A second Brexit referendum: The problem of constitutional agency

hard brexitIn this first post in a series of 4 for the Political Quarterly, Albert Weale explores the reasoning behind the belief that running a second referendum would not be democratic. As a core British constitutional principle relies on the fact that Parliament cannot bind its successors, he invites us to consider Brexit as a changing process rather than a one-off binding event. 

There might be many reasons why you think a second referendum should not be held on the UK’s membership of the EU. Most obviously, if you are a Leaver, you think that the referendum has provided a unique opportunity for the UK to leave the EU. There is a tide in the affairs of men that taken at its flood should be acted on: now is the time to act.

However, you may also oppose a second referendum from the opposite point of view. As a Remain voter, your sentiments might have been lukewarm and you now think it is time to move on. If there is going to be divorce, let us not prolong the agony. Even if you are a fervent Remainer, you might be cautious about a second referendum. You might be worried that the vote would go the same way as before, perhaps with an even larger majority, confirming the UK’s departure in a way that will make it more difficult to re-apply for membership in the future. Remainers who have become Rejoiners can be just as sceptical about the value of a referendum as Leavers.

All three of these positions are based on pragmatic reasoning. Given a set of goals – to leave, to get on with other priorities or to rejoin later – you make a judgement as to how far a second referendum will advance or retard them. Make a different judgement about the possible consequences of holding a second referendum, and advocates of each of these positions will change their minds.

However, there is a different sort of argument about the second referendum. That is an argument of democratic principle. Many conscientious people hold that it would be an affront to democratic values to hold a second referendum. But are people right to think in this way? That is the question I shall be exploring in a series of blogs, beginning with this one.

Continue reading

Beyond Brexit: Towards a British Constitution

event bogdanorBrexit 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.

Continue reading

Traditional Parties In Europe No Longer Cater To The Citizens They Serve – And The UK Is No Exception

brian-wertheim-329714-unsplash.jpgComparing 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.

Continue reading

The EU could call Theresa May’s bluff by asking the meaningful vote to be a matter of confidence

john-cameron-1302149-unsplash.jpgClement 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?

Continue reading

Doris, cleaner to the chattering classes, and Goldilocks

Doris Goldilocks

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.

Continue reading