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Public Affairs BLOG

Are We a Nation of Constitutional Illiterates?

By George Livesey, Public Affairs Intern

As a people, politicos included, we seem to be (not so) blissfully unaware of the procedures that govern our institutions. In light of recent events this, apparent, mass misunderstanding has come to the fore; it was not only the impact on the constitution that the outcome of the Brexit referendum would cause that was not often discussed, but also, the actual act of holding a referendum itself. Unlike the faux constitutional ‘crisis’ that ensued after the result of June’s snap general election, the fallout and furore following the Brexit vote was predicted by some, many of whom suffered much constitutional consternation in fear of either result of the vote.

More of us should consider the advantageous and disadvantageous consequences, brought about by holding referendums, to the way we are governed. More of us should have seen through the media’s sensationalising of the outcome of the general election to notice that Mrs May was at the mercy of a well-oiled constitutional machine. Unlike our transatlantic cousins we leave our constitution almost completely untaught, resulting in it, more often than not, being a thing of derision not of reverence. Perhaps it is just political aficionados that notice it or care for it, yet many seem to have lost sight of our organic constitution whilst caught up in the recent turbulence of British politics.

Public Affairs Brexit EU

Image Courtesy of Rich Girard, flickr.com

Brexit is obviously the biggest constitutional challenge of recent times, yet, the constitutional conundrums thrown-up by holding referendums were not, and are not, discussed. It can be credibly argued that this type of direct democracy does not fit within our representative-trustee model, and can be viewed as ‘fundamentally unconstitutional’, as some scholars have dubbed it. Moreover, Kenneth Clarke MP, the Father of the House and arch-Europhile, was another one of the few that was asking such questions, coming to the conclusion that we should regard the referendum as a ‘glorified opinion poll’.

Ken Clarke

Image courtesy of the House of Commons

Whatever your opinion happens to be, should we not even be slightly worried that we do not seem to have paused and assessed whether this is the direction in which we want to travel? We have stumbled into an ancient debate, one which shaped our constitution, but we have not been delving into it, an exercise which would greatly assist us in deciding how we want to decide things in the future.

The constitution was always going to be strained whatever the outcome was on June 23rd 2016. In addition to the issues caused by leave’s victory, if it had been a win for remain then the issue would have been shunned as a done deal, even though it would have been far from it, continuing to bubble under the surface of public opinion. This catch 22 situation led even died in wool eurosceptics, such as Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens, to take no part in the referendum itself.

The outcome has caused the Government’s powers over foreign affairs to be modified after a Supreme Court challenge, created friction between Westminster and the devolved assemblies/parliaments, altered the Westminster model and left a mammoth task of reversing decades of ‘Europeanisation’. Also, a matter of acute constitutional importance, but almost entirely uncommented on, is the fact that we now have a Government where we know beyond doubt that the majority of people in it disagree with their own biggest policy; that of removing the UK from the EU. This also applies to a Parliament that voted to trigger Article 50 even though it had an overwhelmingly remain make-up, although this doesn’t have such a grave impact on collective ministerial responsibility as applies to the Government.

We are in constitutionally choppy waters, yet, many don’t seem to care and see these issues as merely practical problems that can be overcome by any means necessary. We live in a country where we have a continued misunderstanding regarding our rulers’ rules and customs, exemplified by the hysteria following the general election where the constitutional process seemed to be inexplicable and illusive, yet, it was in fact working at its best. We must all accord our constitution with more care and attention, constantly with one eye on the future, particularly at a time when it is at risk of people losing faith in it entirely.

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