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Brexit and the UK Political and Constitutional Crisis: The Europeanisation of British Politics

This article is part of a Brexit Institute Blog Series hosting contributions from 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; 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 Europeanisation of British Politics


Philip Cunliffe (University of Kent)

The political battles over Brexit have intensified in the last few days, seeing Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament, the loss of the government’s majority, the removal of the whip from Tory rebels, and the opposition and rebels seize control of the parliamentary process from the government. Inevitably much of the conflict over these processes roils up basic constitutional questions – questions of precedent, procedure and process, with all the nebulousness that comes with Britain’s notoriously ‘unwritten’ constitution.

More than mere questions of constitutional precedent is a question of constitutional transformation. Behind the clash of the parties in parliament is a clash of competing paradigms of sovereignty, with Britain’s traditional notion of parliamentary sovereignty now colliding with an emergent principle of popular sovereignty, rooted in the democratic mandate embodied in the 2016 referendum to withdraw from the European Union (EU) – the largest democratic mandate in British history. Ironically, the model of popular sovereignty – incarnated by the theories of the Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau – is closer to the continental European tradition than the British. The British model, predicated on the sovereignty of the crown in parliament – is a more mediated expression of popular will.

Yet the more that Britain strains to pull out of the EU, the more it strengthens popular sovereignty at the expense of parliamentary sovereignty – as is visible in parliament’s paralysis, having now rejected multiple options put before it in order to resolve Brexit. Even more ironically, it is the Tories who are tugging the hardest here in the direction of popular sovereignty, as part of their bid to grasp the mandate of the 2016 referendum. The party who claim to inherit the restraint and care of the Anglo-Irish Whig Edmund Burke are, through their own actions, importing the ardour and passions of Rousseau, the philosopher whose ideas inspired the French Revolution. Parallel to this constitutional transformation, a party political re-alignment is taking place with the Liberal-Democrats drawing abreast of the Labour Party in the polls, and the Brexit Party flanking the Tory Party. Like the constitution, the British party system may be on the brink of recalibrating around a four way division, again closer to the continental European model than the duopoly more common to Anglo-American systems.

These changes tell us two things. First, the Burkean model of parliamentary sovereignty is intimately bound up with Britain’s pre-2016 ancien regime. Whatever the ultimate outcome of Brexit, parliamentary sovereignty cannot survive in its current form. The haughty Burkean model of parliamentary sovereignty was the precondition for Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community (EEC), precursor to the EU. This was enacted by parliament in 1973, but had to be retrospectively endorsed by the 1975 referendum, the first nation-wide plebiscite in Britain’s history. The plebiscitary model of politics was thus implanted in British politics through the EU itself, becoming more common around the turn of the century, with referendums variously taking place on devolution, the Good Friday Agreement, voting reform, Scottish independence and of course, Brexit itself. Plebiscitary politics has strengthened as representative politics has shrivelled as a result of technocratic centrism enveloping all major political parties as their social base shrunk. Although Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has seen a boom in membership, this still does not correspond to the social base of the old Labour Party, which was rooted in a highly unionised workforce (union membership today remains at historic lows). These processes have together worked to drain away parliament’s authority, leaving it as it is now, unable to give effective expression to mass democratic will – not only the mandate embodied in the 2016 referendum, but also that of the 2017 general election in which the overwhelming majority of those elected to parliament did so on a promise to enact the result of the referendum. The second point flows from the first. The process of constitutional change is being imposed on the UK independently of the will of any actor, as British politics is forced to align to new realities: hence the bizarre prospect of the Conservative and Unionist Party seeking to propel a wrenching and disruptive process of political renewal that may well dissolve the union and is certainly anything but conservative (in the sense that it clearly fails to conserve the status quo). As part of the paradoxes of modernisation, if Britain does indeed leave the EU, it will end up resembling a European state even more than it does now.

The views expressed in this article reflect the position of the author and not necessarily the one of the Brexit Institute Blog

Philip Cunliffe is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, and is one of the co-founders of the Full Brexit