This article is part of a Brexit Institute Blog Series hosting the comments of scholars on “Brexit and the UK Political and Constitutional Crisis”. See also Asif Hameed, Brexit and the UK Political and Constitutional Crisis: the Fixed-term Parliaments Act; Philip Cunliffe, Brexit and the UK Political and Constitutional Crisis: The Europeanisation of British Politics; Elaine Fahey, Brexit and the UK Political and Constitutional Crisis: the Impossibility of Avoiding EU Law; Jack Simson Caird, Brexit and the UK Political and Constitutional Crisis: Prorogation and the Case for Constitutional Reform; Tara McCormack, Brexit and the UK political and constitutional crisis: the responsibility of the British Parliament;
Brexit and the UK political and constitutional crisis: the responsibility of the British Parliament
Tara McCormack (University of Leicester)
On Monday 9 September, Britain’s Parliament was prorogued. Last Wednesday Parliament, having refused to accept any agreement brought to it, passed a bill that would stop the UK leaving with no agreement (at least, until Parliament chooses to pass a law accepting no agreement) and voted against holding a general election. Yesterday, Parliament voted to force the Government to reveal all communications related to any No Deal planning, Parliament also voted against Johnson’s second attempt to force a general election.
It is customary that the Parliamentary session is ended (prorogued) for the autumn conference season. However, Parliament is being shut down earlier than usual. It is not in itself an unconstitutional move to end the Parliamentary session earlier than it needs to be, and this is a political device has been used at various times by governments to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny. It is certainly a bad political and undemocratic choice, given that it will enable the government to avoid political scrutiny of any Brexit deal that may be reached. There has been uproar in Britain, with demonstrations, and also denunciations from many politicians, journalists and pundits, arguing, amongst other things, that Johnson has instigated a fascist coup; a constitutional outrage; killed British democracy; that Johnson is a dangerous populist who is pitting ‘Parliament’ against the ‘People’. The renowned historian of Nazi Germany Richard J Evans said this is our Reichstag Fire moment.
The strange thing is however, in the run up to the announced end of the Parliamentary session, Parliament could have done what it is entitled to do if it feels very strongly that the government is wrong. It could have either, to quote Professor Vernon Bogdanor, changed the government (the British government is such only to the extent that it can command the confidence of the House of Commons, a vote of no confidence is the first step towards changing the government) or changed the law. It has chosen to do neither. It has chosen to not to a general election, twice in under a week.
Whatever one thinks of the Johnson government, or Brexit, we have the comical spectacle of leading members of the opposition going on demonstrations calling to ‘stop the coup, defend democracy’ yet actively opposing a general election. Last night, as Parliament was closed, and having voted against a general election again, some MPs held signs with ‘silenced’ written on them. As others have quipped, this must be the only fascist coup in history in which the coup leader has called for a general election (twice) and the opposition has refused it.
What to make of this? There was a referendum, in which the majority voted to leave the EU. Although referendums are in British constitutional terms only advisory, it was made explicitly clear to the electorate by the Government that this was not an advisory vote but that the results of the referendum would be obeyed. Following from that, there was a general election in which the two parties that won the most votes pledged in their manifestos to implement the referendum. The majority of MPs also voted in Parliament to trigger Article 50, the process by which the UK could leave the EU. However, following on from that we have had a most extraordinary political period in which MPs have rejected a deal three times, asked for extensions, and now wish for another extension in order to, well, to do what is not quite clear. Unsurprisingly, the EU has asked for what reason would there be an agreement for another extension.
I would argue that we have a profound political and constitutional crisis in Britain, but it is not the vote in favour of leaving the EU that has caused it. It is a crisis which is caused by MPs refusing to carry out the vote. Of course, as Ireland is all too familiar with, when national votes have gone against the EU, the states in question are made to vote again and to vote correctly. However, whilst much anger has been directed at the EU as some kind of mythical super-state crushing all before it, the reality is that this has been the decision of national political elites for whom governing through the institutions of the EU is a way in which, I would argue, political accountability is removed. We see the same problem in the UK. We have an unprecedented political and constitutional problem in the UK as many MPs wish to opt out of the democratic compact.
However, many MPs are also worried about the impact of their actions. For example, many sitting MPs, in whose constituency the majority of voters voted to leave, but who have pledged to fight Brexit, will lose their seats. Labour party support has fallen since Labour has adopted a clear(er) remain position. Thus, MPs, despite the hot air about a fascist coup, do not want a general election. On the government side, the Prime Minister is in a very weak position, even before resignations and withdrawal of the whip from a number of Conservative MPs, the Government is a minority government, and it is very clear that a majority of MPs are refusing to do anything. Thus, Johnson has prorogued Parliament because of the weakness of his position in order to push any actions through without the scrutiny of MPs. This is very undemocratic. However, it is fundamentally undemocratic that Parliament is refusing to carry out a vote that it has agreed three times to carry out. Whatever one thinks of Johnson, he has asked Parliament to accept a deal, leave with no deal, or go to the country for a general election to try and break the deadlock. We are left in the UK with an utterly paralysed system and it is difficult to see a way out of it.
The views expressed in this article reflect the position of the author and not necessarily the one of the Brexit Institute Blog
Tara McCormack is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Leicester. The author expresses herself in her personal capacity and does not commit her institutions of affiliation.