some of its more innovative procedures appropriately, potential next steps in the backbench fight to stop ‘no deal’ and public perceptions of how parliament is performing in the Brexit process.
Meg Russell gave an overview of the three key research areas that her new fellowship will focus on.
1. How direct and representative democracy relate to each other in the UK
This has been one of the main issues raised by the 2016 referendum. The centrality of parliamentary sovereignty in the UK constitution means that there is a natural tension between representative democracy – where decisions are made by parliament – and direct democracy, involving the use of referendums. Referendums can undoubtedly create tensions with parliament’s representative function; however the Unit’s Independent Commission of Referendums concluded that in certain circumstances referendums can usefully complement parliamentary sovereignty.
The concepts of direct democracy and the overriding mandate of the referendum have fed debates about the role of parliament that have taken a ‘darker turn’ in recent months. Challenging parliament’s decisions is legitimate in a democracy, but threatening the right of parliament to sit and perform its constitutional and legal functions is something we never expected to see. This rhetoric seeks ‘to pit the people against parliament’, with the ‘worrying implication that the executive should cut loose’ of the accountability that lies at the heart of our system, in the name of the people. For example, many responses to a recent tweet from former Conservative MP Nick Boles, in which he expressed concern about the government ‘muzzling’ parliament, invoked ‘the will of the 17.4 million’, with some suggesting that the will of MPs no longer matters. Prorogation has been advocated by a number of Brexiteer MPs, to prevent parliament blocking a ‘no deal’ Brexit. However it has been criticised by other prominent Leavers, such as Sir Bernard Jenkin, Chair of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and Andrea Leadsom, former Leader of the Commons.
2. The power of parliament over government policy
Professor Russell’s previous work has looked at the ways parliament exercises its power, including through select committees and the legislative process. Parliament is more powerful – and exercises that power in more subtle ways – than many often assume. The Brexit process has demonstrated this in a high profile way. A number of established patterns have continued: one is the anticipatory influence that the Commons has on government, such as when Theresa May offered MPs a vote on ‘no deal’ in March to avoid it being forced upon her. In addition, the Commons and the Lords have largely worked together as partners not rivals; the scrutiny role of select committees and the Commons chamber have been shown to play an important role in testing the claims and policies of ministers; and opposition days have been used in a number of ‘imaginative’ ways. Continue reading