The UK is in the midst of a constitutional crisis that isn’t being talked about in its essence nearly enough. It landed upon us June 24th, 2016, once the result of the EU referendum was known, and has deepened since.
The United Kingdom is governed through an unwritten constitution that had managed to avoid any really difficult questions about its nature for a very, very long time (we can have an argument about when the last real constitutional crisis was, but I’ll save you that for now). Sure, you had things like the series of hung parliaments in the 70s, but they resolved themselves constitutionally by the Tories then getting four majorities on the trot. The 2010-2015 Coalition government threw some interesting questions the way of constitutional obsessives, but again, these were mostly internally resolved, and anyhow, the electorate gave the Conservatives a majority in 2015, putting those issues to bed for the time being.
The problem the EU referendum raised constitutionally is that it was a vote on something the government in question explicitly did not want to do. In a Westminster parliamentary system, if a government holds a referendum it is usually to ratify something it wishes to proceed with that is felt to be of such rudimentary importance (i.e. something that couldn’t be undone, at least easily, by a succeeding government) that it needs an extra vote. But the 2016 EU referendum left the country without a prime minister, and gave us someone who had wanted us to Remain in charge of getting us out of the European Union. Constitutionally, this was a disaster; parties are meant to campaign on a platform for what they want to do once in government and then enact this platform if they win, not be forced to do things via another, separate plebiscite that they don’t want to do. It’s as if the Tories had held a referendum on making Britain a USSR-style socialist country, hoping for it to be rejected, then had to figure out how to nationalise everything after the result went the wrong way. We elect MPs to express the will of the people, not for the will of the people and the will of MPs to be in massive conflict with each other.
The 2017 general election was meant to be a fudge around this problem. May stood on a platform of hard Brexit, so when she got her own majority, this would square the circle, in theory at least. Except we ended up with a hung parliament, deepening the constitutional crisis even further. To make matters worse, there is no obvious way around it now.
Labour are going hell for leather on the hard Brexit front, but imagine for a moment that Corbyn reversed on this and said that if he was elected prime minister, we’d stay in the EU. Now, Eurosceptics could crow all they liked about the will of the people, but if Labour got a majority off the back of that pledge, they would be hard pressed to state that this would mean Corbyn could not do what he had promised in his manifesto simply because of the 2016 EU referendum result. Talk about constitutional crises then! Yet we’d have a whole new type of constitutional crisis to consider if this took place.
Our system is based on the idea that if a party gets a majority of seats in the House of Commons its leader can be prime minister as they can command a majority to govern. Only, this is far from assured for Corbyn, should Labour win a majority of seats at the next election. He treats the PLP like a malignant growth he wants to get chopped off, but if he was prime minister, this could no longer continue. In order to get things through parliament as the government, you need your MPs to agree to your programme – this is the very basis of the whole way in which we are governed. What happens if the MPs disagree with everything Corbyn wants to do and refuse to back it in the House? What would normally happen is a change of leader and possibly another general election, but neither of these things will happen under Corbyn’s Labour. So how are we then governed? Given Corbyn could actually win an election now, this isn’t just an abstraction either.
One way out is for the parties to split along Brexit lines, but you’d have a whole new world of massive constitutional problems to deal with then. Would we need hundreds of by-elections to happen? If not, what would that say about the nature of political parties and their role in the system? Would we need another general election? What if that produced another hung parliament? There are a lot more questions on this I could roll out, but I’ll spare you for now.
Paul W says
Please don’t go putting any naughty ideas like this into people’s heads:
“It’s as if the Tories had held a referendum on making Britain a USSR-style socialist country, hoping for it to be rejected, then had to figure out how to nationalise everything after the result went the wrong way.”
Another scenario is that the PLP go to HM and nominate a PM of their chosing. It’s all a mess, and while I don’t see any new parties emerging along Brexit lines, I do see a chance Brexit won’t happen for quite a while if ever. Corbyn is the joker in the pack. If he can be PM over a Labour majority will he be able to force a hard Brexit? I doubt it. We’d be no further forward.
David Stagg says
This has been something brewing for centuries as no governing party has ever had 50% or more of the people voting for them so they are all minority governments
This is true, and it’s been brewing ever since the mid-’90s, when public opinion (firmly Eurosceptic, either extreme (get out of the EU) or ‘very’ (powers should be repatriated)) and mainstream political opinion (accepting that the UK was going to be in the EU for the foreseeable future, with the discussion over what further powers could / should be transferred, but no ambition to roll back integration and repatriate powers) parted company, leaving no major party which reflected the views of the majority of the electorate. That’s not really a sustainable situation.
In retrospect the crack should have been obvious at the European elections in 2014. When a national poll is topped by a single-issue pressure group that is barely functional as a political party, it’s clear that something has gone badly wrong; but as usual people were too busy looking at another story (in that case, the collapse of the Lib Dems) to notice the longer-term ramifications.
If Cameron hadn’t made his referendum pledge already then he would have had to after that, to stand any chance of even winning most seats in 2015; but it ensured that having got his majority on the back of it he absolutely had to hold the referendum, or the 26.6% (!) of the voters who went for UKIP in 2014 would turn on him, or his successor, in 2020.
Where do we go from here? Well, the will of the people isn’t going to change, not after being so set for twenty years, so my prediction is that everything staggers on until the Article 50 clock runs out in 2019 and the UK leaves the EU. That parks Europe as an issue, because there’s only a very small minority of people who actually want to reverse the decision now, and there’ll probably be even fewer who want to rejoin once we’re actually out, and so then later in 2019 or early in 2020 there’s an election with the theme of: now we’re out, what should the direction of a newly independent Britain be? If that delivers a majority government, the constitutional crisis is over; if not… we’re probably doomed.
This assumes the Conservative party can cling onto power even though they are a minority government. but I think that’s a safe assumption: if they could cling on at the end of Major’s term, when they were far more divided than they are now, to the extent that their embattled leader actually resigned, then I don’t see why people are thinking that they’ll fold up like a house of cards this time, when (a) they are in better shape than they were then, and (b) the stakes are so much higher (everyone knew then that it was just a matter of tiem before Blair was PM, but now they have a very real chance, if they don’t mess this up, of another term, versus another very real chance, i they do, of a Corbyn premiership and the damage that would do to the country).
Paul W says
I agree with most of this, though I would place the beginnings of the final ‘crack’ in support for EU membership (which was never very strong) a little earlier in the late 2000s with the political classes’ failure to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Constitutional Treaty: it sent all the wrong signals to the voters. But I certainly agree that once the UK leaves the EU in whatever manner in March 2019, the issue of EU membership will quickly slip out of the discourse of the two main political parties to be replaced by a no holds barred discussion about the future direction Britain should take. By then the psychology of the status quo will be ‘out’ rather than ‘in’ and that will be difficult to reverse.