Category Archives: England

Mark Elliott: Scotland has voted “no”. What next for the UK constitution?

MarkAfter a very long — and at times electrifying — campaign, a modest but decisive majority of those who participated in the referendum on Scottish independence have voted “no”. In one sense, this is the end of the process — even if, bearing in mind the main UK parties’ still-to-be-fulfilled promises about further devolution, it is only the beginning of the end. In another sense, however, it might turn out to be only the end of the beginning.

Had Scotland voted “yes”, this would have represented a constitutional shock of seismic proportions, and would quite conceivably have resulted in major constitutional changes in the remainder of the UK. It is less certain that such changes will follow the “no” vote. Nevertheless, it is likely that the “no” vote will leave at least some sort of — and potentially a very significant — constitutional legacy thanks to the conferral upon the Scottish Parliament of the additional powers promised by the main UK parties during the final weeks of the independence campaign.

It is not, however, obvious that the changes provoked by the referendum will — or should — be confined to the beefing up of the existing devolution system. As the debate moves on from the falsely binary form — independence or Union? — it took during the campaign, a more searching and granular debate can and will succeed it. (“Falsely” binary because, as I have argued before, both independence and Union are highly catholic concepts that bear a range of meanings and are capable of shading into one another.) That debate will concern not the apparently extreme options that were on offer to the people of Scotland, but the constitutional smorgasbord of possibilities that arise when we consider what kind of Union should exist, as we move forward, between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.


The obvious counterpoint to the present system is a federal one. Some — including Lady Hale JSC — have gone so far as to argue that the UK is already a federal system. This is incorrect as a matter of technical constitutional law, since the principal hallmarks of a federal system are absent from the UK. The system of devolution is asymmetrical, with different parts of the UK having different types and amounts of power (and, in England’s case, none); the relationship between the central government and each of the four home nations is different; and the legal power vested in devolved institutions is insecure in the sense that it flows from UK legislation that remains within the legal control of the Westminster Parliament, as distinct from being enshrined in a written constitution that is immune from unilateral amendment by a single institution.

However, recognising that the UK does not conform to the technical paradigm of the federal model gets us only so far — not least because, like independence and Union, federalism is a concept whose elasticity tells against over-emphasis of technicality. Demonstrating an admirable grasp of such matters, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in an article in the New Statesman in June 2014, points out that the UK’s constitutional architecture increasingly tends towards, even though it does not fully conform to, a federal model. For example: in theory, the present system depends upon the Westminster Parliament’s ongoing acquiescence in the autonomy of devolved institutions, because, in theory, Westminster could unilaterally override legislation enacted by — or even unilaterally change, diminish or abolish the powers of — such institutions. However, the theoretical position described by the doctrine of the sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament is radically transformed when viewed through the prism of political reality. From this perspective, the true measure of constitutional security enjoyed by devolved institutions in the UK is comparable to that which is enjoyed by their counterparts operating elsewhere under federal arrangements.

Yet for all that the current arrangements may disclose traces of federalism, they also remain clearly distinguishable from that model. Its adoption would entail major constitutional innovation, bearing in mind that the vast majority of the country — i.e. England — is currently exempt entirely from the devolution scheme. A genuinely federal model would involve the creation of exclusively English institutions sitting — alongside their equivalents in the other three home nations — under the umbrella of pan-UK federal institutions. This would represent an enormous constitutional change; and while the scale of that change is not in itself a good reason for rejecting it, such a fundamental alteration to the constitutional fabric ought not to be undertaken lightly.

Whether a federal system in the UK would be appropriate must be considered holistically. It would be blinkered to advocate its adoption merely because it would be in the perceived interests of one or some — as opposed to all — parts of the country. By definition, a federal model would be all-encompassing, and would change the basis of the relationship between all four home nations, as well as the relationship between those nations and central institutions of the UK state. But in spite — or perhaps because — of such radical implications, talk of federalism is on the rise as we emerge, blinking, from the Scottish independence debate.

This is likely so for two reasons. From the perspective of the devolved nations, federalism offers a degree of lock-in to the decentralisation of power which outstrips that which can be supplied by mere devolution. And although, as noted above, the constitutional security enjoyed by devolved institutions is considerable under the current system, a federal model would (among other things) supply greater and more-formal guarantees concerning both the balance of power and (just as importantly) the process by which any further alterations to that balance would fall be negotiated and secured. Meanwhile, from the perspective of England, federalism offers the prospect of a form of “home rule” that would address concerns about the increasingly anomalistic lopsidedness of the existing constitutional architecture. Viewed in this way, a shift to a federal model might facilitate the containment of English nationalist tendencies, which are certain to be awakened in the aftermath of the Scottish independence debate.


The position of England cannot be considered in isolation — any change to its position would necessarily have implications for the situation of the other home nations — but it is increasingly obvious that it must be confronted head-on. England has long remained (as Richard Rawlings pithily puts it) “the spectre at the [devolution] feast” because its sheer political, numerical and economic weight has generally been judged to exempt it from the case in favour of devolution. A very large part of that case has always been that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should be afforded an opportunity to move out of the shadow cast by England by virtue of its size, thereby allowing those parts of the country to live out their distinct political, cultural and economic identities. (There are, it goes without saying, other layers of complexity that apply in the particular case of Northern Ireland.)

On this view, to propose the extension of the devolution settlement to England would be nonsensical: it hardly needs to step away from its own shadow. However, the position is surely more complex than this. Even if the initial impetus for devolution is understood in the way sketched above, it does not follow that — now that there is devolution elsewhere — devolution remains inapposite in England. It is one thing to argue that the arguments forming the initial impetus for devolution had particular purchase in relation to the three smaller home nations; it is another thing to argue that the inapplicability of those arguments to England ought permanently to exclude it from any recognition within the devolution settlement. What, then, might be the positive arguments in favour of revisiting England’s position? Two are particularly pertinent.

The first argument concerns fairness; it is an old one, but it is no less compelling for that. The so-called West Lothian problem — which concerns the capacity of Westminster MPs representing non-English constituencies to legislate on matters affecting only England — is an increasingly pressing one. At its heart lies a basic unfairness stemming from an absence of reciprocity: while English MPs have renounced involvement in whole swathes of devolved matters, MPs representing constituencies located in devolved nations remain capable of influencing, sometimes decisively, the passage of legislation affecting only England.

Moreover, the electoral-college function served by the Westminster Parliament — its political composition determines which party or parties form the UK Government — means that the West Lothian problem is capable of distorting the political make-up of what is, for many purposes, the English government. Indeed, in 2010, the Conservative Party could comfortably have formed a single-party majority government had only English constituencies been taken into account.

It was always only matter of time before this issue is transformed from one that concerns constitutional anoraks into one that impinges significantly upon popular consciousness and stokes resentment. And that time has very likely now arrived. As the competence of devolved institutions expands — resulting in commensurate diminishment of Westminster’s involvement in matters affecting the devolved nations — so the anomalistic nature of the involvement of MPs from outside England in purely English affairs becomes more glaring. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that promises of further powers for Edinburgh will be politically deliverable unless accompanied by a resolution of the West Lothian problem.

The second argument concerns identity. One of the purposes of devolution is to acknowledge and to give institutional life to differential national identities within the UK. Do existing arrangements adequately accommodate this need as it pertains to England? One response to this question is (as mentioned above) to argue that English national identity receives adequate expression thanks to the size of England coupled with its (ambivalent) representation within the pan-UK Parliament and Government. However, whether this is so depends, at least in part, on how well UK institutions are able to perform their secondary function as English institutions (a question that takes us back, at least in part, to the West Lothian problem). A further issue, however, is whether the focus of this debate should be an undifferentiated English identity or multiple English identities — and this, in turn, invites questions about the extent to which we should be concerned with England’s place in the Union, and the extent to which we should instead be concerned with the place of English regions within England.  A complex set of issues — encompassing not only devolution to but also devolution within England — therefore arises.

Big-bang constitutionalism — or a typically British response?

Where, then, does this leave us? A dramatic response would be a form of “big-bang constitutionalism” involving a fundamental rethink about how the constitution works, how the four home nations relate to one another, how they relate to the UK tier of government, and where and how more-local levels of government should fit in.

The upshot might be a genuinely federal model involving the creation of an English Parliament and an English Government invested with powers similar to those wielded in Edinburgh, coupled with confining the Westminster Parliament and the UK Government to matters that need to be dealt with on a pan-UK basis. The adoption of such a system would necessarily entail the enactment of a written constitution enjoying a hierarchically superior legal status, so as to render the balance of power between the different tiers of authority constitutionally secure and impervious to unilateral disturbance — the absence of such characteristics being incompatible with a federal model. But while a “federal” system is increasingly in the contemplation of those arguing the case for Scotland to remain a UK with a reimagined constitution, it is not at all clear that the language of federalism is being used in a technical sense as opposed to being a rhetorical flourish. It is also widely argued that a truly, technically federal system in the UK would be highly problematic given that one of the four sub-federal units, i.e. England, would be so large and dominant, accounting for around 85% of the population. As Professor Vernon Bogdanor recently pointed out in The Times (£):

there is no federal system in the world in which one unit represents more than 80 per cent of the population. The nearest equivalent is Canada, where 35 per cent of the population live in Ontario. Federations in which the largest unit dominated, such as the USSR, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, have not been successful.

A second possibility would be to roll out devolution to England, too. This would stop short of a federal model, since the new English (like the existing devolved) institutions would be creatures of the Westminster Parliament, lacking the constitutional security inherent in federalism. Such a system would also remain distinguishable from federalism because the devolved institutions in each part of the country would continue to wield different types and amounts of authority. As such, a system encompassing devolution in England would — by definition — not amount to full-blooded adoption of a federal system.

It would, however, represent a major constitutional change — and, as such, it would run up against much the same problem as the one cited by Bogdanor above: namely, England would acquire a distinctive institutional machinery that would (on the argument adopted by Bogdanor and others) risk destablishing the Union thanks to England’s relative size. We should not, however, adopt this argument unthinkingly, given the position at which we have arrived today. In its present condition, the Union is hardly in a particularly stable condition. It is therefore at least worth balancing any risk of destablisation against the possibility that creating English institutions might in fact exert a stablising influence, by enabling English nationalist impulses — which, as surely as night follows day, will be ignited by perceptions that Scotland is being accorded preferential treatment through the devolution of additional powers — to be accommodated within the Union.

A third possibility — and by far the most likely one, bearing in mind the Prime Minister’s statement of this morning — is an incremental, as distinct from a big-bang, approach. Such an approach would be of a piece with the incrementalist, pragmatic tradition that is arguably the defining characteristic of British constitutionalism. This tradition treats constitutional reform as an ongoing process — one that addresses challenges as they arise, rather than undertaking holistic reimaginings of the system. If this tradition prevails, then a Scottish “no” vote — and the associated conferral upon Scotland of additional powers — will likely trigger a series of consequences.

First, the possibility of conferring further powers upon devolved institutions elsewhere in the UK will arise. If Scotland is given additional powers in the aftermath of the “no” vote, it is inevitable that Northern Ireland and Wales will agitate for equivalent treatment.

Second, the West Lothian problem will be confronted, whether in the way proposed by the McKay Commission or otherwise, whilst stopping short of the more-radical option of creating wholly distinct (either federal or devolved) English institutions. Of course, as those who have wrestled with the West Lothian problem well know, there are no easy answers to it. Even curtailing the capacity of non-English MPs to influence English law is not a magic bullet, not least because this creates a further problem known as the “shifting majority”, the difficulty being that an administration formed from a party with a pan-UK majority would be unable to secure its English legislative programme if it were to lack a majority of English MPs. Indeed, the shifting-majority problem is a good illustration of the problems invited by piecemeal, as opposed to holistic, constitutional reform: pull at one loose thread, and a wider unravelling may follow.

Once — as, at some point, there inevitably will be — a UK government that commands a majority in the House of Commons thanks only to the ballast accorded by MPs from outside England, this problem will become all to apparent. It will strike at the heart of the Westminster model, according to which the government of the day commands — and must command — a majority in the House. In contrast, once the West Lothian Question is resolved, the possibility arises of a UK  government being incapable of securing a majority in the House of Commons on the vast majority of the — English — legislative business transacted there. While, therefore, the notion of “English votes for English laws” may sound as modest as it is sensible, it opens up a new can of worms that may be hard to contain. In particular, if the resolution of the West Lothian Question results in a de facto English Parliament within the Westminster Parliament, it will be hard to resist some degree of reform on the executive plane. The logic of an (effectively) English Parliament may, in other words, dictate the establishment of (in some form) an English government. A real possibility, therefore, is that tackling the West Lothian Question will — unintentionally — turn out to be the mere precursor to more far-reaching institutional reform, the logical endpoint of which is something more closely akin to English devolution of full federalism.

Third, even if reticence around pan-England institutions closes off discussion about devolution to England, it is likely that greater attention will be given to devolution within England: that is, devolution not to all-England institutions but to regional English institutions. Indeed, Nick Clegg and David Miliband have already said as much. Such proposals fell spectacularly flat when proposed in north-east England a decade ago, but that is not to say that different proposals would also fail. However, whether devolution within (rather than to) England is a fitting response to the challenges arising from the Scottish referendum is another question. The answer to it turns on (among other things) the prevailing sense (or senses) of belonging that operate in England: do those living in England identify with — and wish to be represented by — institutions that reflect an undifferentiated notion of Englishness, or would they identify more readily  with institutions standing for particular sub-strands of English identity?

Fourth, the constitutional position of devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will become increasingly entrenched — not by dint of legal security wrought through the adoption of a technically federal model and the disavowal of Westminster’s sovereignty which that would entail — but thanks to the ongoing solidification of constitutional conventions that render unilateral interference by London in devolved affairs every bit as inconceivable as central incursions into local matters within a federal system.

These incremental steps would not amount to wholesale constitutional reform, but they form part of a narrative that it has been possible to discern for some time: of a system that is moving irrevocably away from the centralist model that was once said to characterise the UK constitution, and towards a system that, while not federal in the classical sense, is manifestly not unitary in nature.

Just as it does not now, so the UK constitution would not, were these things to come to pass, conform to any particular, identifiable model. It would not, for instance, be neatly characterisable as a federal system; nor could it be described as a unitary state. Rather, the constitution would remain — as it has been for centuries — messy and incomparable. But these characteristics are not necessarily negative ones. Untidiness is a price that is arguably worth paying for a system that exhibits a degree of flexibility, albeit that the practically irreversible dispersal of power that devolution is accomplishing inserts brakes upon that flexibility which are novel in this country. Nor is uniqueness necessarily something to be disparaged. That the UK constitution compares to no other should not inevitably be taken to mean that there is something defective about it. Rather, it is testament to the uniqueness of our epic constitutional story. The “no” vote in Scotland means that — at least for the foreseeable future — that story will endure. Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that — in ways that are, in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, difficult to forecast with absolute certainty — the “no” vote will be shown by history to have marked a profound turning-point in that story.

Mark Elliott is a Reader in Public Law at the University of Cambridge. This post was first published on his blog, Public Law for Everyone. Mark can be found on Twitter as @DrMarkElliott.

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Filed under Constitutional reform, Devolution, England, Scotland, UK Parliament

Neil Walker on Scotland: Hijacking the Debate

NeilLet me lay my cards on the table. I remain inclined to vote ‘no’ in September’s referendum. I put it no stronger than ‘inclined’ in part  because I believe, in  the spirit of democracy – even democracy referendum-style – that those of us who have not signed the party pledge should keep an open mind as long as possible. That, indeed, is one of the reasons  why,  18 months ago,  some of us set up the Scottish Constitutional Futures Forum  and its  accompanying blog. But my reservations are also partly because  recent  events  have fuelled my anxiety about  the climate in which the debate is taking place. They have made me wonder whether the case for independence is getting a fair crack of the whip on the international stage, and have caused  me to ponder the implications of lending my vote to a position that remains so reliant upon negative rather than positive arguments.

I am not talking about the shenanigans over a Currency Union. It may  be a minority position, but I believe both sides have been giving as good as they get on this question, and that neither comfortably occupies the moral high ground. There has always been something  both opportunistic and wishful in the nationalist stance. Sterling, once derided as a busted flush,  is reclaimed as a joint birthright. The Euro, once hailed  as the bright new  monetary dawn, is conveniently relegated to the status of a political  lifestyle choice rather than faced up to as an obligation of EU membership that can, at most, be  deferred.

The Unionist response may be  no more elevated  than this, but is surely ranks no lower. There is an arguable case, if a far from compelling one, that it would be in rUK’s best interest to refuse the  departing Scots a Currency Union. There are certainly risks  either way, and  rUK might well change tack in the cold light of a ‘yes’ vote. But Better Together is being no more narrowly strategic than the nationalists in arguing forcefully for the position that  best suits its immediate interests. It is a position that could backfire – may already be backfiring – as it allows the nationalists to play the victim card, and to point out that, as the residual sovereign in the event of post-yes-vote negotiations, rUK enjoys  the ‘bully’s’  advantage  of  being able to make promises  – or threats – that it can credibly deliver upon in self-fulfilment of  its prophecies and  prejudices. But in the final analysis, the Better Together position, like the nationalist one, is a democratically legitimate one. It is articulated by  elected politicians of various parties in favour of a constituency – the UK – whose  right to retain the decisive constitutional  voice is the very issue at the heart  of the referendum. And while nationalists may proclaim the inconsistency of Better Together’s new position with its previous self-denying ordnance against pre-specification of the terms and conditions of independence, they must also acknowledge that  the Unionist parties, by building a united front on sterling, have at least  answered another widely aired  doubt. For  once they have demonstrated their ability to get their act together and find common voice when it really matters.

The issue of democratic credentials, however,  brings me directly  to the point of my comment: namely that other awkward union, the European Union, and the position of Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, on the subject. Barroso has previously given strong indications of where he stands, so perhaps we should not be too surprised by his remarks on the BBC’s flagship Andrew Marr Show last weekend. The novelty of his latest contribution may only have been one of emphasis, but the tone was nevertheless striking. Apparently the prospects of membership for an independent Scotland, never untroubled in his perspective, are now to be assessed as  “extremely difficulty… If not impossible.”

These remarks have been well publicised. Predictably, they have been seized upon by Better Together as vindicating their long-standing scepticism about an independent Scotland’s EU future, and as further evidence of the emptiness of nationalist promises. But why should anyone listen to Barroso on this topic?  Does he have a legitimate political voice in the debate? Does he speak from a position of legal authority?  Or, regardless of his political or legal standing, does he simply have a good insider argument, and one that we should heed? The answer, on all three counts, would seem to be ‘no’. Why is this so, and why is it important to the integrity of the debate that the kind of intervention Barroso has sought fit to make should be challenged?

First, there is the question of legitimate political voice. Barroso is not an elected politician. One upon a time he was. Between 2002 and 2004 he was Prime Minister of Portugal. Since then he had done two stints and ten years as the unelected President of the European Commission. His position, which he will vacate this year, does depend upon that of two elected institutions – on the  Council ( made up of nationally elected politicians) which proposed him, and on the European Parliament which  was required to approve  his appointment.  Under new rules introduced by the recent Treaty of Lisbon, the appointment of his successor will be subject to an additional  indirect democratic check – namely the requirement that his or her nomination by the European Council should ‘take account’ of the results of the latest European Parliamentary elections. In fact, the last European elections in 2009 already saw a move towards an overtly political style of appointment, with Barroso the chosen candidate of the   European People’s Party.    But none of these developing procedures and practices can make an elected politician out of an unelected public servant. Barroso has no popular mandate, and perhaps some sense of that lay behind his protestations to Andrew Marr, rendered not a jot more credible by their repetition,  that his words did not constitute an attempt ‘to interfere’ in a matter of internal Scottish and British politics.

But even if Barroso represents no electoral constituency, does he, as head of the Commission, nevertheless possess a clear legal authority, or even a duty,  to step into the Scottish debate? The Commission certainly has an extensive legal remit. According to Article 17 of the Treaty on European Union, it ‘shall promote the general interest of the Union’.  Yet in so doing we should understand the Commission’s  role as servants of the Treaty framework rather than its master. Article 17 continues by specifying the Commission’s role in ways that reflect and confirm its status  as  the EU’s  administrative college. Its responsibilities are largely downstream. They include the monitoring of the  application of European law, the performance of various budgetary, management, executive and management functions, as well as the power to initiate ( but not decide) legislation under the Treaties. In all of this the Commissioners, including the President, like civil servants everywhere, are charged to act independently of external influence.

None of this suggests any stand-alone authority for the Commission or its President on the high political question of new membership, except insofar as this is directly specified in the Treaties. But if we look at the relevant provisions  – Article 49 on accession and  Article 48 on  the alternative route of general Treaty revision – the standing of the Commission is a distinctly modest one. As regards accession, its role is only one of consultation, with the key decision-making reserved to the European Parliament and the Council. As regards general Treaty revision, the Commission is one of a number of institutions that may make proposals, but here the decisive voice lies squarely with the national governments.

If the Commission does not command a central  legal role in these matters, should we not nonetheless be prepared to listen carefully to the views of its President simply as an expert in Union-craft –  as someone who has the knowledge and experience gained from a decade of independently ‘promoting the general interest of the Union’? Absolutely. Of course we should! The snag  here is  that the President has chosen to say nothing worth saying – nothing that would draw upon a considered sense of that general interest,  but instead restricts himself to well-worn  prognostications about what others  might do in pursuit of their particular interests. He trades on the symbolic authority of his position to do nothing more than profound than  recall that the reception of an independent Scotland into the European Union, whether through the  Article 49 route that he envisages, or through the relatively  ‘seamless’ Article 48  route that the nationalists argue for, would  require the approval of all 28 existing member states; and then to advise that this is an arithmetically formidable threshold, especially given the reservations of certain member states about independence movements in their own backyards – a caution that, as Barroso proceeds to reminds us,  has led Spain, concerned with Catalonian and Basque claims, even to refuse to permit a precedent as distant as the recognition of Kosovo as an independent Balkan state.

What is glaringly absent from the debate, both in the  knowing buck-passing of Barroso’s intervention and in the broader silence of the EU’s main movers and players on the Scottish question, is the articulation of any kind of public philosophy that would provide good reasons, rather than simply motivations of base political self interest, why an independent Scotland should or should not be welcomed with open arms. How, precisely, is the EU, still  resolved by common commitment of the member states in the preamble to the Treaty on European Union ‘ to  continue the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity’, to justify the exclusion of an independent Scotland? Why should  a country of 5  million citizens, who  have also been EU citizens for 40 years and who have expressed no desire to leave the European Union, be treated less  generously than the 110 million new EU  citizens – over 20% of the EU’s total population – who have joined from Central and Eastern Europe since 2004? Why should Scottish citizens instead be placed in the same category of Kosovo, or any other  potential candidate from beyond the Union’s distant borders?

The point in posing  these rhetorical questions is not to suggest that the propositions they contain will simply collapse under the weight of their own absurdity. For there  may well be a principled case to  make  against automatic and accelerated membership of an independent Scotland. We find the embryo of such a case, for example, in the analysis of Joseph Weiler, the current President of the European University Institute in Florence. He has argued, with special  reference to the Catalan case,(see that just as national minorities in existing member states who presently enjoy extensive forms  of individual and collective freedom have no  automatic right to secede as a matter of general international law, so, too, the  European Union in its accession policy should not be expected to indulge the independence claims of these unoppressed sub-state nations.To the contrary, the very ethos of integration, reconciliation and continental solidarity that has fed the European project from its post-War beginnings, according to Weiler, should lead  the European Union to take a dim view of any separatist impulse that seems to betray these very founding virtues. From this perspective, therefore, far from having a stronger claim than those external candidates  who have benefited from the post-Cold War Enlargement, those nations already comfortably nested in the EU’s Western European heartland  of multi-level governance should be promised no safe European haven if they insist on the path to independence.

I happen to disagree with both the specific thrust and the wider implications of the  Weiler thesis. To begin with, and most narrowly, even if Weiler’s reasoning is applicable to the situation of Catalonia, where no constitutionally permissible route to referendum and independence is presently countenanced at the level of the wider Spanish state, the Scottish case  is quite different. Here, the Edinburgh Agreement reflects the preparedness of the UK’s flexible constitution to accommodate the prospect of independence. So for the EU to set its face against Scottish independence would be  to dismiss the significance of the member state’s own recognition of the legitimacy of secession.  Secondly, and more broadly, whether we are dealing with the  Scottish or the Catalan case or that of any other national minority, surely more store than Weiler allows should be set by an aspiring nation’s own sense of what is the constitutionally adequate vindication of its desire for collective autonomy. If nothing short of independence is deemed adequate from the perspective of the constituency in question as an affirmation of shared political identity, it is difficult to see why such a subjective  aspiration should be dismissed in favour of a supposedly objective  standard of adequate individual and collective freedom. Thirdly, even if a special case for the EU  as an entity possessing and pursuing a unique historical mission to make internal secession both unnecessary and unacceptable can  be advanced,  it seems unduly dogmatic to use this to justify a rigid policy against  continued membership of new internal states. There are, after all, other and rival views of the deeper purpose of the European Union. The priority given in the Preamble to the TEU to the principle of subsidiarity has already been mentioned, and this surely reflects an alternative  and more independence-friendly perspective. In the face of these competing narratives, should the public policy of the EU on accession not remain more agnostic?

Whether or not my arguments convince, they surely serve to demonstrate  that the EU’s accession policy is and always has been intimately linked to the deep purposes of the world’s first supranational polity, and to ongoing debate, inevitably controversial, over what precisely these deep purposes demand.  It is, therefore, a matter that  requires reasoned public argument and justification of the sort that Weiler attempts rather than a mere weighing of the strategic ‘private’ preferences of national parties. Yet all we get from Barroso is the latter. Not only is this less than we might expect from someone committed to the general interests of the Union, but it also allows the prejudices of national parties to be entered to the calculation without the embarrassment of a first person airing.

In a nutshell:  If any of the key players on the EU stage is opposed to Scottish membership then they should either show the courage of their convictions through a discourse of public justification linked to the interests of the Union as a whole  or, failing that,  they should at least be prepared to declare their intentions to act out of national self-interest. Barroso’ s intervention allows a significant oppositional note to be struck without either of these tests of public candour being met. The danger increases that our independence debate become hijacked to poorly specified and undefended external considerations. That surely is bad news for anyone interested in the referendum as a means to the long-term, widely accepted  resolution of our national conversation.

Neil Walker is Regius Professor of Public Law and the Law of Nature and Nations at the University of Edinburgh.

Suggested citation: N. Walker, ‘Hijacking the Debate’ Scottish Constitutional Futures Forum Blog (18th February 2014) (available at: or N. Walker, ‘Hijacking the Debate’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (18th February 2014) (available at:


Filed under Constitutional reform, Devolution, England, Scotland, UK Parliament, Uncategorized

Mark Elliott: Devolution, the West Lothian Question, and the nature of constitutional reform in the United Kingdom

mark1Earlier this week, the McKay Commission published its Report on the Consequences of Devolution for the House of Commons. The Commission’s terms of reference required it to determine “how the House of Commons might deal with legislation which affects only part of the United Kingdom, following the devolution of certain legislative powers to the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the National Assembly for Wales”. In other words, the Commission was established to do that which Lord Irvine of Lairg (in)famously counselled against: viz to tackle the West Lothian Question. (Irvine reportedly said that the best thing to do about that question was to “stop asking it”.) There are various ways in which the question can be framed. The Commission, for its part, took the central issue to be the possibility that “MPs from outside England could help determine laws that apply in England, while MPs from England would have no reciprocal influence on laws outside England in policy fields for which the devolved institutions would now be responsible”.

The notion of reciprocity—or, more accurately, the lack of reciprocity that is a function of the UK’s asymmetric model of devolution—has always been at the heart of the West Lothian Question. Viewed more broadly, the fact that the West Lothian Question has arisen and remained unanswered for so long is reflective of a typically British approach to constitutional reform—one that treats the constitution as a work-in-progress, and which accepts disjointedness and inelegance as the price of pragmatism and speed. Within that tradition of constitutional reform, loose ends are an inevitable result of an underlying reluctance to confront big-picture questions. The McKay Commission’s approach to the West Lothian Question is of a piece with this dominant approach to constitutionalism in the UK, in that it proposes a practical solution that leaves the some fundamental questions unanswered.

The Commission’s guiding principle—and where that principle did not lead it

The Commission is clear that doing nothing should not be regarded as a viable option. In doing so, they rightly reject the view (advanced by Vernon Bogdanor in evidence to the Commission) that because England has a de facto predominance in the UK, it has “no need to beat the drum or blow the bugle”. Bogdanor argues that if England seeks to exploit its inherent dominance, it may strain the Union to “breaking point”. But this overlooks the potentially fissiparous effect of leaving the West Lothian Question hanging and thereby stoking a sense of disempowerment. This is a sphere in which perception matters: and the risk is that England may perceive itself to be (as Richard Rawlings, “Concordats of the Constitution” (2000) 116 LQR 257, put it) “the spectre at the feast”.

Instead, the Commission concludes that: “Decisions at the United Kingdom level having a separate and distinct effect for a component part of the United Kingdom should normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of the elected representatives for that part of the United Kingdom.” The Commission recommends that this principle be adopted by means of a resolution of the House of Commons. The question then became how this guiding principle should be given practical effect.

One obvious issue is that the “separate and distinct effect” formulation is undeniably vague. As Brigid Hadfield, “Devolution, Westminster and the English Question” [2005] PL 286, put it, “What … is an English law? If it cannot be defined with sufficient precision, then non-English MPs cannot fairly be precluded from voting on it.” By advocating the vaguer “separate and distinct effect” formulation, the Commission implicitly acknowledges that the matter is a complex one in relation to which judgement would have to exercised, rather than something that can be reduced to a clear-cut formula. But acknowledging complexity is not the same thing as resolving it, and the application of the “separate and distinct” criterion would doubtless excite controversy. Such definitional difficulties are not good reasons for shelving attempts to resolve the West Lothian Question (on the ground that it is all too difficult), but there is clearly further work to be done here.

Leaving to one side the inevitable questions of categorisation, how does the Commission propose that its guiding principle should be implemented? It rejects the creation of a separate English legislature, arguing that it might have a destabilising effect and would likely require wholesale constitutional reform. What, though, of the more modest proposal that only MPs representing English constituencies (or MPs representing English and Welsh constituencies) should be allowed to vote on laws likely to have a “separate and distinct effect” upon England (or upon England and Wales)?

The Commission rejects this option too. Its reasons for doing so are largely pragmatic. In particular, it fears that different “classes” of MPs would be created, and that the possibility of “deadlock” would arise: a Government might enjoy a majority in Parliament as a whole whilst lacking an outright majority of English MPs. Such a scenario is alien to the standard modus operandi of the UK system, in which (typically) a single party has an overall majority such that the Executive is able to drive its business through Parliament with (at least a degree of) impunity. In any event, the flip-side of the “deadlock” problem is arguably more profound. It concerns the dual functions ascribed to the post-devolution UK Parliament, whereby it is required to sustain not only the UK Government but also the de facto English Government. This is the sort of big-picture issue that the McKay Commission fails squarely to confront—a point that I develop below.

The Commission’s key proposals

Having rejected an English Parliament and “English votes for English laws” (along with various other options), the Commission concludes that its guiding principle should be implemented (first) by giving a voice to English (or English and Welsh) MPs in relation to relevant Bills, and (second) by making it politically difficult—but not impossible, either as a matter of law or parliamentary procedure—to enact relevant Bills in the absence of majority support on the part of relevant MPs.

As to the first point, the Report says that “views from England
(or England-and-Wales) should be known before a final decision is made about something with a separate and distinct effect”. The Commission identifies a range of ways in which this might be achieved. One possibility is modelled on “legislative consent motions” whereby, under the Sewel convention, the consent of a devolved legislature may be sought to the enactment of UK legislation encroaching upon devolved competence. The McKay Commission envisages that an analogous procedure might be used in relation to UK legislation liable to have a “separate and distinct” effect upon England (or England and Wales), the suggestion being that a Grand Committee consisting of all MPs representing relevant constituencies would render an opinion (by means of a resolution) as to whether the (relevant parts of the) Bill should be proceeded with. Other options identified by the Commission include debating a motion “expressing
 an opinion on that part of a bill relating separately and distinctly to England (or England-and-Wales)”, and the committal of relevant Bills to specially-constituted Public Bill Committees in which the party balance would reflect that which obtained in England (or England and Wales) rather than in the whole House. The Report does not express a firm conclusion as to which of these options should be taken forward; it identifies further questions that would need to be resolved, and suggests that the Government should put its preferred options to the House of Commons, and that a Select Committee should subsequently advise the House on points of detail.

So much for a distinctive English (or English and Welsh) “voice”. What if that voice (by a majority) opposes a Bill or relevant parts of it? Here, the Commission is very clear that MPs representing English (or English and Welsh) constituencies should not have a power of veto. It therefore rejects a “double-lock” procedure, under which it would be necessary, where relevant, to secure the approval not only of a majority of all MPs but also the approval of a majority of English (or English and Welsh) MPs. This reflects the Commission’s view that once the views of MPs representing particularly affected parts of the country have been heard and considered, “the UK majority should prevail, not least in order to retain the UK Government’s accountability at election time for decision-making during its time in office”.

However, at the same time as rejecting a “double-lock”, the Commission proposes a “double-count” procedure. This would involve making public not just the names of MPs who voted for and against the Bill, but also the constituencies they represent—with a view to determining whether relevant Bills (or provisions) attracted the support of a majority of MPs representing relevant constituencies. Although no legal or procedural consequences would ensue if a majority of the latter type were not secured, the Commission envisages that “if a government was seen to have failed to attract the support of a majority of MPs from England (or England-and-Wales) for business affecting those interests, it would be likely to sustain severe political damage”. The intention, therefore, is to disincentivise the use of MPs from unaffected (or less affected) parts of the country to push through legislation against the wishes of the majority of MPs representing particularly affected parts of the UK, whilst stopping short of preventing such a practice.

In preferring double-count over double-lock, the Commission cites its own guiding principle—that decisions “should normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of the elected representatives for that part of the United Kingdom” (emphasis added). The Commission’s defence of this position rests upon the principle of reciprocity. Devolved legislatures’ wishes with respect to incursions by Westminster into areas of devolved competence are normally respected (via the use of legislative consent motions under the Sewel convention), but are not necessarily respected (because Westminster could, at least in theory, override their wishes by asserting its legislative supremacy, which is undiminished by devolution).

By the same token, while English (or English and Welsh) MPs should be able to object to UK legislation likely to have “separate and distinct” effects upon England (or England and Wales), they should not thereby be able to veto such Bills. Instead, the consequences of oibjecting—like the consequences of a devolved legislature refusing to endorse a legislative consent motion—should play out on the political stage. The essence of the proposal, therefore, is to place (for these purposes) the group of MPs representing English (or English and Welsh) constituencies in a position vis-à-vis the (full) Westminster Parliament that is analogous to the position that devolved legislatures occupy in relation to Westminster. And, as the Commission notes, the analogy would likely be extended by the emergence of a constitutional convention corresponding to the Sewel convention. (It is worth noting in passing that the likely prescriptiveness of such a convention would mean that a double-lock requirement might well obtain in effect if not in form, just as the UK Parliament’s capacity unilaterally to interfere in devolved affairs is rendered essentially notional by the Sewel convention.)  

The bigger picture

The analogy outlined above is persuasive as far as it goes—but, arguably, it does not go far enough because it takes insufficient account of two sets of distinctions and the relationship between them. First, there is the distinction between the twin roles performed by all Westminster-style legislatures: viz legislating, on the one hand, and determining the composition of and sustaining the Executive, on the other. Second, there is the distinction between the way in which the Westminster Parliament, on the one hand, and the devolved legislatures, on the other, discharge those roles. The McKay Commission’s focus is upon the way in which the Westminster Parliament discharges its first—i.e. legislative—function. But there is insufficient consideration of the second function—i.e. determining the composition of and sustaining the Executive.

The analogy between devolved legislatures and Westminster breaks down because, unlike the former, the latter has to determine the composition of and sustain a Janus-like Executive: one that functions both as the Government of the United Kingdom and as the Government of England. Within this distinction is concealed the West Lothian Question writ large. As conventionally framed, the West Lothian Question is concerned with micro-level (albeit important) questions concerning Parliament’s legislative function and its exercise in relation to individual Bills. But a macro-level question also arises. Because the Westminster Parliament must sustain not only the UK Executive but also the de facto English Executive, no amount of finessing of the procedure whereby legislation is enacted can get around the possibility that elections to the UK Parliament may yield an Executive that does not accurately reflect the wishes of voters in England (as refracted through Parliament as an electoral college). Indeed, the 2010 election is a case in point, in that the Conservative Party won an overall majority of English but not UK constituencies.

It is in this sense that the McKay Commission might be said to have failed fully to grasp the nettle. The underlying issue that is never fully grappled with is that the post-devolution Westminster Parliament is required to perform a set of functions that may be in tension with one another. And this raises questions about our constitutional architecture more profound than those addressed by the Commission. It does not, of course, follow that that particular nettle should be grasped. As noted at the outset of this post, a certain degree of messiness is an unavoidable byproduct of the approach that characterises constitutional reform in the UK—and history teaches that the results of that approach do not necessarily yield a constitution lacking workability or public acceptance.

Viewed thus, the McKay Commission’s proposed solution to the West Lothian Question is of a piece with the type of constitutionalism that generated the question in the first place. It provides a partial, practical workaround to a problem created by a disjointed set of constitutional changes. Whether all of this showcases the merits of the UK’s highly pragmatic approach to constitutional reform or reflects a failure to confront difficult and fundamental questions is a matter of perspective. In any event, the McKay Commission’s Report shows that Lord Irvine was wrong; the West Lothian Question needed to be asked, and we could do a lot worse than answer it by implementing the Commission’s proposals. It is likely, however, that the concern underpinning Irvine’s reluctance to engage with the question derived from his recognition that once one begins to pick away at the loose edges of the constitution, it may quickly begin to unravel. It follows, then, that while asking the West Lothian Question is not unwise, thinking about it too hard might well be discomforting.

Mark Elliott is Reader in Public Law at the Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge. 

Suggested citation: M. Elliott, ‘Devolution, the West Lothian Question, and the nature of constitutional reform in the United Kingdom’  UK Const. L. Blog (26th March 2013) (available at


Filed under Devolution, England, Scotland, UK Parliament

Mark Elliott: The Brighton Declaration: where now for the Human Rights Act and the Bill of Rights debate?

The Brighton Declaration, which emerged from last week’s High Level Conference on the Future of the European Court of Human Rights, has already attracted a substantial amount of comment—including by Noreen O’Meara on this Blog and Ed Bates on the UK Human Rights Blog. In this post, I revisit some of the arguments I made earlier this year, in the light of a draft of the Declaration that was leaked in February, concerning the possible implications of the Brighton process for the effectiveness of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) and the debate about a UK bill of rights. In this piece, I argue that the final version of the Brighton Declaration—viewed from the perspective of the UK’s domestic human rights regime—is less drastic. I go on to suggest that the Brighton process has therefore failed to carve out any significant latitude that might have been exploited by those proponents of a UK bill of rights whose agenda essentially reduces to the weakening of judicial protection of human rights.

The February draft

In my post on the February draft of the Brighton Declaration, I suggested that the relative potency of the HRA is attributable to two key considerations. First, while the Act leaves the legal doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty undisturbed, the Act reduces Parliament’s political capacity to exploit that doctrine by legislating in breach of fundamental rights; this the Act achieves by enabling courts publicly to condemn ECHR-inconsistent legislation via the issue of a declaration of incompatibility. Second, the HRA permits international law to disrupt the national legal and political processes by ascribing a notably high profile at the domestic level to the UK’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The February draft of the Declaration would, if implemented, have substantially weakened the HRA system. By diminishing (in ways outlined below) the role of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) as the ultimate judicial authority capable of policing compliance with the ECHR, the Convention would have become a less concrete legal constraint upon the UK. This, in turn, would have undermined the legal weight of domestic courts’ judgments under the HRA, because it would have been open to the government—to a far greater extent than before—to argue that such judgments might not reflect the Strasbourg Court’s view, safe in the knowledge that the Court, had the February draft been adopted, would have been less likely to have an opportunity to render a decisive judgment on the relevant matter.

What, then, of the final version of the Brighton Declaration? Is the scenario sketched above—a dystopian one for the human rights enthusiast; quite the reverse for the sceptic—likely to eventuate? The answer to that question is “no”, because the final version of the Declaration differs significantly from the February draft in three presently-relevant respects.

“Deference” at the Strasbourg level: subsidiarity and the margin of appreciation

First, the February draft set great store by the notion of subsidiarity and the doctrine of margin of appreciation. The same is true of the final version of the Declaration: but the emphasis is rather different. In the latter version, subsidiarity remains a “fundamental principle”, and reasons of “transparency and accessibility” are still said to call for explicit reference to it—but in the Preamble to the Convention as opposed to the Convention itself. An instrument to amend the Preamble, such that it refers explicitly to subsidiarity—and to the margin of appreciation—is thus to be adopted by the end of 2013. However, the February draft’s characterization of the margin of appreciation as “considerable” is nowhere to be found in the final version of the Declaration. And whereas the February draft said that the Strasbourg Court’s role was to “ensure that [national authorities’ decisions] are within the margin of appreciation”, the final Draft holds that the Court’s task is to determine whether such decisions “are compatible with the Convention, having due regard to the State’s margin of appreciation”. This implies a more marginal, albeit not unimportant, role for the margin of appreciation doctrine: in the final Draft, it is a factor to which the Court ought to have regard when deciding whether a breach of the Convention has occurred, rather than (as in the February draft) the key factor which frames the question (“Has the margin been exceeded?”) lying at the core of the Court’s adjudicative function.

These aspects of the February and final versions of the Declaration, like the differences between them, are relatively subtle—but they are certainly indicative of the State parties’ consensus view of the nature of the ECHR regime and of the Strasbourg Court’s place within it. Understood thus, the final Declaration postulates a more significant and central role for the Court than the February draft, and signals that the desire of the UK (and, no doubt, certain other States) to substantially limit the role of the ECtHR has ultimately yielded little. Of course, that conclusion can only be provisional, in that the wording of the revised Premable—and so the nature of the newly explicit textual references to subsidiarity and the margin of appreciation—remain to be seen. It is highly unlikely, however, that the revised Preamble will invest those notions with content that breathes new life into the more radical approach envisaged in the February draft. The upshot, then, is that in cases that reach the Court, its approach is unlikely to be significantly different as a result of the Declaration and the revised Preamble.

A caveat should, however, be entered. While the Brighton process may, viewed from a particular perspective, have “failed”, some aspects of the vision revealed in the February draft could conceivably be realized in other ways. Indeed, it is possible that the mere floating of the more far-reaching ideas contained in the February draft (and associated posturing) may have been influential—for example, by inviting what Helen Fenwick has called an “appeasement approach” on the part of the ECtHR. So, while the final text of the Brighton Declaration does not clip Strasbourg’s wings in the rather direct and unsubtle ways envisaged in the February draft, the possibility cannot be discounted of the (voluntary) adoption by the ECtHR of a more limited—more “deferential”, in domestic parlance—approach. The Declaration necessarily now forms part of the backdrop against which the Court will seek to understand the proper extent of its role, as in due course will the explicit references to subsidiarity and margin of appreciation that are to feature in the revised Preamble. The latter doctrine is traditionally understood as a function of Strasbourg’s political and cultural dislocation from individual States parties—and thus as recognition on its part of the limits of its institutional competence. In contrast, while the notion of subsidiarity remains ill-defined in this context, it arguably reflects something of the concerns which, at the domestic level, coalesce around the notion of the judicature’s limited constitutional competence. In other words, “subsidiarity” may very well not be a synonym for “margin of appreciation”, and its express inclusion in the Preamble will, at the least, invite fresh reflection upon the proper extent of the Court’s role.

Pending the text of the revised Preamble—and its absorption into the Court’s jurisprudence—further speculation is unwarranted. It suffices to say that while the final version of the Declaration places rather less weight on subsidiarity and margin of appreciation than the February draft, it nevertheless accords them a newly formal prominence. But even if, in the future, greater “deference” is exhibited by Strasbourg, important questions remain about the nature of such deference: in particular, does it invite the ascription of weight, or respect, to the views of domestic courts or to those of national political institutions? If the former, then this might do little to appease State governments troubled by what they perceive to be excessively interventionist domestic courts—and little to diminish the existing capacity of sufficiently interventionist UK courts to uphold fundamental rights in the face of more sceptical political branches.

Advisory jurisdiction: legal and political constitutionalism

Second, the February draft sought to change the means by which some cases reach the Court in the first place, by providing for “advisory opinions” on “point[s] of interpretation”. As I argued in my previous post, this approach, if implemented, could have blunted the ECHR as a legal constraint (at least in relation to States that accepted the envisaged optional protocol). This was so because, according to the February text, when a non-binding advisory opinion had been rendered, the right of individual petition would ordinarily have been displaced, meaning that the Strasbourg Court would effectively be denied the opportunity to render a judgment that would be legally binding under Article 46. But here, too, the final version of the Declaration adopts a more subtle approach. In particular, there is no reference to the notion contained in the February draft that the application by a national court of an advisory opinion should normally preclude the subsequent exercise by the person concerned of the right of individual petition (and hence the prospect of a binding judgment adverse to the State party concerned). Granted, the final Declaration does not rule out this possibility—but the removal from the text of any explicit reference to it, coupled with the characterization of the right of individual petition as the “cornerstone” of the Convention regime, suggests that there is no consensus in favour of limiting that right in the way proposed by the February text.

So even if the envisaged draft optional protocol on advisory opinions—which the Declaration invites the Committee of Ministers to produce by the end of 2013—were adopted, this would not in itself erode the Court’s capacity to render non-advisory judgments that would be binding upon States in the normal way. Viewed from the perspective of the UK’s HRA system, this means (inter alia) that the possibility (which the February draft would have opened up) no longer arises of the UK government disputing a domestic declaration of incompatibility on the ground that Strasbourg might not actually have found national law incompatible with the Convention had the matter reached it other than under the advisory route: use of the advisory route will not now close off the possibility of individual petition.  This, in turn, preserves the capacity of the ECtHR to inject legal force into a national human rights regime that remains ultimately wedded—in the sense that it acknowledges the authority of the UK Parliament to transgress Convention norms as a matter of strict domestic law—to the tradition of political constitutionalism.

Admissibility: the relationship between domestic courts and Strasbourg

Third, the February text proposed that Article 35 be amended “to make clear that” an application is inadmissible “if it is the same in substance as a matter that has been examined by a national court taking into account the rights guaranteed by the Convention”, unless the national court has “seriously erred” or the case raises a “serious question” concerning the interpretation or application of the Convention rights.

The relevant part of the final version of the Declaration differs in three key respects. First, no amendment to Article 35 is contemplated; rather, the Court is “encourage[d] to have regard to the need to take a strict and consistent approach” in this sphere, “clarifying its case law … as necessary”. Second, the final version affirms that an application should be regarded as manifestly ill-founded to the extent that it raises a complaint that has been “duly considered” by a national court “applying” the Convention in the light of “well-established” ECtHR case law—a formulation that draws the category of prima facie inadmissible applications more narrowly than the February text. Third, there is no reference to national courts having “seriously erred” as a trigger for treating as admissible an application relating to a matter already considered at the domestic level.

While the latter feature of the final Declaration appears to make it more restrictive than the February draft (in that a potential trigger is omitted), the broader message is clearly that consideration of a matter at the national level will less readily exempt it from consideration in Strasbourg. Against that background, a “serious error” trigger would be as unnecessary as it would be misleading—the point being that the final version of the Declaration rightly envisages a role for the ECtHR which transcends putting right domestic courts that have “seriously erred” in their application of the Convention.

The Human Rights Act

All of this suggests that the Brighton Declaration’s implication for the UK’s domestic human rights regime are decidedly modest. Nothing in the final version of the Declaration—in contrast to the February draft—significantly diminishes the effectiveness of the HRA as a real constraint upon not only administrative and other legislative bodies but the UK Parliament itself. Ostensible fidelity to the orthodoxy of parliamentary sovereignty notwithstanding, the HRA domesticates the Convention norms that bind the UK under international law in a manner that renders largely theoretical the possibility of lawfully transgressing them as a matter of domestic law. As noted at the outset of this post—and in more detail in my previous post on this topic—the HRA achieves this by puncturing both the dualist distinction between domestic and international law and the Diceyan division between legal and political modes of constitutionalism.

But as a model that is necessarily grafted onto the ECHR, the HRA’s success is ultimately contingent upon the nature of the Convention scheme to which it gives effect at the national level. The February draft of the Brighton Declaration would have altered that scheme significantly: by diminishing the role of the Strasbourg Court, it would have reduced the juridical bite of what appears at first glance (given the absence of any strike-down power) to be an ultimately supine domestic human rights system. Such a characterization of the UK system is, of course, wide of the mark. But that is, in large part, precisely because behind a British judicature lacking constitutional authority to invalidate rights-incompatible legislation stands an international tribunal willing and able to render judgments that are binding upon the UK as a matter of international law. And, importantly, such judgments are likely anticipated by national judicial decisions under the HRA that Parliament is free to ignore only when the matter is viewed through the parochial lens of purely domestic legal theory. By avoiding the substantial curbs upon the ECtHR’s role contemplated by the February draft, the final version of the Brighton Declaration thus preserves the essential characteristics of the Convention regime that underpin the HRA’s potency.

The bill of rights debate

Finally, what of the debate concerning a UK bill of rights? In a post on this Blog published in 2011, I observed that the terms of reference of the Commission on a UK Bill of Rights reveal a curious paradox. Much of the political rhetoric preceding the establishment of the Commission anticipated that a Bill of Rights would enable, or require, British courts to strike a different balance between individual rights and conflicting public interests—perhaps in order to head-off further bouts of Prime Ministerial nausea such as that which was induced by the prospect of permitting some prisoners to vote. Yet, thanks no doubt to the constraints of coalition, the Commission is in fact required to “investigate the creation of a UK Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in UK law, and protects and extend our liberties”.

An obvious tension arises between, on the one hand, a Bill of  Rights Commission committed through its terms of reference to an ECHR-plus (or at least not an ECHR-minus) model and, on the other hand, politicians’ promises that a UK bill of rights would “mak[e] sure decisions are made in this Parliament rather than in the courts”. One way of resolving that tension, of course, would be to adjust the obligations deriving from the ECHR in the first place, so as to render it (from a pejorative perspective) less of a straightjacket. Brighton was the government’s attempt to do precisely that: not by explicitly amending the provisions defining the Convention rights, but by loosening Strasbourg’s grip on policing their interpretation and application. Doing so, it was presumably anticipated, would in turn have rendered domestic courts’ human rights judgments more contestable, as it would follow with less certainty than at present that Strasbourg would concretely endorse them—whether because the case would never reach the ECtHR (owing to narrower admissibility criteria), or because it would render only a non-binding advisory opinion, or because a generous margin of appreciation (or doctrine of subsidiary) would cause it to stay its hand. However, for the reasons set out above, these objectives are not actually realized by the Brighton Declaration.

The result is that the Brighton process has not created the sort of latitude that might have been exploited by those in favour of a bill of rights that takes a looser form than the HRA: it does not offer an escape route from the constraints which derive from the realpolitik of coalition and the Bill of Rights Commission’s resulting terms of reference. Political rhetoric that (perhaps paradoxically) postulates a bill of rights as a vehicle for creeping dejuridification and the elevation of the interests of the “law-abiding majority” is therefore—at least for the time being—as empty as it is misleading.

Mark Elliott is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Cambridge.


Filed under Constitutional reform, England, Human rights

Andrew Le Sueur: ‘Fun-loving guys’, government ‘doing anything that individuals do’ and the rule of law

In my administrative law lectures, I get students to practise an action that I explain ought to become instinctive in the minds of lawyers working for (or against) government. You extend your index finger and, in a sweeping movement, point to a law in the book in front of you, or on the library shelf, or on Westlaw, or wherever. As Mr Justice Laws said in Fewings, ‘For private persons, the rule is that you may do anything you choose which the law does not prohibit … But for public bodies the rule is opposite, and of another character altogether. It is that any action to be taken must be justified by positive law’.

Pointing at positive legal authorisation for an act of government is not always straightforward – and that is half the fun and challenge in studying administrative law. The ‘positive law’ may be implied; it may be unclear. The issue in Fewings was whether Somerset County Council could lawfully ban hunting on its own land (a decade before the Hunting Act 2004 put in place a national ban on hunting with dogs). There was some awkward scrabbling around for any statutory basis for local authority management of open spaces but the parties alighted on (and the judges agreed) that s 120(1)(b) of the Local Government Act 1972 was a good enough foundation, even though it was ostensibly about the acquisition rather than the on-going management of land for ‘the benefit, improvement or development of their area’. Laws J and the majority of the Court of Appeal held, for somewhat different reasons, that s 120(1)(b) did not enable a hunting ban on council-owned land. The council had mistakenly assumed it could act like a private landowner and had not applied its collective mind to the purposes or limits of the power conferred on it by s 120. The judgments were regarded as undemocratic by some.

Another complication in the finger pointing approach is s 111 of the Local Government Act, which gives local authorities ‘subsidiary powers’ to do anything ‘which is calculated to facilitate, or is or conducive or incidental to, the discharge of any of their functions’. This wriggle-room can’t be taken too far into things that are ‘incidental to the incidental’. If we had time in my lectures, we could go into the ‘wellbeing powers’ created by s 2 of the Local Government Act 2000 and the twists and turns that ensued from that.

My finger-pointing exercise will need a radical re-think for the 2012-13 academic year. Section 1 of the Localism Act 2011 came into force in February, several weeks earlier than anticipated as a government response to the High Court’s ruling that Bideford Town Council had no powers to allow Christian prayers to be said at the start of council meetings. Mr Justice Ouseley held ‘There is no specific statutory power to say prayers or to have any period of quiet reflection as part of the business of the Council’.

The situation is now different under s 1(1) of the 2011 Act, which says ‘A local authority has power to do anything that individuals generally may do’. This includes ‘power to do it anywhere in the United Kingdom or elsewhere’, ‘power to do it for a commercial purpose or otherwise for a charge, or without a charge’ and ‘power to do it for, or otherwise than for, the benefit of the authority, its area or persons resident or present in its area’ (s 1(4)). This general power ‘is not limited by the existence of any other power of the local authority which (to any extent) overlaps with the general power’ (s 1(5)).

At second reading of the bill that became the 2011 Act, Eric Pickles MP (Con), Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said:

‘The reason why the general power of competence is so important is that it turns the determination requirements on their head. All those fun-loving guys who are involved in offering legal advice to local authorities, who are basically conservative, will now have to err on the side of permissiveness. That is a substantial change …’.

The government believes that the formula used is judge-proof. Junior minister Andrew Stunell MP (Lib Dem) assured colleagues on the public bill committee ‘just how broad that power is’ and, thanks to subsections (5) and (6), the ‘courts will find it difficult – we have been advised that they will find it impossible – to unpick that’. Later he said, clarifying the intended reach of the new general power:

‘In the past, local authorities could only do things that were permitted to them by legislation. We are now inverting that and saying, “You can do anything that isn’t forbidden by legislation.” That does not mean that we are taking away the current forbidden territory and saying to authorities that they can go into the forbidden territory. It is not saying that they can abandon their statutory and legal duties that are imposed by existing legislation.’

The idea of a power of general competence (PGC) for local authorities is neither peculiarly English nor is it new.

For example, the pros and cons of a PGC were hotly debated a decade ago in New Zealand, where it was seen variously as a ‘coming of age’ for local authorities to be ‘responsive to local needs’ or ‘an unhindered invitation for small-minded politicians and bureaucrats to meddle and construct empires funded by the taxes of their passive citizens no longer protected by the check and balance that prescription provides’.

In England in 1967, the Maud committee report on the management of local government recommended a PGC. The report argued ‘ultra vires as it operates at present has a deleterious effect on local government because of the narrowness of the legislation governing local authorities’ activities. The specific nature of legislation discourages enterprise, handicaps development, robs the community of services which the local authority may render, and encourages too rigorous oversight by central government. It contributes excessive concern over legalities and fosters the ideas that the clerk should be a lawyer’ (para 283). Forty-three years on, similar sentiments led to the promise of a PGC as a promise in the Coalition Government’s agreed programme.

So far as I can see, the introduction of the PGC for local authorities has sparked very little constitutional concern or even interest in England. There was, for example, no report from the House of Lords Constitution Committee drawing attention to the implication of a PGC for the rule of law. Debate on the bill leading to the Localism Act 2011 was rarely couched in constitutional terms. Why so? I have two suggestions.

First, in the UK there is a general lack of interest in local government from a constitutional standpoint. This seems to be the first post on this blog focusing on local authorities. In law schools, local government has squeezed off the syllabus of most undergraduate public law courses degrees by the Human Rights Act, devolution and Europe. It’s also noteworthy that the House of Lords Constitution Committee has never tackled central-local relations, or local government in and of itself, in an inquiry.

Second, it is possible that the PGC is less constitutionally and legally significant than at first sight it appears to be. In 1967, Maud committee report did consider the constitutional implications of its recommendation to create a PGC. The report sought to reassure the ‘fun-loving guys’ in local government: ‘the modification we propose would not mean that local authorities would cease to be subject to the rule of law. The supremacy of Parliament is not in question. Nor are we advocating the abolition of the doctrine of ultra vires for local authorities would still have to work within the statutes. They would continue to have statutory duties and limitations imposed on them and permission powers granted to them, and their governmental and coercive powers would be regulated by law’ (para 284). Some commentators, looking at the version of a PGC contained in the Localism Act 2011, have sought to downplay the scope of councils’ room for manoeuvre. For example, Tim Kerr QC argues that ‘the usual public law constraints (rationality, relevant considerations, procedural fairness, disregard of irrelevant considerations)’ would apply ‘to exercise of the power of general competence, even though an “individual” in the private sphere is not subject to them’. Sections 2 and 3 of the 2011 Act also needs to be considered: the former defines ‘boundaries of the general power’ (in particular, that the PGC doesn’t override express prohibitions of local government action contained in the statute book) and the latter ‘limits on charge in exercise of general power’. To this can be added the controlling force of ‘constitutional legislation’ such as the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010. Clearly, the 2011 Act does not do away with the idea the local authorities are creatures of statute subject to the constraints of ultra vires.

The truth of the matter is that we do not yet know what councils will do with the PGC. In June 2011, the House of Commons Communities and Local Government select committee, in their report on localism, called on the ‘Government work with the Local Government Association to set out examples of specific ways in which the general power of competence will enable local authorities to extend their role beyond that conferred by the well-being powers.

However the power is used something of significance affecting the rule of law has been brought about by s 1 of the Localism Act. As Laws J explained in Fewings, ‘The rule [that any action by a public body must be justified by positive law] is necessary in order to protect people from arbitrary interference by those set in power over them’. Section 1 is ‘positive law’ but of such breadth that it looks as if it will largely be down to the political constitution to shape its use; that, at least, is the Government’s goal. Whether a revitalised local politics is up to the job remains to be seen.

Andrew Le Sueur is Professor of Public Law at Queen Mary, University of London and co-convenor of the UK Constitutional Law Group.


Filed under England

Andrew Le Sueur: Reaching Middle England at Chelsea

People accidentally stumbling across this blog must think that we’re an intensive lot. But it’s not all “rules of the game” with no “game”. We all have hinterlands. Part of mine is gardening, even though anyone living in my London terraced house before 1985 would have called my plot a “back yard” not a “patio”. So, yesterday it was my annual pilgrimage to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show; it poured with rain but I’ve been inspired.

Non-gardeners can be forgiven for thinking that Chelsea is just about plants. That’s a mistake: it’s as much about propaganda and selling ideas and causes. The climate change agenda is everywhere. Not-for-profit organisations such as the BBC and Cancer Research sponsor some of the large show gardens. One that caught my eye was the Magistrate’s Garden, designed for The Magistrates’ Association “celebrating the 650th anniversary of the magistracy in England and Wales”.

Middle Englanders straining the see the garden through the crowds had glossy leaflets thrust into their hands, explaining the garden and the Association. Kate Gould, the garden’s designer, explains: “The garden is imagined, as a courthouse would be, in a central and modern town location, backing onto the court rooms. It has been designed for use by the magistrates themselves, to work, reflect or relax in during the working day. The two facing benches refer to the magistrates’ bench and the court’s crest is set into the wooden panels above the seat”.

A timeline in the leaflet intermingles horticultural and legal landmarks. Did you know that the lawnmower was invented in the same year (1830) as Parliament renewed licensing powers for Justices of the Peace? Confidence in the timeline is dented a bit by the entry “1989 Human Rights Act”, though it’s interesting to speculate what a Conservative-inspired incorporation of the ECHR might have looked like. May be we’ll find out here? The final entry on the timeline helps explain the motivation for the garden: “2011 Economic difficulties result in closure of one quarter of magistrates courts”.

Hazel Genn’s work on public understanding of judges reveals just how little public understanding there is of judges and courts and that almost everything that people think they know comes via the news media and TV drama. So well done the Magistrates’ Association for the piece of outreach work to Middle England, attached to a lovely garden. Anything that helps cut through the tabloid fog to put information directly into people’s hands must be a good thing.

Next year at Chelsea? I’d like to see the Judges’ Council explaining the super-injunctions saga though Hibiscus rosa-sinensis spilling over some tall, neatly trimmed box hedges.

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Filed under England, Judiciary