Do we need a written constitution?

image1.000.jpgPrior to the general election, several of the parties’ manifestos called for the creation of a codified constitution for the UK. In December, the Constitution Unit hosted an event to debate the merits and downsides of such an exercise. Harrison Shaylor summarises the discussion.

What did the 2019 Liberal Democrat election manifesto and the Brexit Party’s ‘Contract with the People’ (from the same election) have in common? Both advocate the need for a written constitution in the UK. So too did the Green Party manifesto, and that of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. Meg Russell took part in a discussion on a written constitution in The Briefing Room on Radio 4 in September, and on 28 November, the Constitution Unit held its own event entitled ‘Do we need a written constitution?’. Two distinguished law professors – Sionaidh Douglas-Scott of Queen Mary University of London and Nicholas Barber of the University of Oxford – set out the case for and against a written constitution, in a debate chaired by a former Unit Director, Professor Robert Hazell. What follows is a summary of the presentations made by each participant. 

The argument for a written constitution: Sionaidh Douglas-Scott

‘Someone, I haven’t been able to trace whom, once said: Constitution building is a bit like dentistry: there’s never a good time for it; no one does it for fun; but it’s sometimes necessary and, when it’s done right, it prevents greater pain in the future.’

Professor Douglas-Scott explained that a constitution delineates the relationships between the major institutions of state, such as the executive and the legislature, as well as between the state and its citizens. More abstractly, a constitution says something about legitimacy and power. How does the state exercise power? And when is it legitimate for it do so?

The UK is unusual in not having a written constitution, in the sense of not having the fundamental rules of the constitution codified in a single document. It is one of only a few democracies in the world which lacks one, alongside Israel and New Zealand. The reason for this is historical. Since 1688, Britain has not experienced a revolution or regime change – a ‘constitutional moment’ – like the American or the French Revolution, or the withdrawal of colonial rule. Rather, Britain’s constitution has evolved slowly over time under relative stability; it has never been deemed necessary to list the fundamental laws and principles underpinning the country’s polity. As the Constitution Unit website states: ‘What Britain has instead is an accumulation of various statutes, conventions, judicial decisions and treaties which collectively can be referred to as the British Constitution.’

This arrangement, Professor Douglas-Scott argued, is no longer adequate. The current constitution is deficient for three reasons: its lack of clarity; its failure to properly protect fundamental rights; and the inadequacy of the current devolution settlement. Continue reading

Negotiating after no deal

kassim.jpg (1)Until now, much of the discussion concerning ‘no deal’ has been about how it might be avoided or how it will affect daily life. However, after a ‘no deal’ Brexit, the EU and UK would not simply go their separate ways. A trade deal will still have to be negotiated. Hussein Kassim shows that the procedures that would come into play are unlikely to favour the UK and sets out how leaving without a deal is likely to affect the negotiating environment.

Much of the discussion about ‘no deal’ has focused on the UK. It has detailed how Number 10 might force ‘no deal’ through, and speculated on the possibilities and prospects of parliament being able to prevent it. The preparedness of the UK, and the fallout on day-to-day life and commercial activity, have also been considered. Although these are obvious concerns, it is important not to overlook other consequences of leaving without a deal. ‘No deal’ will have an immediate impact on negotiations with the EU. Specifically, it will terminate the Article 50 process. While many Brexiteers have never been happy with Article 50, it is not at all clear that bringing it to an end will be to the UK’s advantage. Nor is it obvious, contrary to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s suggestion on BBC Radio’s Today programme on 29 July, that leaving without a deal will strengthen the UK’s position in the negotiation of a future trade agreement. As well as the procedural issues that ‘no deal’ will entail, the relationship between the UK and the EU is unlikely to be improved.

Procedures and processes

The UK’s withdrawal is currently being negotiated under Article 50, which sets out a procedure created specifically for a member state that has decided to leave the EU. Such a state can, at a time of its choosing, open a two-year period of negotiations to settle outstanding liabilities and agree the shape of its future relationship with the EU. Any withdrawal agreement must have the support of a ‘qualified majority’ of the European Council and is subject to the approval of the European Parliament. It does not need to be ratified by national parliaments.

Article 50 is intended to provide for an orderly and minimally disruptive exit. The two-year period it imposes is intended to concentrate minds. But Article 50 also allows the deadline to be extended if requested by the departing member state and agreed unanimously by the other member states, as it has been twice. Moreover, Article 50 negotiations are a matter of high priority for the EU. The European Council, Council of the European Union, and the European Commission have devoted considerable resources to the process, which have been focused on the EU negotiator, Michel Barnier. They have worked closely together with each other and with the European Parliament. The European Council and the European Commission have also been concerned to ensure a continuous flow of communication between the EU institutions and the capitals of the EU27. It is not at all clear that the negotiations would have the same level of priority or resource under another arrangement. Continue reading

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