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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Parliaments and the pandemic

Earlier this year, the Study of Parliament Group published a collection of 25 essays on how parliaments across the UK and further afield have responded to the pandemic. They consider not only aspects of the response in the two Houses at Westminster, but also in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Crown Dependencies, New Zealand and other international comparisons, including case studies of the Maldives and Bahrain. Paul Evans summarises some of the themes here.

Executive assertion and parliamentary compliance

As the full scale of the threat posed by COVID-19 began to be recognised, governments wanted to take powers and parliaments were for the most part initially willing to cede them, with little protest when the normal procedures were abrogated. In most cases the legislatures, initially at least, willingly handed over very extensive powers to their governments to make emergency legislation and this was generally done with unusual expedition and, as a result, scant scrutiny.

The problem was perhaps most acute in the area of delegated legislation, resulting in government more or less by decree, as Tom Hickman sets out in his contribution to the volume. At the best of times, the scrutiny of this at Westminster – particularly in the Commons – is open to, and regularly receives, criticism. When actions were first taken to control the pandemic, it was widely suspected that the UK government was deliberately reducing the level of potential parliamentary scrutiny. This suspicion applied to a lesser extent to other executives, which introduced a large number of instruments which took effect in advance of being approved by the legislature.

However, as all the examples, domestic and international, demonstrate, there is an eternal conflict in the procedures underpinning democratic systems between a diversity of voices and a unity of purpose, between efficiency and accountability, between deliberation and decisiveness, and between consent and control. The pandemic, like any national emergency tends to, dramatically highlighted these tensions. In one essay in the volume, Paul Seaward notes that the extent of the use of emergency powers seen in the UK parliament in 2020 is unprecedented in peacetime .

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Wales has put effective legislation in place to make the Senedd polls COVID-safe

For the sixth time since devolution in 1999, voters in Wales have the opportunity to participate in a Wales-wide election, with all 60 seats of the Welsh Parliament in play. Elections across the UK were postponed last May due to COVID-19, but the ones set for this spring look like they will go ahead. Toby James and Alistair Clark argue that Wales has taken significant steps to ensure that voters are able to participate in a safe and fair election.

To postpone or not to postpone? That has been the question facing elections scheduled for May across the UK. All of these contests are important, but those being held in Wales have a special importance for Welsh citizens. They will have the opportunity to elect all 60 members to the Senedd Cymru (Welsh Parliament). It will be the sixth general election since devolution in 1999 – but the first time that 16- and 17-year-olds will be able to take part.

The pandemic, however, has led to arguments about whether elections should be postponed. There is a health argument for postponement. Restrictions have been put on many aspects of life in order to prevent the spread of the virus. But the quality of the election can also be compromised by the pandemic. Restrictions on campaigning might be in place, such as bans on leafleting, which smaller parties have complained are unfair on them. So what should be done?

The evidence from around the world

As part of an ESRC-funded research project, we have been tracking how elections have been run around the world since the pandemic began, in collaboration with International IDEA and the Electoral Integrity Project. We have published case studies that have described the experience on the ground, alongside data on the measures put in place to make elections COVID-safe.

Many countries did postpone for a while. Elections have been postponed in at least 75 countries since last February. But at the same time, over 100 eventually held their contests. Proposals to postpone elections are at first glance associated with undermining the democratic process and denying citizens their right to vote. Postponements, as was shown in a recent article in Election Law Journal, are not all just power grabs by would-be dictators or incumbent governments. They can be for multiple different reasons, and there is a humanitarian case for postponement where there is a threat to human life. 

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‘Our travel difficulties haven’t been well-understood by the Government’: life as an MP from the smaller opposition parties during the pandemic

Parliament has been forced to adapt its procedures and practices to the new environment created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, Louise Thompson and Alexandra Meakin outline how smaller parties have been disproportionately affected by the decisions that the government has made about how parliament should operate during the pandemic.

Legislatures across the world have had to adjust to new ways of working during the coronavirus pandemic, and the UK parliament is no different. All 650 MPs have seen their role transformed as they have adjusted to virtual and then hybrid proceedings in the House of Commons, remote and then proxy voting, the loss of the informal spaces for chats and networking, and moving constituency surgeries and meetings online. For a particular subsection of MPs, however, the last year has brought even more challenge and complexity. We argue that the changes to proceedings and operation of the Commons since March 2020 have disproportionately affected MPs from the smaller opposition parties, highlighting a failure in the decision-making structure to sufficiently take into account the circumstances of these MPs. This failure, we contend, risks delegitimising the Westminster parliament in the eyes of people living in the devolved nations.

The typical view of the House of Commons, with the government on one side and the official opposition on the other, reflects the traditional two-party dominance on the green benches. But if you look to the opposition benches, you will see a growing number of MPs representing smaller parties. Some 73 constituencies (that’s 11% in total) are now represented by parties outside this duality. The smaller parties range in size, from the 47 SNP MPs, to the sole representatives of the Alliance Party and Green Party. They differ politically too: the pro-EU Lib Dems and the Brexiteer Democratic Unionist Party share the same small-party benches. But regardless of size or ideology, all small parties and their MPs must deal with an institution designed, both physically and in its rulebook, with an emphasis on the two larger parties, something that this last year has demonstrated well.

The constituencies represented by the 73 small-party MPs are overwhelmingly concentrated outside of England, with 89% located in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Even in normal times, travelling to Westminster for these MPs almost invariably involves far longer and more complex journeys than for members representing English constituencies. The pandemic has exacerbated this, with public transport (literally the only option for MPs in Northern Ireland or the Scottish islands) cut drastically. In June 2020 the number of flights from Belfast to London, for example, fell from 12 a day to just one. Virtual participation in the Commons at this time was severely restricted, but the timing of the flights and difficulties securing tickets meant that MPs from Northern Irish constituencies were often unable to be present in the Commons chamber for the first items of business on a Monday or stay for business on Thursdays without being stuck in London (and away from their families and caring responsibilities) all weekend. For one Urgent Question on abortion in Northern Ireland, Alliance MP Stephen Farry had to ask another MP (the Scottish Liberal Democrat, Wendy Chamberlain) to speak on his behalf as he was unable to travel to Westminster at short notice (at this date, no virtual participation was allowed).

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