Brexit 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. This blog draws from a lecture at UCL co-organised by the European Institute and the Constitution Unit for the launch of the author’s book Beyond Brexit: Towards a British 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.
Comparing with other European experiences of “broken politics”, UCL Clement Leroy argues that the UK is next in line. Podemos and Ciudadanos in Spain, the 5 Star Movement in Italy, En Marche and les Insoumis in France: across Europe citizens are angry with the status quo, and willing to cast their vote for new movements.
For all the talks about British exceptionalism, the UK is looking more European every day as the crisis that shakes its political scene bears many similarities with its neighbours’ struggles. Podemos and Ciudadanos in Spain, the 5 Star Movement in Italy, En Marche and les Insoumis in France, years of austerity after the financial crisis and the rising inequalities created by complex globalisation trends left many citizens across Europe angry at the status quo and willing to cast their vote for new movements. The strength of the two-party system in the UK, combined with the lack of a written Constitution, has made British politicians believe that they would be exempted from this continental wave. However, it has only delayed the inevitable.
Clement Leroy argues that there is no way out the current deadlock in Westminster without attaching a vote of confidence to the approval of the deal. In a healthy democracy, the rejection of the main Government’s policy should be a reason for resignation and the threat of new elections and implosion of the Conservative party could be enough to discipline the Tory dissenters.
As the Prime Minister returns to Brussels with what she called a “new mandate” to obtain changes on the Irish backstop, EU leaders despair about the current deadlock in the British Parliament. For the EU, nothing has fundamentally changed as the alternative arrangements have already been explored during the last two years and the backstop has actually been put in place to respond to the fact that none of these arrangements would prevent a hard-border.
More importantly, as in December, it is not clear what concession would actually enable a deal to pass in the Commons. The arithmetic looks grim with the historic defeat of 230. Above all, one cannot underestimate the EU’s officials understanding of current British politics: all of them would have seen that when a member of the ERG asked if voting for the Brady amendment would tie him to vote in favour of the Deal at the next meaningful vote, the Prime Minister replied “no”. The EU leaders do not want to trust the most ardent defenders of Brexit, and rightly so. Many of them have made clear that their preferred option would be no-deal, which they can best obtain by a last minute vote against the only deal on the table.
So what could the EU do not to appear as a rigid and intransigent partner, fuelling even more anti-EU rhetoric, and at the same time break the impasse in Westminster?
Doris cleaner to the chattering classes
A new UCL European Institute series of cartoons by Ros Asquith featuring Doris, a cleaning lady that witnesses the divides of a society shaken by Brexit. This series will be composed of a monthly cartoon shedding light on a particular issue around the British society and Brexit from July 2018 till the departure of the UK from the EU in March 2019.