Whoever is in charge at Westminster, we can expect constitutional change to be at the top of the agenda for future governments.
The Brexit process and the situation of having a minority government has elevated the constitutional arrangements of Westminster into sharp relief. For some they have shown that the constitution works. For others they have shown major inadequacies. There are growing calls for constitutional change and while the two main parties will claim that this is in the name of democracy, the truth is that each party will ensure it is their people who benefit. For the Tories this will mean the hierarchy of law and order and authority coming to the fore; for Labour it will be the hierarchy of the trade union movement which speaks democracy but delivers a stifled working class, continually suppressed from achieving their aims.
For some the Supreme Court judgement ruling the September prorogation of Parliament void was a shining example of the UK’s separation of powers, for others it was tantamount to judicial interference in executive matters. There have been hints from some Tory quarters that the court could even be abolished. At the very least it would be safe to assume that if the Conservatives get into office they may seek to change the powers or role of the Supreme Court.
The Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011 took the power of declaring general elections away from prime ministers and granted it to parliament. That legislation was primarily aimed at locking in the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition of the time for a full five-year term. The knock-on effect amid the minority government and Brexit division was to let Parliament block an election when it would otherwise benefit the government – in essence the power to declare a general election passed from the Prime Minister to the Leader of the Opposition.
The Tories will want that repealed, and will be aiming to make practical changes (at least in their eyes) restoring the power of government to enforce a more ordered politics – ie. strengthening the notion of parliamentary government. It is this arrangement, where government emerges through Parliament, which enables the executive to wield enormous power in the UK system. It has been eroded by hung parliament and minority government, and in future the Tories will want to resist any form of constitutional change that could make such things more common, such as a move towards a proportional voting system which is strongly favoured by the smaller parties.
Another reform that the Tories would certainly resist is the idea of a codified constitution. At present the fabric of the UK’s uncodified constitution allows for gradual and organic change but a rigid, written down in one document codified constitution is being called for by the Green Party. It is unlikely to get very far for the very reason that many consider the UK constitution to have worked well in these odd times. More likely will be smaller slates of reforms to individual parts of the system.
The Tories want harsher law and order and immigration policies, and to repeal the Human Rights Act. Tougher sentences, more prisons and more cops. Actually it’s the other way around. You can’t really hire thousands of extra police officers without altering the prison and probation service. Again, these aren’t strictly constitutional changes but they set the agenda potentially for generations, becoming paradigms that will be very difficult to shift. They set the tone within government departments.
Labour meanwhile wants to create new government departments to change the direction and politics of the civil service. A new department defending workers’ rights, in order to change the emphasis that the Establishment has on labour relations. Getting workers onto the boards of major companies and issuing shares to the workforce. Not strictly constitutional change, such plans would effectively bring the trade unions back into the governmental fold and increase the trade union voice in Westminster and in the City.
One area of reform which neither lead party wants, but which may be unavoidable, is Scottish independence. The fact that Scotland voted to remain in Britain, added to the fact that the 2014 referendum on independence saw EU membership used as an argument for them to stay within the UK, has brought this issue to the fore again.
If anyone thinks the turbulent times are ending they should think again. Constitutional change seems to breed more constitutional change. It seems to produce knock on effects that nobody expects. See the Fixed Term Parliament Act for that. Whatever happens constitutionally following the election, expect changes to lead to more changes as the fabric is rearranged. The UK constitution is a large pattern and making changes is like pulling a thread. The election will pave the way for new initiatives in relation to the constitution and right now it’s possible to see very different countries as a result.
~ Jon Bigger
This article was written for the Winter 2019/20 issue of Freedom Journal.