Pointing out the United Kingdom government negotiated and signed the Northern Irish protocol is not enough – those opposed to the government’s post-Brexit approach also need a positive policy

13th June 2021

‘I told you so.’

These is perhaps the most dangerous four-word phrase in the English political lexicon.

And the danger is that the one who did tell others so then just shrugs, and does nothing more.

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A political idiot does [x], even though you (and others) averred that [x] would be irresponsible and dangerous.

Of course: it is natural and right to point out the idiot did [x] even though the irresponsible and dangerous idiocy was both foreseen and foreseeable.

And this is what this blog did yesterday.

But.

It is not sufficient.

The government can (and will) just shrug off the criticism.

And a sufficient number of voters will nod-along with the government, regardless of these errors being pointed out.

Any sensible person knows that the government made serious mistakes forcing though Brexit at speed and without a plan, and in signing up to a withdrawal agreement without understanding or caring what it said.

It is bleedingly obvious.

But there is only so much purchase in pointing this out, and that purchase is unlikely to extend to changing any voters’ minds.

Something more is needed.

Something positive.

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The biggest problem in the politics of the United Kingdom at the moment is that neither the government nor the official opposition have any substantial positive vision of the United Kingdom after Brexit.

The government, having obtained Brexit, is the proverbial dog that caught the car.

And the opposition are refusing to engage with Brexit at all, fearful of the repercussions of mentioning it – and a cowered opposition is, of course, a useless opposition.

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It is fun – and easy – to point out the government entered the Northern Irish protocol of its own free will.

The pressure to sign it at speed was self-inflicted.

We know this, and they (if ministers are honest with themselves) know this.

Yet the protocol was only, in effect, a backstop and an insurance policy (though less of a backstop and an insurance policy than the proposed formal arrangements it replaced in the course of the negotiations).

And what is the positive vision of the post-Brexit relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union?

Does anyone – anyone at all – have a positive vision of what happens next?

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The government’s Brexit problems were foreseeable and foreseen – but ministers did not care and went ahead anyway

12th June 2021

Some things remain true even when they are said again, and again, and again.

One of these truths is that a Brexit done at speed was never going to go well – and that the government of the United Kingdom refusing extensions (either to the Article 50 period or the transition arrangements) was gross irresponsible idiocy.

Ministers placed themselves under self-inflicted pressure and suffered self-imposed weaknesses.

All to ‘get Brexit done’.

Another of these truths is that if the United Kingdom left the single market then one of three things would have to happen.

Either the United Kingdom would have to stay aligned with the single market anyway, or there would be a border on the Irish mainland, or there would be a border in the Irish Sea.

Any other possibility would be fanciful, if not fantasy.

A further truth is that there was little point going through with Brexit until and unless the United Kingdom had a settled and realistic view of what would then follow, in terms of its relationship both with the European Union and with the rest of the world, and in terms of what would happen in respect of Northern Ireland.

But on this basis the United Kingdom still does not know what we want, though we want something.

The only possible merit, from a Brexit point of view, of this rushed, muddled and directionless Breixt is that, if the process had lasted any longer, it may well have been reversed.

There may have been other Brexits possible in theory, but this was perhaps the only one possible given the politics before the 2019 general election.

This is not a merit from any sensible and objective view, but perhaps it explains why this botched Brexit did happen, instead of any other.

All to ‘get Brexit done’.

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Beware Lord Frost’s ‘legal purism’ line – for it means a disregard for the rule of law and is strategically unwise

 9th June 2021

There is a new line-to-take.

This line is that a requirement to comply with legal obligations is to be dismissed as ‘legal purism’.

This line is being promoted at the moment by Brexit minister Lord Frost in respect of the obligations of the United Kingdom under the Northern Irish Protocol (obligations that, of course, Frost himself negotiated and endorsed).

Frost avers that for the European Union to require the United Kingdom to comply with this obligations is to take a ‘purist’ approach.

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For many years the United Kingdom was protected from the European Union’s legal(istic) approach to its engagement with ‘third countries’.

As one of the big three member states, it generally got its way internally, and had a number of opt-outs for things it did not like.

Trade agreements were left to the European Commission to negotiate: the United Kingdom just benefitted from the results like a teenager benefiting from the washing and ironing magically being done.

And now we are on the outside – looking in on an international organisation that, more than any other in the world, is a creature of law.

And the European Union takes law very seriously.

We are going to have to get used to it.

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That said: it is not unusual for a party to a serious agreement to want to re-negotiate terms.

And mocking Frost for wanting to change something he so recently approved can only go so far, and it does not rid us of his perceived concerns.

Perhaps there is a case for the protocol to be amended, or perhaps not.

But, either way, it is a folly for him to approach the problem by dismissing legal obligations as ‘purist’.

For, if this is the United Kingdom’s casual approach to law, why would one expect the United Kingdom to abide by any replacement legal obligations?

By attacking the very notion of legal compliance, Frost is not helping the long-term interests of the United Kingdom.

What he is doing is a silly thing, and he should not go there.

The rule of law matters – pure and simple.

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The Ghost Regulation of Brexit – how Leave campaigned for the repeal of a regulation that never existed, and why Remainers should not gloat

5th June 2021

To the extent there was a positive case for Brexit, it was in the broadest terms – ‘taking back control’ and so on.

The impetus was primal – it did not matter what we were to be taking back control of, we were taking back control, and that was enough.

Remainers may scoff at this, but this was a basis on which Leave won and Remain did not – and the glaring fault of the Remain side was a lack of an equal and opposite positive case.

But.

One problem of any general case is that it can lack in the particulars.

And it was a feature of the Leave side that they rarely specified what would actually change in substance if the United Kingdom (were/) was to leave the European Union.

A consequence of this vagueness was that once the referendum vote was made for Brexit, there was a range of possible models for the further relationship with the European Union, from hard Brexit to Brexit-in-name-only.

Another consequence was a sense of ‘what now?’ – like the dog who caught the car.

Of course: given the general case for Brexit, this did not matter – and it still does not matter.

A case not made on detail is not defeated by that lack of detail.

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Yet the case for Brexit does produce some telling (and entertaining) examples.

The journalist Marcus Leroux showed one recently on Twitter.

First, the question:

Then the answer given:

That was (presumably) in 2016 – but earlier in 2021 Longworth was still citing this ergonomics directive:

(I have checked – the ergonomics directive was an example given in that 2021 Times piece.)

And here is the good (and fun) kicker:

The directive never existed.

It is a ghost directive.

And yet from at least 2016 to 2021 it was cited as an example of the point of Brexit – and published as such this year in a national newspaper.

Leroux continues:

And here is the passage in the 2013 government report (three years before the referendum):

Cogito ergonomics sum – or not.

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Of course, Remainers may gloat at such a prize example of idiocy – but it no more discredits Brexit than if it were true, because that was not why people voted and campaigned for Leave.

And the fact it has taken until 2021 for this to be exposed (at least to my knowledge) shows it was not uppermost in the minds of many following Brexit.

There is also, no doubt, ghost facts on the Remain side as well.

That said, this ghost regulation shows that it was perfectly possible for the United Kingdom to resist unwanted regulations in the European Union before 2016.

And there is the prospect that the regulatory regime the United Kingdom develops now was also possible within the European Union.

If so, this means – in a practical regulatory sense – there was no point in Brexit.

But at least we took back control, and we caught the car.

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Five glaring issues about the announcement of the ‘new national flagship’ prestige procurement

2nd June 2021

You may think that after that botched ferry contract that the government would steer clear from further Brext-related maritime procurements.

Then the chair of the public accounts committee said:

‘The Department for Transport waited until September 2018 to start thinking about the risks to freight transport across these important routes and entered into a £13.8m contract with Seaborne Freight despite it being a new operation, owning no ferries, and not having binding contracts to use the specified ports.

‘We will be pressing the Department for answers on how it awarded its three new ferry contracts, what it is doing to manage risks and exactly what it intends to do now it has axed the contract with Seaborne.’

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You would be wrong, for the government has now announced a new procurement exercise, the cost of which is reported to be currently set at £200 million – that is about fifteen times more expensive than those non-existent ferries.

It is a curiously worded announcement – and should be read carefully in full.

Here are five observations about what the announcement says – and does not say – about this prestige project – from my perspective as a former central government public procurement lawyer.

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There is no mention of the royalty in the announcement.

Given previous attempts at such a flagship have said that it would be a new ‘royal yacht’, this must be a deliberate omission.

One would not accidentally fail to mention that the new ship was to be a royal yacht and have royal blessing if such things were true.

Indeed, the glaring omission in the announcement indicates that the announcement is a negotiated document, where the wording has been subject to intense consideration and internal discussions and approvals.

And so, although the Crown is prevalent in the polity of the United Kingdom – from underpinning the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, royal charter bodies, the maintenance of the queen’s peace and the armed services – there appears to be one thing the royalty does not want to be connected with, and that is this ship.

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The second omission is that the announcement does not say – expressly – which government department will be responsible for procuring (and/or commissioning) and – as importantly – maintaining the ship.

The announcement hints that it may be the Ministry of Defence – and there is mention that ‘the ship will be crewed by the Royal Navy’.

And given that the MoD is the one government department with the experience and resources to procure and maintain such a ship then this would be its natural administrative berth.

But the announcement does not say – expressly – that it will be under the MoD, and the purpose of the vessel does not appear to be a military one.

And there is no particular reason why the MoD – with its own budget constraints – would want to be given the costs of procuring and maintaining a ship with no obvious military purpose or value.

If – and it is an ‘if’ – the ship is to be procured and maintained by another government department, but with an agreement with the MoD for the use of the Royal Navy for crewing the ship, then we have the prospect of Whitehall (ahem) surf-wars over which department will be responsible in the event of any problems.

And prestige procurement projects do tend to have problems.

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A third omission from the announcement is about which suppliers will be responsible for the whole-life maintenance of the ship.

The announcement states that a ‘tendering process for the design and construction of the ship will launch shortly’ – but there is no mention of any similar tender exercise for the upkeep and repairs to the ship over its expected thirty-year service.

Given that this ship is (intended to be) a bespoke construction, the question of ensuring that there are sufficient arrangements for its ongoing maintenance is just as important as the initial design and construction.

A plausible scenario is that a bespoke ship is designed and constructed but its service life is severely limited as no thought had been put into what happens next with such a bespoke construction.

Another plausible scenario is that the costs of maintenance and repair over thirty years come to be far higher than the costs of the initial design and construction.

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A fourth omission is any evidence that the practicalities of this procurement exercise have been thought-through.

For instance, there is no explanation as to why it would not be more cost-effective to refit or to purchase an existing off-the-wharf (ahem) ship and to convert that ship for the envisaged purpose.

Indeed, there is no mention of any business case at all for this specially designed and constructed flagship.

There is also no mention of the role, if any, of private finance – and if there is to be a private sector element, who will bear the risk of any commercial problems.

And this, of all projects, will be too big a project to sink.

There is also no mention of what would happen if (which is conceivable) it would be cost-effective for the ship to be designed by a United Kingdom company but (which is also conceivable) it would not be cost-effective for that ship to be constructed in the United Kingdom.

Could we have a repeat of the (for some) embarrassing ‘blue passports’ situation – where a tender for another prestige Brexit project was awarded to a foreign company?

Although the announcement waxes lyrically about the procurement in that the ‘intention is to build the ship in the UK … help drive a renaissance in the UK’s shipbuilding industry and showcase the best of British engineering around the world’ the government does not know – and cannot know – at this stage whether any value for money tender would result in the ship being constructed in the United Kingdom.

(And as this would seem to be a civil rather than a defence procurement, there are also potential issues about excluding external suppliers from this high-value tender exercise.)

The envisaged timings also seem rather ambitious.

Although carefully worded, this announcement is currently more of a press release than any serious public procurement proposal.

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Finally: £200 million pounds is, for this purpose, not that much – even if whole-life costs are excluded.

Indeed, one could imagine a considerable amount of such a budget being taken up by the to-and-fro of getting instructions and approvals for the design of this bespoke vessel.

Imagine: ‘the prime minister’s office thinks the wallpaper for the main conference room looks too cheap’ and so on.

And the recently reported ‘super-yacht’ of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is estimated to be costing $500 million – which in sterling would be considerably more than the reported £200 million.

This new flagship may end up being the smallest ship in a harbour, with dot-com billionaires, oil-wealthy rulers and assorted oligarchs waving down at it from their super-duper yachts.

It may well be that to really impress the international business community, we are going to need a bigger boat.

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Prestige public procurement projects often fail – because they are commenced for non-commercial purposes and without thinking foreseeable risks through, and when those foreseeable problems do arise, too much political capital has been invested for the project to then be seen to fail.

The better way, of course, for the United Kingdom to ‘showcase’ here its post-Brexit seriousness about trade and business would be to have a sensible and realistic procurement exercise – including showing that the government is unafraid to pull a project if it does not make commercial sense.

A project that instead ‘showcases’ the commercial ineptitude of the United Kingdom will not help but will hinder our post-Brexit trading future.

But this sort of constructive criticism will be dismissed as doomstering and gloomstering and that voters do not want such negativity.

So those of us who want a more sensible and realistic approach from the United Kingdom to its post-Brexit future are going to need a bigger vote.

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Wanted by HMG: Someone to make sense of Brexit

17th May 2021

Some things are almost beyond parody.

The government of the United Kingdom, almost five years after the Brexit referendum, wants help on identifying post-Brexit opportunities. 

The natural response to this is, of course, to laugh like a drain – and to then despair.

But it also worth reflecting on.

One of the strengths (if that is the correct word) of the Leave campaign was that it was primal in its message – and what is primal is usually inexact, if not vague.

And with such primal force, Leave won and the Remainers lost.

Brexit was forced through.

But for every strength there is a weakness.

And at this point of the process, those who have forced Brexit through will say, in effect: ‘what now?’

Those who were opposed to Brexit will scoff and hope that such an implicit admission discredits the cause of Brexit.

But what has power because of a lack of detail will usually not falter because of a lack of detail.

There was never any particularised plan for Brexit: it was instead a political roar of anguish and defiance and (for many) misdirection.

David Frost could go even further and say freely and expressly: we want outside input in identifying opportunities because we do not have a clue what to do next.

Those who supported Brexit would either shrug or nod at the sentiment.

And as a wise person once said: there are no problems, only opportunities – it is just that some opportunities are insoluble.

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‘An uncomfortable chair’ – why the international trade secretary wrongly believes trade deals are quick and easy, and why this false belief matters

22nd April 2021

One of the consequences of politicians not having careers before entering parliament is that ministers can be over-influenced by unusual experiences.

For example, as home secretary Theresa May and her advisors had the benefit of the ‘pick-and-choose’ approach to European Union justice and home affairs matters, where the United Kingdom had a number of opt-outs.

And so when May and those advisors were translated to 10 Downing Street it appeared that they believed that the same à la carte approach could be taken to the single market in the Brexit negotiations, unaware that the European Union would instead have a more of an ‘all-or-nothing’ approach.

Similarly the current international trade secretary Elizabeth Truss has been misled by her experiences to date into thinking international free trade deals are easy.

This is because in the immediate post-Brexit period it was possible to ‘rollover’ a number of existing trade deals between the European Union and (so-called) third countries, almost on a ‘copy-and-paste’ basis.

 

Such a formative experience would also be informed by the basic error of post-2016 governments of the United Kingdom that Brexit itself was a quick and easy task.

But.

There is a significant difference between continuing with an existing trade arrangement and putting in place an entirely new free trade agreement from scratch, especially with another major economy.

The slowness, however, is a surprise and a disappointment to the current international trade secretary, who is a politician in a hurry.

And so we get this preposterous news story.

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‘…an uncomfortable chair’

The only normal reaction to the detail of this excruciating news story is to cringe with sheer embarrassment. 

(By the way, the use of ‘allies’ as a plural means that the pronouns for the ‘source’ are the less-revealing they/them – which are presumably the international trade secretary’s preferred pronouns.)

Of course, this daft intervention has not gone unnoticed by Australia.

Perhaps the ‘allies’ of the international trade secretary did not believe that these comments would ever reach the Australians.

Silly them.

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The serious point here is, well, about the lack of seriousness.

The United Kingdom needs to be taken seriously as a party to international agreements in this new, lonely post-Brexit period.

Yet the United Kingdom seems no closer to getting why this important.

We have a prime minister who is loudly and publicly denouncing as ‘ludicrous’ the very arrangements in respect of Northern Ireland that resulted from his own change of policy, which he negotiated and signed, and for which he campaigned for and won an electoral mandate before rushing into law.

There seems to be an unawareness that the world is watching these antics.

And although they may ‘play well’ to domestic political and media constituencies, that is at a cost to the United Kingdom’s interests as an actor on the international stage.

The prime minister and he international trade secretary need a period of reflection about these counterproductive utterances and gestures.

Perhaps they should sit down, and think hard about what they are doing for a few hours.

Perhaps, even, in an uncomfortable chair.

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The European Super League and law and policy

20th April 2021

The proposal of a supposed European Super League is daft and dreadful.

Only the most partisan supporters of the clubs involved and those who will be making money out of the proposal are able to make a positive case for the idea.

Many supporters of the clubs involved, as well as the other football supporters, just see it as a cynical attempt to to exploit and develop cash revenues at the expense of the wider interests of the sport.

But.

An idea being daft and dreadful does not make it also illegal.

The law is not magic and there is no wand for any politician to say ‘I prohibit you thus’.

In particular, what is called ‘competition law’ – which prevents abuse by monopolies and the forming of cartels – is not likely to be of any use in preventing the initiative.

Indeed, competition law may help more than hinder the establishment of a rival international international football league.

Only a handful of clubs are involved, and there is no inherent reason why UEFA should have a monopoly on European club competition.

The fact that it is an artificial pop-up international league, where many of the participating clubs have not even won a European club competition before, is neither here nor there.

Nor is the fact that many clubs (such as my own, Aston Villa) that have won such competitions are excluded relevant (and I hope my view would be the same even if Aston Villa had been part of this misconceived project).

It is a new league that will be in competition to the existing arrangements, and the starting point of the relevant law is that competition is a good thing – rather than monopolies.

The European Super League may well rob the clubs, the players and the supporters involved of something valuable – genuine European football – and replace it with an artificial contest with regular matches against Tottenham Hotspur.

But that does not create a legal remedy.

If anything, competition law may undermine the attempts of the status quo to quash the innovation and provide a defence to threatened retaliatory or punitive measures.

If the proposal is to be defeated – it should be by means of politics and commercial realities, not litigation.

Perhaps this exercise in misplaced exceptionalism and a false sense of the international importance of those supporting the measure will collapse under the strain of its contradictions and impartibility before it gets going.

But then again, that is also what said would happen with Brexit, and it did not.

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Cameron, May, Johnson – who, in constitutional terms, is the worst prime minister?

15th April 2021

Future students of history and politics will no doubt have to answer essay questions about who was the worst prime minister out of David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson.

And there is also no doubt there will be those who will aver that, say, Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair was worse than any of those three.

Over on Twitter the comedian and writer David Schnieder offered his view:

 

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From a constitutionalist (and liberal) perspective, there is a case to be made against each of the three.

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Johnson, for example, switched the government’s policy on Northern Ireland and Brexit, negotiated and signed the Northern Irish protocol, and rapidly passed it into legislation without any scrutiny – and we are currently watching the fallout from this.

One can also put against Johnson that it was his switch from supporting Cameron and his political ambition that led May to adopting the hardline positions that she did on Brexit.

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It was May, however, who was responsible for the ‘red lines’ that meant that the United Kingdom would leave the single market and customs union, which in turn necessitated there having to be elaborate provisions in respect of Northern Ireland.

She is also the one that triggered Article 50 prematurely and without a plan, and she even sought to make this momentous notification without an act of parliament.

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But.

Cameron is the most culpable.

However bad May and Johnson have been, they were and are merely dealing (badly) with a situation created by Cameron.

Cameron staked the entire future of the United Kingdom on a single turn of pitch-and-toss – a simple yes/no referendum – assuming that, of course, he would win.

No considerations – let alone plans – were made for the contingency of the votes being for leave.

It was perhaps the most irresponsible domestic political act one can imagine in peacetime.

A ‘macro’ decision that, in turn, led to the bad ‘micro’ decisions of May and Johnson as they sought to give effect to the referendum result.

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And so Schneider may be wrong on this, at least in terms of what the United Kingdom is going through constitutionally.

Looking at it in terms of other policies, one perhaps could take a different view.

But I suspect future generations will be aghast and bewildered at Cameron’s folly.

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The judges are only the ‘enemies of the people’ when it suits the government

14th April 2021

For the government. and its political and media supporters, the judiciary are the ‘enemies of the people’.

The view is that that it is no business of activist judges to interfere with what ‘the people’ want.

It is a view that led the London government to oppose the supreme court determining the two Miller cases.

It is also a view that informs the current attempts by the government to limit judicial review and the scope of the human rights act – to the claps and cheers of many who (frankly) should know better.

But it is a shallow view, adopted out of convenience and partisanship.

For, when the political boot is on a different constitutional foot, the government suddenly values an independent judiciary being able to assess the constitutional propriety of a measure:

See Joshua Rozenburg’s detailed piece here.

Also note the response of the London government’s former chief legal official:

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From a political perspective, this referral prompts mixed feelings.

My political view is that a Scottish parliament can and should be co-equal with the Westminster parliament – as the legislatures in Canada and Australia are, even if nominally under the same head of state.

As such, it is frustrating to see the emphatically supported view of the Scottish parliament potentially stymied in this way.

But a political view is not always the same as a constitutionalist perspective.

And under the current constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom, this is a question that can be referred to the supreme court – and as such there is nothing unconstitutional about the London government doing so.

(Whether those should be the constitutional arrangements is a different question.)

It is sheer hypocrisy – and there is not other word – for the London government, and its political and media supporters, to pick-and-choose when the supreme court gets to determine constitutional questions.

Either the supreme court is a constitutional court or it is not a constitutional court.

And it should not be regarded as only a constitutional court when the London government wants to face down Edinburgh, Cardiff, or Belfast.

A constitutional court is not and should not be regarded as an imperial court.

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