Brexit and the constitution: seven lessons

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The process of exiting the European Union has revealed that the relationship between law and politics was perhaps not as sound as it might once have appeared. Jack Simson Caird believes that we are in the midst of a constitutional moment that has taught us seven key lessons.

Brexit can plausibly be described as a ‘constitutional moment’. The decision to leave the EU will shape the UK constitution over the coming decades. Even if the full extent of the constitutional changes that will flow from Brexit are not yet known, future Prime Ministers will be defined (in part, at least) by their ability to oversee successful constitutional reform. The post-referendum period has revealed a great deal about the relationship between the UK’s political system and its constitutional framework. Those responsible for changing the constitution moving forward will need to learn the lessons from this tumultuous period.

1. Governing without a majority needs a change of approach

One of the principal causes of the current crisis has been the way in which Theresa May’s government approached the task of governing without a majority. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, members of the government stressed the need to deliver on the referendum result without delay. The overwhelming sentiment was that the government, led by the Prime Minister and her Cabinet, should be left to get on with the task of negotiating a deal: a majoritarian mindset disconnected from the reality of a divided Cabinet and parliament. Instead, the government should have sought to build a majority for its proposed approach to delivering Brexit before it triggered Article 50 (or at the beginning of the 2017 Parliament).

Any future government that wishes to deliver constitutional change without a majority should look to the example of 2010 Coalition government. The coalition agreement struck between the Conservative and Liberal Democrats specified the constitutional changes that the two parties would agree to support. Theresa May’s government should have done the same and at the outset sought support for the substance of its approach for delivering Brexit.

2. Identify processes that can help to build consensus

The domestic process by which Brexit was to be delivered was not given sufficient attention early enough. Constitutional change gives rise to cross-cutting issues deserving of a special form of public and parliamentary scrutiny. In the absence of a rock-solid parliamentary majority, a special process needed to be constructed to deliver the constitutional transformation of the scale required by Brexit. The commitment to construct such a process at an early stage would have sent a positive message to other parties – and to the public – that the government was committed to finding a compromise that commanded wide support.

In the absence of a formal agreement with another party, the government could have sought to construct a bespoke process that might have facilitated cross-party support for delivering Brexit.

In the early stages of the process, suggestions that parliament should have more input in the negotiations were rejected on the basis that the government should not have its hands tied. Rather than treating these suggestions as an opportunity to bring MPs onside, they were treated as threats that could derail the process. Theresa May’s government only resorted to indicative votes and cross-party talks after the negotiations with the EU finished (and her deal or no deal strategy had failed) which did little to inspire the sense that the desire to engage was genuine.

3. Parliament needs to develop new forms of influence

The Article 50 process has demonstrated that parliament is a powerful constitutional actor. Since the Withdrawal Agreement was published in November 2018, the majorities against the Withdrawal Agreement and against a no deal exit shaped the debate. However, the Article 50 process has also shown that parliament’s influence on the substance of treaty negotiations and the legislative process is limited. Over the course of the 2017 parliament, the House of Commons inched its way to more control through innovative uses of parliamentary procedure, such as through business of the House motions and the Humble Address. The problem is that MPs only realised the extent of their power when it was too late. This meant that compromises were put together and agreed in haste. Essentially, backbench MPs made the same mistake as the government by not prioritising their influence over the process at an earlier stage.

4. The values of liberal democracy should be robustly defended

During the Brexit process, parliamentary scrutiny and debate has been characterised by some as anti-democratic. However, one of the central tenets of liberal constitutionalism is that proposals to change the constitution should be subject to scrutiny and debate. Constitutional democracy is in a very difficult place if this scrutiny and debate is not valued and defended. The core of the case for a carefully constructed procedure for constitutional change is that it enhances the democratic legitimacy of the end-product. How can constitutional reformers build the case for properly constructed change, if deliberation itself is undervalued in UK political culture?

The House of Commons and the Civil Service are restricted in their ability to defend their constitutional role by the requirements of impartiality. So, advocates of constitutional democracy need to robustly defend the role that institutions play in empowering citizens through democratic deliberation. No one is suggesting that politicians or institutions should be free from criticism (on the contrary, criticism is critical to their health and development). However, Brexit has highlighted a need for the values that underpin the basic elements of the democratic process to be defended far more vigorously.

5. Reframe the language of constitutional democracy

Prior to the referendum vote, the Vote Leave campaign demonstrated that a constitutional argument could be framed and communicated in a way that could cut through. Restoration of sovereignty (‘take back control’) was central to the Vote Leave campaign narrative. However, in the post-referendum period, the government has struggled to find a way of communicating the message that leaving the EU with a deal would empower ordinary citizens.

Of course, the reality of constitutional change is more complex than the messaging during the referendum campaign conveyed. However, it is clear that the constitutional ambition of the government was limited by its ability to communicate the value of democratic institutions. Implementing Brexit through radical constitutional change (by, for example, devolving power to English regions) would have required innovative ways of communicating this change to voters – and the government did not have this capacity.

6. Bring law and politics closer together

The Brexit process has exposed a fairly dysfunctional relationship between law and politics in Westminster. Parliamentarians have often been called out for misunderstanding some of the legal fundamentals of the Brexit process. The level of understanding of international law and EU law has been particularly problematic (although this perhaps reflects the limited incentives that parliamentarians have so far had to engage with either of these areas of law). At the same time, it is important to recognise that lawyers are not best equipped to engage with politics. As a result, the Brexit process has often been characterised by a frustratingly circular discourse. To improve the quality of debate over constitutional change, we need to bridge the gap between law and politics.

7. We need politicians that want to build a constitutional consensus

It may be that the UK’s constitutional democracy is in such difficulty that it cannot be repaired through piecemeal change. However, a more radical constitutional overhaul (perhaps in the form of a written constitution) will require politicians that are willing to prioritise finding a new constitutional settlement to resolve the post-Brexit divisions. At present, there are very few frontline politicians that prominently advocate constitutional change. It is not a message that seems to garner support.

Professor Jeff King’s inaugural lecture – delivered at University College London in April 2018 – persuasively argued that moving towards a written constitution in the UK would provide a means for citizens to take ownership over the UK’s constitutional democracy. In order to revitalise constitutional democracy in the UK post-Brexit, political leadership will need to harness this insight and communicate it to the public at large.

This article originally appeared in the June issue of Counsel and is reprinted with permission.  

About the author

Dr Jack Simson Caird is Senior Research Fellow in Parliaments and the Rule of Law at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law. He tweets as @jasimsoncaird

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The next PM’s territorial challenges

jack_sheldon.1The next stages of Brexit are now set to happen under a new Prime Minister. The chosen candidate will have to work with governments in Wales and Scotland that are openly critical. Northern Ireland may be without a government and the English regions may lack a unified voice, but neither can be taken for granted, especially as the new PM will rely on the DUP for confidence and supply. Leaving the European Union therefore cannot be separated from the challenges of maintaining the domestic union, as Jack Sheldon explains.

Following the announcement of Theresa May’s imminent resignation, the long-anticipated contest within the Conservative Party to succeed her has begun.

The campaign will inevitably be dominated by Brexit. But events over the past three years have shown that the future of relations with the EU cannot easily be separated from the future of the domestic Union. The candidates will thus need to give careful thought to how they will approach the major statecraft challenges presented by territorial politics across the UK if they become Prime Minister.

Renegotiating the Northern Ireland backstop will be popular with Conservative MPs – but a new Prime Minister might soon face the same dilemma as Theresa May

The Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ has been the main driver of opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement within the parliamentary Conservative Party and their confidence-and-supply partners the DUP. Consequently, there are strong short-term incentives for leadership contenders to commit to renegotiating it, in the hope that it might yet be possible to get a deal that doesn’t cut across Brexiteer red lines on the Single Market and customs union through the House of Commons. Pledges to this effect have already been made by Jeremy HuntBoris JohnsonEsther McVey and Dominic Raab.

In reality, substantive changes to the backstop will be extremely difficult to deliver. It remains the position of the EU27 and the Irish government that the Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened.  Keeping an open Irish border has become highly salient in Ireland and the EU, and the new Prime Minister will need to appreciate that this means there is next to no chance that they will be open to trading the guarantees provided by the backstop for the loosely-defined ‘alternative arrangements’ envisaged by many Conservative MPs. The same dilemma Theresa May faced might thus soon confront her successor – whether, as an avowed unionist, to recoil from a no-deal scenario that would undoubtedly have disruptive effects at the Irish border and strengthen the case for an Irish border poll, or whether the delivery of Brexit trumps everything else.

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Is there time for another referendum before the new Brexit deadline?

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The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of Brexit news. Campaigners for a no-deal outcome have made themselves heard—as have campaigners for a second vote. But the new Halloween Brexit deadline is just over six months away. This raises the question: is there time to hold another referendum before we leave? And would it be possible to conduct such a vote in a proper manner? Alan Renwick addresses the key questions and concludes that a properly conducted referendum is preferable to a speedy one.

In a report published last autumn, my colleagues and I at the Unit calculated that it takes at least 22 weeks—roughly five months—to hold a referendum in the UK. That allows 11 weeks for the necessary legislation to go through parliament and the Electoral Commission to assess the proposed question, one week to get ready, and ten weeks for the campaign. If parliament started this process today, a vote could be held on 26th September. So long as the wheels were set in motion by the European Parliament elections on 23rd May, a referendum could go ahead on 24th October; the last Thursday that gives time for the result to be declared before the deadline.

So the simple answer to the question posed above is, yes, there is time for a referendum by October.

But does pushing for a referendum at breakneck speed still make sense? Back when we were writing our report, the first question everyone asked was whether a vote could be held before Brexit day on 29th March. Once that timetable had become untenable, the question was whether the ballot could be organised by 23rd May or 30th June, so that the UK would not have to participate in the European Parliament elections. If a vote is being contemplated for September or October, that Rubicon will long have been crossed.

Crucially, EU leaders have signalled that the Halloween deadline will not be final if a decision-making process is ongoing by then. In other words, starting the referendum process could itself provide Britain with more time to deliberate. Businesses are desperate for some kind of resolution. But a well-run referendum would produce a more robust outcome. Taking a little extra time to ensure that would be worthwhile.

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Is Tory unionism the greatest obstacle to Brexit?

image_normalAs the Brexit process continues, the Conservative Party is finding it hard to reconcile its desire to leave the EU with its longstanding commitment to maintaining the territorial and political union of the United Kingdom. Michael Kenny argues that, far from introducing a destabilising element to an otherwise sound constitutional set-up, Brexit has instead amplified and accelerated the debate about the UK’s territorial constitution.

‘I didn’t know it would break the United Kingdom’. This regretful rumination from columnist Peter Oborne – in a fascinating interview given in the wake of the recanting of his support for Brexit – touches on one of the key developments in the Brexit story. This is the gathering realisation in some Conservative circles that leaving the EU may well be incompatible with one of the foundational values of the Conservative party – the preservation of the integrity of the United Kingdom.

The painful discovery that these two goals are very hard – and maybe impossible – to reconcile is one of the great under-estimated political ironies of Brexit. For it has been those calling for the UK’s departure from the EU who have talked most confidently and directly about the distinctive character of Britain’s model of parliamentary sovereignty and the territorially differentiated unity expressed in in its constitutional arrangements. And whilst anxieties about whether Brexit might reignite the independence cause in Scotland were aired in the campaign leading up to the 2016 referendum, for the most part these remained at its margins.

But Prime Minister Theresa May has sounded a more anxious note ever since she entered office in July 2016. She has repeatedly – and a little mechanically – invoked the importance to her own politics of ‘our precious union’, a mantra that betrays a telling worry about the implications of a vote which accentuates a growing sense of political differences across the different nations and peoples contained with it, and also signals the salience in her own mind of the question of what implementing Brexit means for the domestic union. Continue reading

How did parliament get into this Brexit mess, and how can it get out?

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Some, controversially including the Prime Minister, have accused parliament of failing on Brexit. Last week’s Article 50 extension hands parliament responsibility for solving the crisis. Here, Meg Russell reflects on why parliamentary agreement has thus far been difficult, and what parliament now needs to do.

This week’s Brexit events have been fast moving. Following a series of House of Commons votes on 12–14 March, the Prime Minister travelled to Brussels to negotiate an extension to the Article 50 period. Beforehand she made an extraordinary – and widely criticised – statement to the nation, seeking to lay the blame for the UK’s Brexit impasse at parliament’s door. Following many hours of discussion, the EU27 offered a limited extension: to 22 May if parliament approves the existing Withdrawal Agreement, else to 12 April, before which the UK government should ‘indicate a way forward’ for the EU’s further consideration.

This gives parliament (and specifically the House of Commons) an urgent task of resolving matters, to avoid the UK ‘crashing out’ without a deal in just under three weeks. To date, parliament has been unable to resolve the Brexit dilemma. This post explores why, before turning to what should happen next.

How did we get here?

As explored in a previous post, various factors have combined to make parliament’s Brexit dilemma unique. The most important is the context provided by the June 2016 referendum. By voting for ‘Leave’, the British public issued an instruction to government and parliament, which went against the prior views of most MPs. Politicians pledged to honour the referendum result, but as pointed out by various key actors (including the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, chaired by a leading Brexiteer, and the Independent Commission on Referendums), the instruction was far from clear. As we now know, there are many different competing visions of Brexit from which MPs could choose. To complicate matters further, Theresa May’s snap general election of 2017 delivered a hung parliament and minority government, making it far more difficult than usual for parliamentary majorities to form. Continue reading

Parliament and treaty-making: from CRAG to a meaningful vote?

Hestermeyer (1)Yesterday, the House of Lords debated three international treaties, in line with the process established by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (see here for the transcript of the debates). Holger Hestermeyer discusses how the process of treaty ratifaction works, how it has been affected by the meaningful vote mechanism created by Brexit, and what lessons can be learned from the way in which other countries and organisations ratify treaties.

There has hardly been a day in the last two years in which treaties have not taken centre stage in the public debate. From the Withdrawal Agreement to the future trade relationship with the EU, from discussions about leaving the European Convention on Human Rights to proposals to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) treaties have become essential for the future economic and political outlook of the UK. But as treaties have obtained a central role in the debate, the question of how treaties are made has also become a topic of discussion, in particular the role of parliament. In the UK, that role is limited: parliament can merely delay treaty ratification. It can also vote down implementing legislation, but it does not (or did not, before the Withdrawal Agreement) get a vote on the treaty itself. A separate system is in place for the scrutiny of EU treaties, but this is outside of the scope of this blogpost and will be coming to an end with Brexit.

The UK constitutional setup is somewhat unusual. In many countries, the executive needs to obtain parliamentary consent for certain types of treaties to be able to ratify. Whether and to what extent the UK system of treaty scrutiny is in need of reform is now the subject of an inquiry in the House of Lords’ Constitution Committee, but treaty scrutiny has also played an important role in the discussions on the Trade Bill 2017-2019 and is the subject of EDM 128, which was tabled on 4 July 2017 has attracted 125 supporters. This blogpost will briefly describe how treaties are made with particular regard to the UK. It will then discuss why there is a call for reform. Finally it will turn to what such a reform could look like and what lessons can be drawn from other systems, such as the US, the EU, France or Germany.

How treaties are made

The treaty-making process can vary according to a number of factors, such as whether a treaty is formally concluded as a treaty or through an exchange of notes or whether a treaty is bilateral or multilateral. In general, the parties decide to try and negotiate a treaty with a defined partner, prepare internally (e.g. though consultations) setting their objectives, and then conduct the negotiations. Once the negotiators have reached agreement, the text is finalised and the parties can sign. Usually the signature does not yet bring the treaty into force – most treaties require another formal act expressing the consent of the state to be bound, referred to as ‘ratification’. Continue reading