Brexit and UK ‘mega-constitutional’ politics

A few days ago I posted a thread on twitter about the way the UK Government has botched its approach to Brexit, seen in the light of intergovernmental relations. It has been widely read there, and I’m posting it here (with a few textual edits) in case readers of this blog are interested but haven’t seen it.  Those who wish can find the first tweet here, or an ‘unroll’ of the thread here (though this may disappear).  

1/ As some readers may know, I did a lot of academic work on comparative intergovernmental relations, including how federal systems deal with ‘mega-constitutional’ issues like top-level constitutional reform. Brexit is a mega-mega constitutional reform.  (The term ‘mega-constitutional politics is originally Peter Russell’s: see his Constitutional Odyssey: Can Canadians Become a Sovereign People?, Third Edition, University of Toronto Press, 2004.)

2/ Any mega-constitutional reform only happens effectively if it can be accepted as legitimate, by those unhappy with the outcome as well as those happy about it. That means the process by which it is reached is crucial. This is ‘loser’s consent’.

3/ Each side needs to know what it’s seeking and have broad support for its goals. It has to say what it means, and mean what it says. Clarity and consistency are key to getting a good outcome.

4/ More than any others, these are the negotiations where the aim has to be an outcome that works for everyone, not one where you ‘win’ over the other side. If you try to do that, you’ll lose.

5/ This is a game you have to play ‘straight’ if you’re not going to lose it, even if you don’t win.

6/ The EU side has played this game ‘straight’; broad support for its positions on its side, consistency in dealing with UK in the negotiations. Brexiteers keep thinking EU will change its position but it hasn’t.

7/ The UK Government’s approach to Brexit has been the exact opposite of this. UK hasn’t even talked to itself. We’ve witnessed the Conservatives talking to themselves (and the DUP). No domestic consensus at all – or even interest in it.

8/ Instead, we’ve witnessed endless amounts of gaming for small-scale objectives, mainly aimed to keep the Conservative Party together (doomed to fail in any event). The Prime Minister has preferred to play games over negotiating positions and supposed strength in those.

9/ So the last 2½ years have been watching a slow-motion car-crash, doomed to lead to an almighty mess, no matter what form Brexit takes or doesn’t take . At this point, any Brexit outcome will be illegitimate in the eyes of many in UK.

10/ All that is quite separate from the likely seriously damaging economic effects of any Brexit, particularly a crash-out no-deal Brexit, as illustrated by one independent member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Polkicy Committee.

11/ Not only is there no clear majority for any particular outcome in Parliament, there’s no clear majority for any option to resolve the problem either (a second referendum, Parliament taking over, etc), whether there or among the public at large.

12/ So this is now a first-order constitutional crisis domestically, quite apart from the Northern Ireland (and Scottish) territorial dimensions.

13/ What to do about this? There’s absolutely no way to do this before 29 March. The first step has to be a long delay before UK leaves the EU, to work out how it’s going to do so. So extend Article 50, if EU-27 will agree.

14/ There then has to be a major, open, deliberative process to answer this. That should have happened sooner. Otherwise everyone will hugely angry, and no-one happy. If it doesn’t happen now, the consequences are fearful.

15/ And the Prime Minister who created this mess can’t be the one to lead the way out of it.




Filed under EU issues, Referendums

2 responses to “Brexit and UK ‘mega-constitutional’ politics

  1. Gareth Young

    To what extent do you think English nationalism is responsible for Brexit? It seems that everyone who’s anyone (at least in Guardian reading circles is blaming English nationalism), yet I barely heard England mentioned and saw only Union flags during the Leave campaign.

    • I think we have to distinguish between the Brexit vote and the approach to it that the UK Government has pursued. You’re certainly right that the narrative that has developed is that this was a vote of older people and ‘left behind’ communities believing that this was the way to make a protest and/or secure a better future, even if that is more like a better yesterday. I’m just reading Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson’s Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of the Empire, which analyses the vote rather differently, in age, regional and class terms.

      Both that vote, and the conduct of many Conservative MPs since the referendum, looks to me not so much like English nationalism in the sense of a conscious articulation of the interests of a national community, but imbued with an English chauvinism – ‘the English (for whom I/we are self-appointed spokespeople) want this, and by George we’re going to have it whatever the cost’. Part of that cost was the Union, to which many Leave voters, Brexit advocates and most in government seem to have been heedless. That lack of interest in ‘a Brexit for all the UK’ was made all the greater once the Conservatives allied themselves to the DUP and so were beholden to a particularly uncompromising Northern Ireland party (and an ambivalent party to the Belfast Agreement), with dubious financing and a commitment to a particularly hard Brexit to boot. Add to that the belief that Brexit had to happen fast – whether to show voters something was happening, or to stop them finding out just what the implications of that were – and one gets at least a partial explanation for what’s gone on.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.