TIM BALE: PARLIAMENT SHOULD CONTINUE PLAYING ITS CRUCIAL ROLE IN THE UK’S WITHDRAWAL FROM THE EU.
By Fernando Gómez Herrero, firstname.lastname@example.org
I joined the one-day conference “Brexit: What Next?” organised by The UK in a Changing Europe in London on 10th of March, one week before lockdown. I interviewed one of his co-organisers, Prof. Tim Bale (Queen Mary, London), specialist in political science. I asked him a few questions about the event in question. This is the original English. The translation into Spanish is mine. So is the attached photography of the said event.
1/ What was the general thinking behind the "Brexit and Parliament?" and what did you see happening during that day that you deem worth mentioning?
Our rationale for holding the event was our conviction that parliament had played a crucial role in the period between the Referendum and the UK's eventual withdrawal, and that it still potentially has a role to play in how the UK relates to the EU in the future. We wanted to hear from some of the key players both then and now. One of them was clearly the speaker of the parliament, John Bercow, who - along with the supreme court - facilitated parliament's assertion of its rights vis-a-vis the government, who at the time, of course, only controlled a minority of seats in parliament. That's changed now and we would expect, to some extent, to return to the normal pattern in the UK whereby a majority government pretty much gets to dictate what goes on in the legislature. Still, the last three years were a valuable reminder that, ultimately, it is the parliament that is sovereign, not the government. Some would say that's good to know in a democracy!
2/ Is the emphasis on scrutiny a symptom or a sign of the fear that it may dwindle in the next weeks or months due to strong Tory parliamentary majority among other things?
The fact that Theresa May and, for a few months at the start of his premiership, Boris Johnson didn't have a majority meant that parliament could assert its powers in ways that many Brexit supporters didn't much appreciate! But the advent of a majority doesn't necessarily mean that parliament won't be able to exercise scrutiny - it will: the committee system will still operate and produce potentially critical reports, ministers will still be forced to answer questions, legislation will still attract amendments, etc. The real issue, when a government has a majority, is whether that scrutiny will make any difference: will reports be ignored, will ministers simply bat away questions without really answering them, will amendments simply be voted down using that big majority. Unfortunately, I suspect the answer to all of those is yes!
3/ Is the very notion of Parliament i(House of Commons and Lords versus the Government) in question as we speak?
I wouldn't go that far - parliament is still very much the crucible for democratic debate. But we have to acknowledge, or rather remember now the days of minority government are over for a while at least, that - in comparative terms anyway - the UK has a very weak parliament. In the Westminster system, if the government has a majority, it controls the timetable, it dominates most of the committees, and it can essentially afford to ignore the opposition as long as it can control its own legislators. We are a majoritarian rather than a consensus democracy - with all that implies for governance.
4/ Is the very notion of the "constitution" in question in relation to the political unit in question (that of the U.K.) with no written constitution (unlike France, Spain or the U.S. for instance), particularly as it detaches itself from EU commitments? Perhaps as a subsection of the question: isn't it true that the legal branch may undergo some restraints or constraints in the following weeks / months (Gove is presiding some committee on legal reform)? Perhaps a subsection of previous two questions: Is it fair to say that the U.K. may be undergoing an Americanisation of its politics not only in relation to style (i.e. Boris Johnson copying Trumpian strategies and tactics via Cummings) but also in the deeper sense of the government running, or trying to run, the country as the Chair of the Board of Trustees would run his / her organisation for the short term, i.e. without a lot of scrutiny, cutting the red tape of checks and balances as much as possible, etc.?
The UK doesn't have a codified constitution which does mean that it relies a lot on everyone sticking to the generally acknowledged 'rules of the game' or at least adapting them very cautiously in order to meet new contingencies (which after all is one of the advantages of not always writing those rules down and therefore making them hard to change even when they need to). That does mean that the polity is vulnerable to politicians who have no respect for those self-policed limits and constraints, or for precedent. So far - outside the admittedly outrageous attempt to prorogue Parliament last autumn, which was anyway ruled illegal and had to be (and, importantly, was) reversed - I don't think we've seen a lot of evidence of Johnson riding roughshod over the constitution. And the government is within its rights to conduct a review of the constitution and the role of the supreme court within it. If it turns out that it wants somehow to constrain that then it can do so if it can get a majority in parliament to do that. Parliament is ultimately supreme in the UK system - which many people would say is how it should be since it is democratically elected. That said, some kind of judicial check on the executive is important and exists everywhere, so fans of the government should be very careful what they wish for - because some day there will be another government and they might be glad of a supreme court able to give it pause for thought.
5/ How have you seen both main parties (Conservative and Labour) handling Brexit ( a complex phenomenon to be sure) and how do you see them handling this in the following weeks / months?
The Conservative Party now seems determined to head for a minimalist FTA or even no-deal with the EU and is relying on the economic damage being limited and not too tangible. That is quite a gamble: I'm not sure that if things don't go well they will be able to blame everything on the EU, however hard they try to whip up nationalist feeling against it. But they've made their choice - made their bed and they will have to lie in it. As for Labour, it has to admit that there's no way back, that we are out of the EU - probably for ever, or at least for decades. But it also has to find a way to criticise the government for any negative consequences without continually saying 'I told you so' or appearing pleased things are going wrong - which is a hard trick to pull off!
6/ As a "conservative-party" specialist, you will be in a good position to handle this one: is it fair to say that Brexit is mostly or mainly the doing of the Tory party? How does this British conservatism compare and contrast with European equivalents which are in general terms with noted exceptions pro-European? Is it fair to speak of a British anomaly on the general conservative spectrum of Western politics (a kind of a "funny cousin" of the European family yet not quite identical to its US cousin either)?
The UK Conservative Party is not entirely sui generis. After all, there are other conservative parties (and some liberal parties) in mainland Europe that employ the same combination of nationalism and free market economics. And some would say that, paradoxically, it's now looking a little more Christian democratic in its new-found concern for the 'left behind' and its new-found willingness to spend more to help them. Moreover, it's by no means the only centre-right party that has adopted the anti-immigration agenda pushed by parties on the far right in recent years. On the other hand, it is pretty populist - in the sense of continuallyy claiming to be on the side of the people against the so-called liberal and expert elite - even if it doesn't go quite as far as Trump in that respect. I guess the main difference is that, in the UK, the centre right has no choice but to deploy every trick in the book because, under first past the post, it has to win on its own - there is no-one else likely to do deals with it, so it has to be more 'all things to all men' than its continental counterparts who can afford to specialise a little more.
7/ Anything else you may wish to add in relation to the event and/or "The UK in a Changing Europe."
No - only that people should check us out on the web and follow us on Twitter!
Professor of Politics, Queen Mary University of London
Co-Director, Mile End Institute
Deputy Director, UK in a Changing Europe
Google Scholar: profile
Warwick 27 Marzo del 2020 / FGH
Spanish Version in La Vanguardia: