Posts Tagged ‘democracy’

A changing democracy: the British political tradition has never been more vulnerable

Never before has the British political tradition been more contested, write Matthew Hall, David Marsh, and Emma Vines. They explain that British democracy is facing three major challenges – Scottish independence, Brexit, and anti-politics – and these have the potential to force change on an otherwise stale political establishment.

British politics is in a state of flux; yet for all the talk of Brexit, there is a far more fundamental shift taking place. This shift presents a challenge to a political system resistant to reform and which, consequently, remains in many ways ‘premodern’. It is conservative in its understanding of responsibility, limited in its idea of representation, and offers government by, and frequently for, the elite. What we are seeing challenged, therefore, is not just Britain’s European relationship, but also a dominant British political tradition (BPT), which centralises elite control and perpetuates structured inequalities.

Today, the BPT appears vulnerable and a rewriting of the rules of British democracy is perhaps not only possible, but inescapable. Here, and in our longer piece, we identify three forces leading to these demands – the Scottish Question, the Europe Question, and, most fundamentally, the question of anti-politics. These are not the only issues confronting British democracy, but they are crucial challenges with the capacity to force change on a reluctant and stale political establishment.

Arguments concerning the nature of the BPT are ongoing, with contestation between those who see fluidity in traditions, and those, like us, who argue that there is a dominant BPT, underpinned by a limited liberal view of representation and a conservative view of responsibility. As such, British politicians have favoured strong, decisive government over responsive governance. For this elite, committed to a view that ‘government knows best’, elections every five years are quite enough to keep the rabble at bay. Today, however, the BPT, at last, stands vulnerable.

If centralised power is crucial to the BPT, then Scotland presents a serious challenge, bringing with it its own nationalist tradition, which has, over time, led to greater demands for control and home rule. At first glance, devolution seemed a victory for the nationalist tradition and a blow to the BPT. However, the BPT was in safe hands under New Labour and Tony Blair. For Blair, devolution was a means of securing the Scottish vote – something that eluded the Conservatives – while making controlled, and limited, modifications at Westminster. It was, therefore, a way in which centralised power, albeit altered, could be reaffirmed and protected.

However, there was contestation built-into the devolution settlement, in particular through moves towards greater participatory democracy, most noticeably in the Additional Member System which institutionalised a contest between a Scottish nationalist tradition and the BPT, leading at times to coalition and minority government – an anathema to the BPT’s understanding of responsible government. However, this alternative to the BPT garners far greater trust from its citizens, with the 2016 Scottish Social Attitudes Report finding trust in the Scottish Government by Scottish citizens was an incredible 65%, compared to just 25% for Westminster.

Of course, it is not devolution which presents the greatest challenge to the BPT, but independence. If devolution was an attempt to mollify the nationalist spirit in Scotland, it has been a failure. Greater powers have been demanded, not least during the independence campaign. With the threat of an independent Scotland appearing a real possibility, a scared Cameron offered greater devolved powers, contra the centralisation tendency of the BPT. However, while greater devolved powers perhaps helped swing the campaign to the No vote, Cameron’s claims that the question was settled for a generation were naïve.

Britain has never truly welcomed European integration; with its violation of that most sacrosanct principle – Parliamentary Sovereignty – perhaps it never could. In Westminster, Euroscepticism is not an ideology of the fringe, but is instead deeply embedded in party competition. It is, as we have seen, also an ideology shared by many citizens – though of course, we must distinguish between the constituent nations of the Union, with Brexit in large part the consequence of a peculiar type of English rebellion.

Holding a referendum seems to mark a dramatic deviation from the BPT’s Burkean principles, but the two European referenda – 1975 and 2016 – were used to diffuse intra-party contestation and, as such, were a means of protecting stable government and the party system; this is what happened in 1975.

Brexit, alongside the rise of UKIP, reflected the growth of Euroscepticism, but as, if not more, important was the rise in alienation from politics as it is practiced, and a growing antipathy to the political elite. This phenomenon is often called anti-politics, although it is anything but non-political.

Anti-politics, and particularly antipathy to the idea that government knows best, underpins the looming threat of Scottish independence and the Brexit vote. This decoupling of citizens and authorities reflects an antipathy to the BPT as a governing strategy. The focus on strong, rather than responsive, government distances Westminster from citizens. The result, is either complete detachment from the mainstream political process, often coupled with an involvement in new forms, often, particularly for the young, social media-based, or else a revolt against the elite’s wishes, as we saw in Brexit. In our view, the growth of such anti-politics demands a rethinking of the way politics is practiced and, if such disillusionment is to be addressed, the BPT needs to be changed.

The key question here is whether a remarkably resilient tradition can adapt to these challenges with minimal change, or whether the changes will be more fundamental. The outcome of Brexit negotiations (and the outcome of any second Scottish referendum) will play a role, but more important is how we address citizens’ belief that the political elite are out of touch with their concerns. The BPT has been very resilient, but it is a large part of the problem, not of the solution. Recoupling citizens with authorities is vital to a healthy democracy and the issues we have discussed show the necessity of such a step. Government needs to know what its citizens want, rather than assuming it knows best.


Note: the above draws on the authors’ published work in Policy Studies.

About the Authors

Matthew Hall is affiliated with the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra.

Professor David Marsh is Fellow at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra.

Emma Vines is Research Student in the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University.



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

Theresa May swerves to avoid Brexit crunch

LONDON — In a game of Brexit chicken with her own backbenchers, Theresa May swerved just enough to avoid a crash.

The government won a crunch vote on Wednesday centered on the role parliament will play in the Brexit endgame if she doesn’t get a deal, or if she gets one and MPs don’t like it.

The political drama turned into a proxy battle over arcane parliamentary procedure, but the upshot was a skin-of-the-teeth win for May and a step back from the brink by some of the Tory soft-Brexiteer rebels.

What it means for Brexit is less clear-cut.

The rebels say that they held off because the government affirmed the sovereignty of parliament over the eventual deal — a statement that could yet prove highly significant. More importantly perhaps, some appear to have decided that it is better to keep their powder dry for further parliamentary battles before the summer recess.

In the end, it was Dominic Grieve’s decision, as the figurehead of the small band of Remain-leaning Conservative MPs at the heart of the dispute, to vote against his own amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill that signaled the rebellion was beaten. He changed tack after the government published a statement which, Grieve said, satisfied him that parliament, and not the executive, will hold the whip hand in those aforementioned endgame scenarios.

Not everyone was convinced.

The opposition Labour Party cried foul, its shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, accusing May of having to “buy off her own MPs” at the eleventh hour, just like she did when the same issue came to a head last week. That time, Grieve smelled a rat and protested, prompting the House of Lords to put forward a new amendment which set up this week’s installment of Brexit crisis.

After the vote on the amendment, the EU (Withdrawal) Bill as a whole passed, finally ending its parliamentary journey.

May during a visit in to a hospital in London | Getty Images

That doesn’t mean May is out of the woods though. One senior figure in the rebel ranks said that “the real crunch point” would come before the summer, when MPs have a chance to vote on whether the government should pursue a customs union with the EU or not, via the Trade Bill — something that would fundamentally alter Brexit and would lead to May losing the support of the Brexiteer wing of her party. That vote is expected before the summer recess on July 24.

But for pro-EU Labour MP Wes Streeting, Grieve is the “new Grand Old Duke of York” — he marched his troops to the top of the hill and he marched them down again, only to desert the cause at the last minute, leading to a 319 to 303 defeat.

Those numbers were hard-fought. Labour whips twisted arms on their own backbenches to keep the party’s own Brexiteer rebellion down to just four votes. And there were signs of the desperate lengths the government is willing to go to win such votes, with Labour accusing the Tories of refusing to honor a convention that says unwell MPs do not have to vote in person but, if they can make it to the parliament’s parking lot, can be “nodded through” from the back of a car or ambulance.

Labour MP Naz Shah voted in her wheelchair, holding a sick bucket, after being in hospital for some days. Heavily pregnant Labour MP Laura Pidcock, meanwhile, had to come in to vote despite suffering from back pain, BuzzFeed reported.

To be fair to the Tory rebels, six of them did back the amendment. One, Sarah Wollaston, said she is disappointed by the result and still has concerns about “the risks of a cliff-edge, no-deal Brexit” which she and her allies fear might unfold if May fails to get a deal with Brussels, and parliament is not allowed to take up the reins of the Brexit negotiations.

As for that other band of MPs causing May headaches, the hard-line Brexiteers, they too claimed a kind of victory.

Announcing his volte-face in parliament, Grieve said he has received from the government “the obvious acknowledgment of the sovereignty of [parliament] in black and white language” — a reference to the ministerial statement, due to be published Thursday, which was circulated in a letter from Brexit Secretary David Davis.

In what only a lawyer of Grieve’s standing could describe as black and white language, it essentially states that it will be the speaker of the House of Commons who determines whether the planned vote that would follow a “no deal’ or a”rejected deal” scenario would be amendable (in other words, meaningful) or not amendable (in other words, a take it-or-leave it vote.)

Grieve, and fellow leading pro-EU backbencher Nicky Morgan seemed satisfied by that. Labour’s Hilary Benn, chair of the House of Commons Brexit committee, was not so sure, telling Grieve in the Commons that there are legal means by which the government could tie the speaker’s hands.

And with current Speaker John Bercow, a vocal and vociferous defender of the Commons, currently under pressure to resign over bullying allegations, Labour MP Ben Bradshaw questioned what would happen “were Mr. Speaker to fall under a bus in the next few months?”

British Brexit Secretary David Davis and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier | Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

“What guarantee would there be that the future speaker would stand up for this house’s rights in the way that [he has]?”

As for that other band of MPs causing May headaches, the hard-line Brexiteers, they too claimed a kind of victory. Their figurehead, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who met with Grieve on Monday, praised his backbench colleague for accepting government assurances, and said it was a “happy occasion where all may claim an element of success.”

Indeed the decision by Grieve, Morgan and other would-be rebels to back down serves as a reminder that, aside from dyed-in-the-wool Europhiles like Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry perhaps, the Tories don’t like rebelling for the sake of it, and will take ways out when offered.

It’s a habit that has infuriated Labour. One senior opposition official insisted Grieve had the numbers to beat the government, “but yet again despite their promises the Tory rebels don’t walk. They bottled it.”

The question now is whether — with May’s government so precarious — they would ever really have the stomach to risk bringing her down.

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Ireland’s Brexit dividend

BELFAST — The history of Ireland could one day be divided into two eras: before the Brexit referendum, and after it.

Until Britain voted to leave the European Union, the idea that Northern Ireland would one day perform a Brexit of its own and leave the United Kingdom to join the rest of the island in a single united Ireland seemed at best a distant possibility.

Then came June 23, 2016.

“It was like night and day, it was like someone flicked on a light switch,” recalled David McCann, a lecturer in politics at Ulster University and deputy editor of the Slugger O’Toole political commentary website.

Today, a vote on reunification is looking increasingly probable — some would say inevitable. Support for unification is rising on both sides of the border, and politicians and activists are scrambling to prepare for an eventuality they say suddenly seems more imminent.

“Brexit and the changing demographics of Northern Ireland is going to see the end of it” — Mark Daly, a senator with the Irish opposition Fianna Fáil party

“The referendum is coming,” said Mark Daly, a senator with the Irish opposition Fianna Fáil party who has been studying the practicalities of holding a vote on the issue. “The history of Irish reunification is still to be written. But it is going to be written in the next 10 years.”

The island of Ireland will not stay divided much longer, he added: “Brexit and the changing demographics of Northern Ireland is going to see the end of it.”

Border troubles

Northern Ireland was literally designed to remain part of the U.K. The border was drawn in the 1920s to carve out six of nine counties of the ancient Irish province of Ulster, which between them contained a comfortable majority of people who wanted to stay British as the rest of the island broke away to form a self-governing state.

The requirement to create a unionist majority is part of the reason why the establishment of a hard border after Brexit would be such a logistical challenge. Rather than cutting west to east across the island, the 300-mile border curves around to exclude inconveniently nationalist Donegal on the northwest coast, creating a winding division that is longer than the entire length of the island north to south.

Northern Irish Loyalists light a bonfire during the annual July 12 celebration in Belfast | Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

During the 30-year conflict that ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement, locals had to queue to be searched by armed soldiers in order to visit the shops, go to work or to church across the border.

The creation of the European Union’s single market in 1993 eliminated the need for economic checks. Peace in Northern Ireland — between mostly Catholic nationalists who wanted an all-island Ireland and largely Protestant unionists who favored remaining part of Britain — brought down the military watchtowers and reopened the roads.

Joint membership of the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland in the EU was key to keeping Northern Ireland’s Irish-identifying population happy. It underpinned the peace agreement, which allowed citizens of Northern Ireland to choose British or Irish nationality, or both. The border disappeared — the only clue are the subtly different road signs — leaving those who oppose its existence largely free to ignore it.

Brexit flips that all on its head. A hard Brexit, with the U.K. outside the single market and the customs union, would cut through parishes, farms and backyards, raising economic barriers that haven’t existed for decades. Checks on goods and people would disrupt the lives of the tens of thousands of people who cross the border daily for work, study, to do their shopping, or even cross their own property.

The extent to which Brexit upset Northern Ireland’s political order can be seen in the result of two elections for the region’s governing assembly. In a vote held in May 2016, just before the  Brexit referendum, the combined support for Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party — the region’s two largest nationalist parties — was at its lowest in 18 years.

“Obviously Brexit revealed a very disunited kingdom” — Graham Walker, professor at Queen’s University Belfast

Soon after the Brexit vote, the assembly collapsed in acrimony. The election that followed revealed a galvanized electorate: Sinn Féin swept to its best-ever result. And for the first time in the history of the province, unionist parties lost their majority in the assembly.

“For those who would argue in favor of the union, it’s making it more difficult for those arguments to be convincing,” said Graham Walker, a professor who works on Northern Ireland and Scotland at Queen’s University Belfast. “Obviously Brexit revealed a very disunited kingdom.”

East German precedent

Brexit shifted the debate in the Republic of Ireland too.  Although there is broad support for unification south of the border, there was zero urgency about the issue before the British vote.

An aspiration toward peaceful unification is in the Irish constitution, and on principle all parties support it, but only Sinn Féin treated it as a live political issue. After the Brexit referendum, however, the border and Northern Ireland suddenly became vital issues of national concern.

This quickly translated into policy realities: In April 2017, then-Prime Minister Enda Kenny succeeded in securing the so-called East German precedent in the EU’s Brexit negotiation agreement. This spelled out that were Northern Ireland ever to vote to unify with Ireland, it would automatically be part of the EU without any need for an accession process.

The Irish border, which has emerged as a thorny issue in Brexit negotiations | Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images

It was a major boost to the pro-unification side in any future referendum, and it also re-normalized the concept. A united Ireland didn’t seem so fantastical when it was on the front page of the Financial Times.

The issue of a united Ireland then became an issue in the Fine Gael leadership election to replace Kenny. Leo Varadkar’s ultimately unsuccessful rival, Simon Coveney, called his policy proposition “Uniting Ireland.” He became deputy prime minister and foreign minister. It was a stark shift for a party that has always been seen as, on the spectrum of Irish political parties, perhaps the most comfortable with partition.

Varadkar has since vowed to stand up for northern nationalists, promising they would “never again be left behind by an Irish government” in a landmark speech in December. According to the Irish Independent, Fine Gael has been polling focus groups on whether the government should “move towards a United Ireland, if this made sense following a Brexit deal.”

Generational shifts

A path to Irish unification is provided for in the Good Friday Agreement, which states that the decision to hold a vote on the issue rests with the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, a minister in the British government in London, “if at any time it appears likely to him” that a majority favors a united Ireland.

The wording was designed to allow both sides to read into it what they wanted. For Irish nationalists, it created the possibility of eventual reunification. For unionists the requirement of a popular demand for rejoining Ireland was something they considered so unlikely as to be a confirmation of the region’s place in the U.K.

“A lot of educated, outward-looking, liberal-minded unionists would tend to favor remaining in the European Union” — Dan O’Brien, economist

Particularly with the Tories in power in Westminster (or the “Conservative and Unionist” party to give them their full name), and reliant on the support of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party for their majority, the idea of the secretary of state initiating a referendum may look remote to unionists.

But even before the Brexit vote, the island of Ireland has been undergoing several slow but powerful generational shifts. The first is demographic. Among Northern Ireland’s oldest residents, Protestants outnumber Catholics by two to one, reflecting how things were when the province was first drawn on the map. Among those of working age and younger, however, there is a Catholic majority.

The 2011 census showed a Protestant population of 48 percent versus a Catholic population of 45 percent, and some have predicted a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland by as soon as 2021. (Religion does not map perfectly onto political beliefs in Northern Ireland, but it is a good predictor, and the two communities use “Catholic” and “Protestant” as shorthand for each other.)

The second shift is cultural. Once, Northern Ireland was the more progressive of the two polities; its residents had access to divorce and contraception — both unavailable in an Ireland under the tight grip of the Catholic Church. Now, it is Northern Ireland that looks like a conservative outlier, after the Republic of Ireland voted to legalize gay marriage and abortion by large popular mandates. (Both remain illegal north of the border).

Irish PM Leo Varadkar | Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

“A lot of educated, outward-looking, liberal-minded unionists would tend to favor remaining in the European Union,” said Dan O’Brien, chief economist of the Institute of International and European Affairs. “There are a chunk of unionists reconsidering [their options] in the context of Brexit.”

Similarly, Northern Ireland was once the wealthiest and most industrialized part of the island. Today, its GDP per capita is less than half that of the south and east, according to Eurostat. The United Kingdom once looked like the economically sensible option, compared to the reckless romance of nationalism; with Brexit, now it is British politicians putting ideology above prudence.

“Nationalism always had a big deficit around economic issues. Now with Brexit, a lot of business people — and that’s one thing that has shocked me with the people I deal with — now query whether remaining in the U.K. is the sensible option,” said McCann, the lecturer at Ulster University.

Policy vacuum

Polls differ wildly on the level of overall support for unification in Northern Ireland. Two June polls showed support for staying in the U.K. with a narrow lead over backing for a united Ireland: A LucidTalk poll had it at 45 percent to 42 percent; a survey by Lord Ashcroft polls put it at 49 percent to 44 percent. But a Queen’s University Belfast survey showed support for unification at half that.

Yet the surveys are consistent in showing that Brexit, particularly a hard Brexit, eats into support in Northern Ireland remaining part of the U.K. In particular, it demolishes support among Catholics — who voted against Brexit by an estimated 85 percent and whose acquiescence to the status quo had until now secured Northern Ireland’s place in the U.K.

A majority of people in Northern Ireland now expect a referendum to occur within the next 10 years, according to the Lord Ashcroft poll. “I didn’t think there would ever be a border poll in my lifetime before Brexit, but I genuinely think now there will be,” said Jolene, a 29-year-old Belfast social work student, who said she would vote for a united Ireland. “I think it’s changed conversations in that people are now talking openly about a border poll,” she added. “I do think it will be inevitable.”

“You only have a referendum at the end of a long, long process where you debate all the issues” — Mark Daly

Among those who agree with her is Mark Daly, the Irish senator. A member of the Irish parliament’s Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, Daly spent 10 months after the Brexit referendum gathering all available material on the practical steps to a referendum and unification: the economic implications, impediments, uncertainties, and how it could be achieved in law.

The result was “Brexit and the future of Ireland: uniting Ireland and its people in peace and prosperity” a weighty report of over 1,000 pages that is Ireland’s first parliamentary report on unification — a direct result of Brexit.

Daly’s quest revealed a vacuum of concrete policy on how a referendum could occur. There is no consensus on what a united Ireland would look like: whether the capital would be Dublin, whether the Northern Ireland assembly would continue as a regional parliament, what would be its flag and its anthem.

Voters go to the polls in Northern Ireland in March 2017 | Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Even the criteria for holding a vote remain vague. How is the U.K.’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland to determine that a majority for unification “appears likely”? Is “a majority” 50 percent plus one, as had been widely assumed, or something more, as some politicians now argue? How can the two health care and tax systems be reconciled? How can the large financial subsidy Northern Ireland receives from London be replaced?

Daly fears that the British, Irish and Northern Irish administrations have all neglected to make a policy on any eventual unification, and could be caught unprepared if events take a sudden shift. “Policy neglect seldom goes unpunished,” he said.

“The lesson of Brexit is this: You do not have a referendum and then tell everybody what the future looks like. You only have a referendum at the end of a long, long process where you debate all the issues.”

Off a cliff

Daly has an unlikely ally on the other side of the border. Growing up on the streets of unionist north Belfast, Raymond McCord was known as a fighter. He has been a crusader ever since the death of his son, Raymond Jr, who was brutally beaten to death in 1997 at the age of 22 by loyalist paramilitaries from his own community.

McCord expects he would vote against a united Ireland in any referendum, because he hasn’t heard any convincing case about why he would be better off in the republic. “It’s just like Brexit,” McCord said. “‘Let’s vote for a united Ireland.’ But we don’t know what kind of united Ireland we’d have. The health service, housing, schooling, education. All these things need to be explained before any sort of poll could be done.”

McCord, a former welder and bouncer, describes himself as a working-class unionist. But he’s a strong believer in cross-community cooperation and believes that spelling out the conditions needed for a border poll will reduce acrimony in Northern Irish politics by stopping the main parties from using the issue to rile up their electorates.

His current battle is to force the British and Irish governments to clearly spell out the path to a united Ireland. He has begun judicial review proceedings in both Belfast and Dublin, arguing that the lack of clarity from both governments goes against the Good Friday Agreement.

“We’ve got to prepare, and we’ve got to prepare now. Events take over, and politicians forget this” — Mark Daly

“You can’t have a border poll called on the whim of a secretary of state who doesn’t live here,” he said. “It doesn’t affect them and they don’t really care.”

Whether a referendum could come quickly may be decided in the next few months, and it may be decided in Brussels.

If Britain reaches a deal with the EU that replicates Northern Ireland’s current status as part of the bloc, it would likely quell talk of a border poll. It would make the status quo look once again like the less risky option.

But if Britain and the EU fail to come to a deal the opposite could occur. Any moves to erect a border would inflame the issue, and an economic downturn could puncture the arguments of those who insist staying in the United Kingdom is in Northern Ireland’s best interests.

“If it goes off a cliff, if the Brexiteers get their way and they just run out the door, and there’ll be no customs union and no single market, and the border comes back, the reunification argument could accelerate,” said Daly. “It mightn’t be within eight years, it might be in five, it might be in three.”

“We’ve got to prepare, and we’ve got to prepare now,” he added. “Events take over, and politicians forget this.”


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UK government sees off Brexit rebellion

LONDON — Theresa May’s government saw off a major Brexit rebellion over the role of parliament in shaping the U.K.’s exit strategy from the EU.

MPs on Wednesday rejected a backbench amendment to key Brexit legislation by 319 votes to 303, after key rebel Conservative MPs supporting the amendment decided instead to back the government’s position following a compromise statement from ministers.

The vote on an amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill concerned the powers that parliament will have to decide the course the government takes, in the event that it fails to reach a Brexit deal with the EU by January 21 2019, or if MPs reject that deal.

The government had offered a vote on a motion in parliament, but there had been concern that this motion would not be amendable, and therefore meaningless for MPs hoping to alter the government’s next steps in such a scenario.

But in a written ministerial statement, the government said it would be up to the speaker of the House of Commons whether the motion would be amendable.

In a tweet ahead of the vote, Nicky Morgan, a senior figure among the would-be rebels, said: “I welcome acknowledgment from the Government that House of Commons standing orders mean that it is the Speaker who determines whether a motion is expressed in neutral terms — on this basis Parliament’s vote is meaningful — and I will support Govt Amendment in lieu.”

During the debate in parliament on the amendment, former Attorney General Dominic Grieve said he was satisfied that the government had acknowledged the sovereignty of parliament over the executive, and would therefore back the government. He said that in the event of no deal, “if the house wishes to speak with one voice or indeed multiple voices, the house has the power to do it.”

A senior official in the opposition Labour party said the compromise statement was “meaningless and pushes the can down the road.”

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UK government heads off Brexit rebellion with compromise

LONDON — Theresa May’s government appears to have headed off a major Brexit rebellion in the House of Commons after key members of the pro-EU wing of the Conservative party said they would back the prime minister.

Nicky Morgan, a former Cabinet minister, and Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general, said they would back the government in a vote over the role of parliament in shaping the U.K.’s Brexit strategy, after ministers made a compromise statement.

The dispute between the government and Remain-leaning Tory rebels had centered on whether parliament would have the power to influence the government’s strategy in the event that May failed to get a deal with the EU, or if that deal was rejected by MPs.

The government had offered a vote on a motion in parliament, but there had been concern that this motion would not be amendable, and therefore meaningless for MPs hoping to alter the government’s next steps in such a scenario.

But in a written ministerial statement, the government said it would be up to the Speaker of the House of Commons whether the motion would be amendable.

In a tweet ahead of an expected vote, Morgan, a senior figure among the would-be rebels, said: “I welcome acknowledgment from the Government that House of Commons standing orders mean that it is the Speaker who determines whether a motion is expressed in neutral terms — on this basis Parliament’s vote is meaningful — and I will support Govt Amendment in lieu.”

During the debate in parliament on the amendment, Dominic Grieve said he was satisfied that the government had acknowledged the sovereignty of parliament over the executive, and would therefore back the government. He said that in the event of no deal, “if the house wishes to speak with one voice or indeed multiple voices, the house has the power to do it.”

The alternative amendment, put forward by the House of Lords, had been expected to win rebel support, but now looks in doubt.

A senior official in the opposition Labour party said the compromise statement was “meaningless and pushes the can down the road.”

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Brexit Groundhog Day for Theresa May

LONDON — It’s the biggest parliamentary crisis on Brexit that Theresa May has faced since the last parliamentary crisis on Brexit that Theresa May faced.

If you think there’s an air of Groundhog Day about Wednesday’s big vote in the House of Commons, you’re not alone. The vote, on an amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, will effectively determine who — government or parliament — will dictate the course of Brexit in the event that May fails to strike a deal with the EU by January next year, or, if she does and MPs reject it.

It sounds technical but it’s a very big moment. If the amendment, “Grieve 2,” an adapted version of one drawn up by former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, wins enough support among pro-European Conservative rebels, then a no-deal Brexit is more or less off the table. And while no one in the House of Commons is yet talking about delaying or reversing Brexit, the doors will be unlocked to the U.K. doing either.

Here’s what’s at stake in (yet another) crucial day in the Brexit saga:

Could this vote bring down Theresa May this week? Could it bring her down at a later date?

May’s political downfall is unlikely this week. There is little appetite in the Conservative Party to install a new leader. But a defeat for May would do little to quieten the already febrile atmosphere in parliament. A victory for the pro-European wing of the party would concern Brexiteers who already fear they have lost control of the negotiations.

Anti-Brexit campaigners in London, England | Jack Taylor/Getty Images

It is likely to be a different matter with the clock ticking when MPs vote on the eventual Withdrawal Agreement, whenever that day comes. It was expected to be in October, but this now looks less likely, with deadlines now being pushed back to January. If May’s deal is rejected by MPs at this stage, it would be a huge blow to her authority. Likewise if she has not secured a deal. Regardless of the Grieve amendment, her position would be extremely precarious.

What powers does the Grieve amendment give parliament? 

The key point of difference between the U.K. government and Grieve centers around whether their proposed motion will be amendable.

The government is simply offering a motion to take note “in neutral terms,” leaving MPs to take or leave their plan B.

Grieve’s motion by contrast would give MPs a formal route to make suggestions about what happens next.

The motion would not be binding on the government, but politically, the U.K. government would find it almost impossible to ignore a specific House of Commons direction.

Are Grieve and the other Tory rebels trying to stop Brexit?

Asked whether she thought Dominic Grieve was trying to stop Brexit on Monday, Tory MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan (who describes herself as “a loud Brexiteer“) told the BBC Daily Politics it is “starting to feel like that, yes.”

But Tory MPs pushing for the meaningful vote insist they are not trying to reverse the referendum result, but simply trying to prevent the U.K. from crashing out of the European Union with no deal.

“We are not rebels. We are pragmatic leavers. We don’t want to go off the edge of a cliff which would be a disaster for my constituents,” according to Antoinette Sandbach, one Conservative MP pushing for a meaningful vote.

“The meaningful vote is going to be either the government’s deal is accepted … or it isn’t accepted, in which case, frankly, there’s going to be a new government” — Tom Tugendhat, chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee

What happens if MPs reject the deal May returns from Brussels with?

The government insists, simply, that this would mean the U.K. leaving the EU without a deal — and it’s this insistence which is at the heart of the current crisis.

Under their own compromise amendment, the government would be obliged to “make a statement to Parliament” in such a scenario, Brexit Secretary David Davis said in a letter to peers last week, which would be followed by a vote so MPs and peers “can give their views of that eventuality” — the neutral terms motion that Grieve et al reject.

That’s officially what the government wants to happen. But the realpolitik of the situation could make a rejection of her Brexit deal a resigning issue for May.

Chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee Tom Tugendhat said as much last week. “The meaningful vote is going to be either the government’s deal is accepted … or it isn’t accepted, in which case, frankly, there’s going to be a new government,” he told Sky News.

U.K. Brexit Secretary David Davis | Andy Rain/EPA

The opposition Labour Party would almost certainly call for the prime minister to go (hopeful that the ensuing chaos would lead to a general election in which they could make gains) and May could be subject to a vote of no confidence.

Grieve argues that his amendment in fact provides a route out of a government collapse. “By having a mechanism by which the Commons can express a view without, for example, moving to a motion of no confidence which could collapse the government, that can give us time to both influence the government and think what best to do next,” he told the BBC on Tuesday.

What happens if there is still no deal in January?

Under the government’s compromise amendment, this triggers the same “statement to Parliament,” followed by a tokenistic vote, that is being offered in the event of MPs rejecting May’s deal.

The deadline they have set is January 21, 2019, just over two months before the end of the two-year Article 50 period and hence the U.K.’s exit date.

Under the “Grieve 2” amendment, the “no-deal by 21 January” scenario would trigger the same situation, but the vote that MPs and peers get would be a meaningful one — one which could have a bearing on the government’s next steps.

Options open to MPs and peers in this situation could include a change in negotiating stance, calling for an extension of the Article 50 period (which would have to be approved by all 27 EU member countries) or putting May’s deal to the country in a referendum.

The softest of Brexits (so-called Norway plus), or even better a second referendum with a sheepish U.K. opting to remain within the bloc, would be a win for the EU27.

Is no deal now less likely?

If the Grieve 2 amendment is adopted, a no-deal Brexit would appear to be off the table altogether.

Why? Because only two scenarios would then be possible: MPs accepting May’s Brexit deal and the U.K. leaving the EU on those terms, or MPs rejecting May’s deal and then taking control of the process. If that happens, it is virtually impossible to imagine a scenario in which the House of Commons and the House of Lords would collectively decide to leave with no deal.

Remember that a roughly 3-to-1 majority of MPs backed Remain in the referendum. That doesn’t mean they still want to be in the EU in defiance of the referendum result, but it does tell you that they are unlikely to back what nearly all economists and analysts think will be the most costly, disruptive Brexit imaginable.

Anti-Brexit campaigners demonstrate outside the houses of parliament on April 16, 2018 in London | Jack Taylor/Getty Images

What does it mean for negotiations?

A lot potentially.

The concern within the government and among Brexiteers runs like this: If Grieve’s amendment passes, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his team in Brussels will know that even if the talks break down or the deal they strike with May is rejected by MPs, that does not mean no deal.

The softest of Brexits (so-called Norway plus), or even better a second referendum with a sheepish U.K. opting to remain within the bloc, would be a win for the EU27. Barnier himself has made very clear that if the U.K. changes its red lines then his offer will change too, arguing last month that Norway plus is the only option that would allow for frictionless trade.

With a U.K. threat to walk away effectively off the table, and a U.K. parliament leaning toward a softer Brexit than that being pursued by May, it will be in his interests to stick to his red lines. Hold fire and he will be all but certain MPs will back his preferred option in January in the last frantic weeks before the negotiating clock runs down.

Read this next: Merkel, Macron bridge differences on EU reform

Making a 21st century constitution: the rules we have established for democracies are now outdated

Democratic constitutions are unfit for purpose, with governments facing increased pressures from populists and distrust from citizens. The only way to truly solve these problems is through reform, argues Frank Vibert. He draws on his new book on the topic and sets out the ways in which constitutions should be revitalised.

Democracies are struggling in many parts of the world. Explanations of why this is happening often focus on economics. The 2008 international financial crisis shook confidence in market economies. Job markets seem much less secure. In my new book ‘Making a 21st Century Constitution’ I put forward a different explanation. In my view, constitutions are the problem. The frameworks of bodies and rules they have established for democracies are now outdated in fundamental ways. They do not provide the support that democracies need in today’s world.

There is a basic difference between these two types of explanation. If economics is the cause, then democratic discontents should disappear as economic recovery takes hold. If it is constitutions that are the problem, there will be continuing dysfunction. The discontents will not disappear until the framework of rules under which democracies operate are changed. In his last ‘State of the Union’ address, former President Obama stated that we should look critically at flaws in the system rather than at the flawed people it produces for political office. I agree.

There is no generally accepted approach to constitutional analysis. But, since the time of the American Founding Fathers, assumptions about human behaviour and its imperfections have been central. The work of behavioural economists and social psychologists illuminates individual and group behaviour in three areas of great importance for the way in which we think about constitutions in today’s world.

Privacy and the Private realm

The first area relates to privacy. In today’s world we trade and exchange our privacy. We value privacy. At the same time, when we use our mobile phones and the internet we allow our identity to be authenticated and our behaviour to be predicted. We do so because of the sheer convenience we derive from the mobile and its apps.

This world is very different from defining the private in terms of an inviolable physical space, such as an 18th century homestead, or a 20th century home. Yet it is this older conception of the private that underlies the idea of democratic consent to a constitution. According to this old concept we stand in our private space and give our consent to rules that define what is to be public and agree on the powers that are to be transferred to and belong in the public realm.

There are two ways of reacting to this change. The first is to downgrade the importance of consent. The second is to place a new weight on bodies and rules that aim keep the basic importance of consent alive.

Generally speaking, since the second half of the 20th century, both constitutional theory and practice have followed the first of these routes. The idea that we should give our consent has become less important than the idea that we should identify with the content of constitutions. We are invited to identify with their content by statements of aspirations and, above all, by lengthy recitals of rights. In my analysis I conclude by reaffirming the basic importance of consent.

Social Diversity

A second area where assumptions about human behaviour are crucial concerns modern day social diversity. Traditionally, deep social diversity has been seen in terms of minorities that need protection against a prevailing majority and where the minority or minorities could often be defined in territorial terms. However, in modern societies most of us encounter deep social diversity in shared urban settings, shared service provision and in shared work places. The social fabric of London is the prime example.

Some people welcome social diversity and choose to live in cities such as London because of the stimulus they provide and for the innovation they can encourage. But social psychologists also warn about the defensive thinking and behaviour that individuals and groups can adopt when their established ways of viewing the world are challenged. Many of the crucial differences cut across ethnic and religious divides and are, for example, about attitudes towards the appropriate social roles of men and women, or about attitudes to authority.

We expect constitutions to be able to encourage cooperative behaviour and social ‘togetherness’. The contemporary challenge is about how to achieve this in shared settings when all groups, regardless of size, may react defensively to defend their own values. In this context my book discusses how constitutions can support democratic politics in playing a socially adaptive role so that people are prepared to modify their values in order to find an acceptable ‘better there’. I refer to this as a ‘transvaluational ‘role.

Rationality in politics

It would be nice to believe that we are all reasonable people, with well-considered preferences and priorities, open to reasoned arguments and ready to be persuaded to change our views when presented with a well-reasoned argument. But social psychologists suggest that what we consider ‘reasonable’ depends on the context. Politics is about shortcut reasoning reflecting a world of information overload where we do not want to spend too much time on politics. It is associative reasoning. We pay attention to the views of those with whom we connect in our social world, including our social media connections. It is ‘diagnostic’ reasoning. We assume that what is good for our friends and associates is also good for us. We pay attention to the messenger, the person or group who brings me a viewpoint, without spending time on going into the detailed content or implications of what is being said.

The drawbacks are that we pay attention mainly to the views of those we agree with and there is also a gulf established between the more deductive forms of reasoning essential in public policy making. An important task of a modern constitution is therefore to help make people more attentive to wider sources of information and views – the information from the social and natural sciences and the views of those with whom we do not agree.

Institutional economics

There are other features of the contemporary setting where the analysis in my book draws on institutional economics for insights. Two important areas concern the role of intermediaries and the role of benchmarking.

Benchmarking and the role of rights

In our world of information overload, we increasingly resort to benchmarks to guide our decision taking. We may choose schools for our kids based on the grading of inspectors, or a university based on nationally- or internationally-produced ratings, or choose a book on the basis of the awarding of prizes, or download music based on standings in charts we follow.

In the book I analyse this increased reliance on benchmarking by looking at a sector where they have become increasingly pervasive – the financial sector.

Benchmarking in constitutional terms takes the form of an ever-increasing reliance on declarations of rights. They direct our attention to what is most relevant in complex ethical choices. Unfortunately, as with other forms of benchmarking, they are subject to over-production, to the narrowing of claims, to manipulation, and to moral hazard. My book warns against the over-extension of the role of rights beyond mainly procedural rights. Over-reliance disguises the more difficult task of getting institutions correctly specified.

Directness and the role of intermediaries

In today’s world we expect markets to be responsive to our demands in very immediate ways. We are all familiar with the disruption to old forms of delivery in high street retailing, banking and other fields as we all order online. Institutional economics suggests that we need to look behind this directness of the marketplace in order to identify the intermediaries involved – the web service providers, the data collectors, distributers and processors, the payments and delivery systems.

Much the same reliance on new intermediaries is occurring in non- market sectors such as in the provision of government services where specialist bodies are proliferating. However, we do not experience the growth of longer and more dispersed chains of specialist bodies in government in the form of a higher degree of democratic immediacy and responsiveness. On the contrary, each of the key attributes of democratic government – the broad inclusiveness it offers, the scope it gives for voter feedback to those with authority, and voter input into the formation of policy priorities, seem weakened rather than strengthened. Elites and those who know how to deal with the intermediaries seem to have gained advantage.

One way of responding to this situation is to look at constitutions as chains of intermediation themselves. They provide for interventions at the beginning of the chain, where they can re-establish directness of communication, in the middle where they can provide for new types of representation, such as a body that scrutinises inter-generational fairness, and at the end of the chain where they can provide for oversight without being dependent, in the way constitutional courts are, on the referral of individual cases.


Constitutional analysis seems a long way from the real world and a long way too from the noise of day-to-day politics. Yet we should care about constitutional design. Constitutional failure brings a human cost. Design has been following past models from past times. We are now in a different world. We need to rethink.


Note: the above draws on the author’s new book ‘Making a 21st Century Constitution: Playing Fair in Modern Democracies‘, published by Elgar in June 2018.

About the Author

Frank Vibert is Senior Visiting Fellow in the Dept. of Government LSE. He has been a Senior Advisor in the World Bank  and Senior Visiting Fellow at UNU/WIDER in Helsinki. He was Director of the European Policy Forum, an independent Think Tank based in London, before coming to the LSE in 2008.  He is the author of a number of books on regulatory and constitutional topics.


All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

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