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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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

Options for an English Parliament: implications for the UK’s central institutions

Jack.000meg_russell (1)A Constitution Unit project has been examining options for an English Parliament. One factor that must be taken into account is implications for the UK’s central political institutions. Focusing on the separately elected model for an English Parliament, in this post Jack Sheldon and Meg Russell suggest that there would inevitably be substantial implications. Both the UK government and parliament would need restructuring, and there would be pressures to move towards more formal federalism.

Since autumn 2016 we have been working on a research project exploring options for an English Parliament. Various earlier posts have covered some of our findings, and our detailed report will be published very shortly. In this post we summarise some of our conclusions on implications for the UK’s central political institutions, including the UK government and parliament. We suggest that, in contrast to the relatively modest changes at the centre that resulted from devolution to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, an English Parliament would require substantial institutional restructuring.

For the sake of simplicity we assume here that an English Parliament would mirror arrangements in the existing devolved areas – that is, a directly elected body to which an executive headed by a First Minister would be accountable. Our report will also consider the implications of the dual mandate model for an English Parliament, under which the English legislature would be composed of Westminster MPs for English seats. While some of the issues covered here do not apply to that model, our report discusses how it too would have major consequences for the centre.

Powers

A necessary starting point in considering implications of an English Parliament is the powers that would be retained at UK level. Policy powers and financial arrangements for an English Parliament were covered in a previous blog post; in summary, its policy powers would probably be similar to those of the devolved legislatures in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Given the design of UK devolution, with policy areas such as education and health almost entirely devolved, this means that the legislative competence of the UK parliament would reduce very substantially. Continue reading

Codifying the UK constitution: an exercise in reform or preservation?

If the UK gets a written constitution, will it seek simply to codify the current constitutional arrangement or will it present an opportunity for more fundamental changes? In light of a recent PCRC report assessing the desirability of a written constitution, Daniel Helen looks at recent codification proposals and considers the reforms they put forward.

A new Magna CartaBehind the title of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s report into the desirability of a codified constitution for the UK – published last Thursday as A New Magna Carta?– lies an unintended analogy. While the rebellious English barons in 1215 may have claimed that they demanded nothing more than a return to the good old law of Edward the Confessor and Henry I, in many of its provisions Magna Carta marked a significant break from past practice. Modern-day proponents of a codified, or ‘written’, constitution are not so different. While the act of codifying certainly amounts to a momentous reform in itself, both proponents and opponents realise that it provides an opportunity to make significant changes to the substance (not just the form) of the constitution. The committee’s report is no exception.

There have been numerous attempts at codification over the past few decades, varying considerably in length and scope.The most radical proposal came in the form of Tony Benn’s Commonwealth of Britain Bill, first presented to the House of Commons in 1991. It called for – inter alia – the abolition of the monarchy, a ‘House of the People’ in lieu of the aristocratic Lords, equal parliamentary representation of men and women, and a federal Britain with devolved parliaments in England, Scotland and Wales (British jurisdiction over Northern Ireland would end). Given Benn’s views and history, one should not really be surprised by his proposals. In 1990, the Liberal Democrats published a codified constitution in “We the People…” – Towards a Written Constitution. Its proposed changes embodied party policy which remains largely the same to this day. Notably, it would introduce the single transferable vote and replace the Lords with an elected Senate. Like Benn’s Bill, it is clearly the product of a distinctive political outlook.

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