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.