Why constitutionalism should be stronger than Trumpism, other populism, and even majoritarianism

13th January 2021

President Donald Trump has never won a national vote.

In 2016 he had about three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, and in 2020 he had about seven million fewer votes than Joseph Biden.

What he was able to do in 2016, however, was to win a vote sufficient so as to obtain the majority of the electoral college – and, but for the geographic distribution of the votes in 2020, it is feasible he could have won the electoral college in 2020.

Trump, therefore, is not in this way a majoritarian – his democratic legitimacy does not rest on having obtained a majority of the democratic vote.

His democratic legitimacy rests instead on a device – the electoral college – that is provided for under the constitution of the United States.

And what the constitution of the United States giveth, the constitution can taketh away.

*

The removal of an elected head of government should never be done lightly or easily.

But in any constitutional system there will always be the means by which they can be removed, other than at an election.

Ideally, of course, if the complaint about a government is essentially about its politics or policies, then it should always be a matter for an election.

That is what elections are for.

But there are circumstances other than a dispute about politics or policy merits where the removal of a government, or of a head of government, is appropriate between elections.

And in the United States, the constitution expressly provides two mechanisms for the displacement of a sitting president.

One is the the twenty-fifth amendment where, for whatever reason, the sitting president is incapable of exercising their role.

The other is the impeachment and then conviction of a president for high crimes and misdemeanours.

And theses two mechanisms are, in the case of President Trump and any other president, just as ‘constitutional’ than the electoral college that enabled Trump to become president in the first place.

*

The house of representatives seems certain, at the time of writing, to vote to impeach President Trump in respect of the violent attack on Congress on 6th January 2021.

President Trump is now thereby destined be the quiz answer to the question: which president was impeached twice?

He will also be the president who was the subject of attempts to use both methods of removal – the twenty-fifth amendment and impeachment, – which also must be some sort of record.

As at the typing of this blogpost, it cannot be predicted whether the senate will vote to convict President Trump.

(Of course, whatever happens, the outcome of that vote will then seem as having been inevitable all along.)

But in one limited way, it does not matter whether there is a conviction – the very fact there will be an impeachment is a reminder that, regardless of Trump’s ability to mobilise millions to vote or to incite hundreds (if not thousands) into political violence, there is something stronger than his populism.

*

The priority for constitutionalism should be true even if there was not such a thing as an electoral college and if President Trump had actually won a majority of the popular vote.

For just as constitutionalism should be stronger than populism, it also should be stronger than majoritarianism.

Being able to obtain a vote of [x] + 1 does not, and should not, confer immunity from removal from office whatever the winning candidate or party seeks to do between elections.

Such a majority vote would confer political legitimacy – but that is what it is: political.

Such political legitimacy does not translate to absolute protection against the consequences of wrongs that go further than political or policy disputes.

*

Given the events of 6th January 2021, and the role of President Trump in those events, it is difficult to see why he should not be impeached and convicted.

This is the sort of situation that the power of impeachment is there for.

And there are signals (if nothing more) that a sufficient number of Republican senators may be in favour of conviction.

But even if such a vote for conviction does not come to pass, constitutionalism has not gone away.

The senate may or may not vote to convict.

The fact there is such a vote means that constitutionalism – still – is stronger than Trump and his nationalist authoritarian populism.

The challenge is now to keep it this way – for although constitutionalism has not gone away, neither will Trumpism.

*****

If you value this daily free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary please do support through the Paypal box above or at Patreon.

Suggested donations are of any amount as a one-off, or of £4.50 upwards a month on a monthly profile.

A donation will enable this daily to carry on for you and for others to read and share.

This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

You can also subscribe to this blog at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).

*****

Comments Policy

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.

 

The violent events of 6th January 2021 should be a turning-point, but what if history fails to turn?

12th January 2021

 

Writing of the effects (and lack of effects) of the 1848 ‘revolution’ in Germany, the historian A. J. P. Taylor once wrote:

‘German history reached its turning-point and failed to turn.’

Identifying a moment in time as a potential turning-point is one thing, but it is quite another for it to actually be a turning-point.

*

Take, for example, seven days before the 2016 referendum when the British member of parliament Jo Cox was murdered by a person shouting ‘Britain First’.

That incident which took place at the most unpleasant moment of the referendum campaign – the ‘swamped’ poster was about the same time – felt as if it should have been a turning-point. 

That the passions and indeed frenzy unleashed by the referendum campaign were out of control, that things had gone too far.

But it was not a turning-point – the referendum campaign quickly resumed – and the murder had no obvious impact.

*

The events in the United States of 6th January 2021 also seem to be a potential turning-point.

In what this blog and others aver was an attempted coup, and what was an insurrection on any view, there was a violent attempt to disrupt an essential constitutional step in the peaceful transfer of power, at the behest of (or at least in the interests of) a defeated politician.

Five people died.

There is currently an attempt, in the last few days of the current presidency to impeach that defeated candidate, President Donald Trump.

At the moment it looks unlikely that the impeachment will result in a conviction in the Senate and that Trump will be removed from office before 20th January 2021, when the presidential term ends by automatic operation of law.

One view is that the events of 6th January 2021 will shock Republican politicians and political supporters of Trump.

That the passions and indeed frenzy unleashed by his attempt to discredit the election result and to hold on to power were out of control, that things had gone too far.

Surely something will be done in response to what happened, in what Der Spiegel regards as a putsch (with Trump as Putschistenführer).

 *

But even if something decisive happens in respect of Trump personally – either that he is impeached or discredited as an individual – this does not directly address the ongoing challenge of Trumpism.

Even after everything in the last four years, 74 million Americans still voted for him to be president.

Indeed, even after the visible manifestation of Trumpism on 6th January 2021, there still seems to be substantial political support for this nationalist authoritarian populism. 

It may not be going away.

*

Contemporaries are often not in a good position to tell whether some dramatic political event is either the end of something, or the start of something, or just an illustration of something.

The quotes in this tweet should be read carefully and in full.

In 1923 many thought that the attempted putsch of the war hero Ludendorff (then a more famous figure than the nationalist authoritarian populist leader who accompanied and then succeeded him) could be dismissed as some delayed after-effect of the great war.

And indeed Ludendorff was to a large extent personally discredited, but the cause for what he stood for certainly was not extinguished, and it was to take power within a decade.

An attempted coup, an insurrection, a putsch – all can be as much a start of something than an end of something.

*

It is easy to warn ‘we should not be complacent’.

(After all, nobody ever says ‘let us be complacent’.)

But liberals and progressives should be careful not to assume that the dramatic violence of 6th January 2021 will convert into some ongoing impediment to Trumpism – even if it converts into an impediment to Trump himself.

Trumpism should be taken just as seriously as a threat to liberal democracy and constitutionalism after 6th January 2021 than before.

The attempted coup, the insurrection, the putsch has not, at a stroke, discredited Trumpism – even if Trump (like Ludendorff) may no longer be the leader of the movement.

All because a tragic event should bring people to their senses, it just as often does not do so.

Sometimes things do meet what should be their turning-point, but things fail to turn.

*****

If you value the free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary please do support through the Paypal box above.

Suggested donation of any amount as a one-off, £1 upwards per post found useful or valuable, or £4.50 upwards on a monthly profile.

This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

Or become a Patreon subscriber.

You can also subscribe to this blog at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).

*****

Comments Policy

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.

 

Can a presidential pardon be revoked?

11th January 2021

As we enter the last ten days of this presidential term one of the matters being widely discussed is the extent and nature of presidential pardons generally, and the possibility of a ‘self-pardon’ in particular. 

This blog has already looked at the general issue – and on the self-pardon issue in particular, it seems to me to be a logical and legal absurdity.

But this post is about a related issue, which has not yet featured prominently in the debate about pardons: regardless of whether any power to pardon, can a pardon be revoked?

Would it be open to an incoming president to revoke the pardons of President Trump, including any (purported) self-pardon?

*

From first principles, and from a United Kingdom perspective, such a revocation would seem possible.

The power to pardon is, in the United Kingdom, part of the royal prerogative.

And just as no parliament can bind another, it would appear no sovereign can do so either.

The crown can make – and unmake – any treaty whatsoever.

The crown can bestow honours, which in turn can be ‘cancelled and annulled’ by the crown.

And so if these exercises of the royal prerogative are analogous, then it would appear that the sovereign could rescind a pardon – for example if it were wrongly made.

*

Turning to the United States, there are two examples of revoked presidential pardons.

In 1869, we are told by the Congressional Research Service, ‘after outgoing President Andrew Johnson issued but did not deliver a pardon, incoming President Ulysses S. Grant revoked the pardon, and a federal court upheld the revocation’.

The case report is here, where you will see that the judge stated in passing:

The law undoubtedly is, that when a pardon is complete, there is no power to revoke it, any more than there is power to revoke any other completed act.’

More recently, in 2008 President George W. Bush revoked a pardon he had himself granted, because of an outcry.

The New York Times then reported ‘when Mr. Bush granted Isaac Toussie, 37, a pardon earlier this week, the president and his advisers were unaware that the elder Mr. Toussie had recently donated $30,800 to Republicans. Mr. Bush took the extraordinary step of rescinding the pardon on Wednesday after reports about the political contributions.’

Again, the pardon had not been delivered.

*

In both of these precedents the revocation was possible because it had not been completed – the procedural equivalent of dashing to the post room to intercept a letter before it is actually sent out.

Neither of these precedents therefore are directly on the point of whether a pardon, once completed, can be revoked.

The opinion of the judge in 1869 is not binding for, among other things, that was not the issue which the court was being asked to determine.

*

So how would a modern court approach the issue?

In most circumstances, the effect of a pardon would be immediate: a person would be released from their sentence and so on.

And once that person has been relieved from their punishment, then any revocation would raise practical and other issues as to what would happen to the pardoned person.

One can see why it would be unfair that such a pardon was revoked, just as no person should not be punished twice for the same offence.

But what about a (blanket) pardon that is intended to pre-empt any possible prosecution?

Procedurally, the person who (purportedly) received the pardon would (presumably) raise the pardon as a bar to any proceedings.

The court would then (again presumably) examine the (purported) pardon (as in 1869), and if the pardon was valid then there would be would be a bar on the prosecution.

It would be – almost literally – a ‘get out of jail free’ card, which the person would raise in front of a judge.

(Of course, if it were known that a pardon had been given then a prosecution would normally not be brought in the first place – but, if it were brought, this is procedurally how a pardon would act as a bar on any prosecution.)

So, now imagine two fascinating possibilities.

First, imagine a court not accepting such a presented pardon at face value – and applying anxious scrutiny whether such a pardon (even if correct in form) had been within the powers of the president.

And second, imagine a court presented with two formal instruments – one purporting to grant a pardon, and another purporting to rescind it (like the cancellation and annulment of an honour, which reverses an otherwise completed act).

The first of these (delicious) legal puzzles would not be a revocation, of course, but an inquiry as to the legality of an instrument.

The second possibility, however, would require a court to review the possibility of a revocation of a pardon.

We would then see whether the 1869 dictum was a correct statement of the law.

*

The straight answer to the question at the head of the post is, as always with interesting legal questions, ‘we do not know’.

An approach from first principles points (at least for me) in one direction, but the precedent of 1869 (although it is not binding) points firmly in the other direction.

But given the lack of binding authority, it cannot be assumed casually that if a pardon – or self-pardon – is granted by President Trump that it is absolutely beyond the reach of revocation.

We may still get more constitutional excitement from the Trump presidency.

*****

If you value the free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary please do support through the Paypal box above.

Suggested donation of any amount as a one-off, £1 upwards per post found useful or valuable, or £4.50 upwards on a monthly profile.

This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

Or become a Patreon subscriber.

You can also subscribe to this blog at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).

*****

Comments Policy

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.

Impeachment exists for a reason – the arguments for and against the second impeachment of Donald Trump

9th January 2021

‘Impeachment’ and ‘indictment’ are sister words, sharing the suffix ‘-ment’, and they describe two ways by which a person can be tried and then either convicted or acquitted.

One practical difference (at least in modern times) between the two is that impeachment is usually a political process, while a trial on indictment is a matter of criminal law.

And one effect of this distinction is that if a sitting president of the United States is immune from prosecution in the criminal courts, there is always the alternative route of impeachment.

*

There are only eleven days before this presidential term ends, by automatic operation of law, on 20th January 2021.

The electoral college vote has been certified by congress and so there is no constitutional impediment (as far as this English lawyer is aware) to Joseph Biden becoming president on that day.

The question is whether Donald Trump should continue to be president in the meantime, given what he did and what happened on 6th January 2021.

As eleven days is such a short period, there is merit in the view that we should just wait it out – especially as he no longer has access to his Twitter platform (and the implications of such a ban was discussed on this blog yesterday) and the speaker of the house of representatives has has assurances on the president’s access to the nuclear codes.

And there is something also to be said that it would still be wrong, even now, to in effect override the result of the 2016 election – there was a democratic process and Trump as president was the result at the end of it.

*

But.

Impeachment exists in the United States constitution for a reason.

And if a president inciting a mob to invade Congress so as to disrupt the certification of the electoral college vote (in what this blog avers was an attempted coup) does not fulfil the requirement of a high crime and misdemeanour, then it is difficult to imagine what else would do so.

Even with only eleven days to go, such an extraordinary event should not go unmarked and shrugged-off.

Impeachment and conviction can also disqualify Trump from holding office again.

(And so, in respect of the presidency, such disqualification would place Trump in the same position as if he had not been born in the United States.)

On this basis there is a strong – if not compelling – case that Trump should be impeached and convicted – both in terms of what has happened and of the future.

*

Yet.

You do not sustainably solve a problem caused by hyper-partisanship with more partisanship.

And so any impeachment and conviction should ideally be on a genuinely non-partisan basis – and not just the Democratic bloc with a few Republicans.

Here the United States constitution is helpful – as a conviction by the senate has to be with the ‘concurrence of two thirds of the members present’.

Therefore there would have to be a substantial number of Republican senators in favour – but even if there were sixteen or so such Republican senators, it would still savour of partisanship, unless the Republican congressional leadership were also in favour of conviction.

This is not to say that there should not be an impeachment and conviction if enough Republican senators are in favour – sometimes you just have to do the right thing anyway – but a warning that such an exercise will not be the once-and-for-all end of the problem of Trump and Trumpism.

But, then again, there may not be any solution to that problem.

*

There is another way that could be employed to displace Trump.

The twenty-fifth amendment provides an elaborate mechanism by which the vice president and members of the cabinet can declare that the president is unable to discharge the powers and duties of the office.

In these circumstances the vice president will become the acting president.

This approach has the attraction of being inherently non-partisan – as those making the decision are Republican politicians – and also the attraction of pragmatism – as it deftly yanks Trump away from exercising the powers of the president.

The problem, however, is that it is not – at least not directly – a mark against the encouragement of the attempted coup, and nor does it disqualify him from future office.

(Or Trump could – like Nixon – just resign in an attempt to pre-empt any of the above – but it is hard to imagine Trump bringing himself to sign that piece of paper.)

*

Of course, whatever does happen will then look as if it were inevitable all along.

But whether or not Trump is impeached and convicted, there will still be two truths.

First, impeachment is there for a reason.

And second, what the president did on 6th January is such a reason.

*****

If you value the free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary please do support through the Paypal box above.

Suggested donation of any amount as a one-off, £1 upwards per post found useful or valuable, or £4.50 upwards on a monthly profile.

This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

Or become a Patreon subscriber.

You can also subscribe to this blog at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).

*****

Comments Policy

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.

The contest between violent populism and constitutionalism – and why it was not inevitable that yesterday’s attempted coup in the United States would fail

7th January 2021

Yesterday we watched, in real-time, an attempted coup in the United States.

Was it an attempted coup?

Some are already fussing about the ‘coup’ word – that it was merely a security violation, a mere matter of public order.

That view is not correct, for three reasons.

It was an attempted coup.

*

First, an essential constitutional stage for a peaceful transfer of power was disrupted.

The constitutional stage – usually a formality – was the certification of the electoral college vote by congress.

It is this certification that would make the inauguration of a new president happen on 20 January 2021 by automatic operation of law.

No certification, no certainty of inauguration of a new president.

The disruption was the object and the effect of the disorder.

And until and unless the electoral college vote is certified then the 20 January inauguration is uncertain.

(The resumed Congress is still considering the electoral college votes as I type.)

*

Second, the disruption was at the behest of the losing candidate – or, if you nod-along with plausible deniability, it was at least done so as to ensure he stayed in office.

It was disruption with the purpose of keeping a losing candidate in office.

And that candidate then praised these ‘special’ people for what they did.

Indeed, for the candidate’s daughter, these disruptors were ‘patriots’.

*

And third, the disruption was forceful.

The mob forced their way in, and there are reports of fatalities and injuries.

This was not a peaceful protest or an exercise in civil disobedience.

*

So a group (a) used force to (b) disrupt an essential constitutional process (c) at the behest of (or in the interests of) a politician – and if that disruption had succeeded, the inauguration of a new president would have been rendered uncertain.

That was an attempt at a coup.

*

One significant detail in what happened yesterday was that the order to deploy the national guard came from the vice president, not the president.

As Sherlock Holmes would have said, this was a ‘curious incident‘.

This means that, left to the president, there would have been insufficient coercive power to disperse the mob.

As any A-level history student knows – or should know – for a rebellion to succeed requires not only rebels, but also a weakness in the regime that is being rebelled against.

Usually the weaknesses of the regime are not deliberate.

But here the president seems to have wanted to maximise the disruptive power of the mob.

*

Another significant detail is how light-touch the policing was generally.

As a liberal, I am all in favour in light-touch policing.

The priority in such a situation should be public safety rather than the use of brutal – or lethal – force.

Yet the contrast with the policing of, say, the Black Lives Matter protest is stark – and telling.

If those who rioted yesterday had different colour skins then they would have been no doubt arrested or shot by police officers dressed up like Robocops.

Instead, there were hardly any arrests, and the rioters were just allowed to go home.

The photographs of some of the rioters – posing here and there in the Capitol – would be unthinkable if they were not white.

What happened yesterday was an expression of white privilege.

*

This attempted coup is what you get when politicians play with the monster of populist nationalist authoritarianism.

So often in history, politicians believe they can tame this beast, and that the beast will serve them.

And those politicians usually end up being devoured by the creature.

*

Today, it look like the attempt at a coup failed, and that the new president will be inaugurated on 20th January 2021.

Yesterday was a contest between constitutionalism and violent populism.

It was not inevitable that constitutionalism would always win this contest.

*****

If you value the free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary please do support through the Paypal box above.

Suggested donation of any amount as a one-off, £1 upwards per post found useful or valuable, or £4.50 upwards on a monthly profile.

This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

Or become a Patreon subscriber.

You can also subscribe to this blog at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).

*****

Comments Policy

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.

How the Trump experience both weakens and strengthens the case for a ‘written constitution’

6th January 2021

Imagine – just for the sake of this post – that the United States did not have a written constitution.

And now imagine that there had been a president like Donald Trump in office over the last four years who had pretty much done what Trump had done – every outrage, every attack on a minority, every sacking and every appointment, every manipulative or threatening telephone call, every high crime and misdemeanour, and so on.

There would be pundits who, when presented with such a catalogue of wrongful conduct, would assert confidently: ‘you see, this shows the need for a written constitution!’

But the thing is: there was a written constitution, and all these bad things happened anyway.

*

Back in November 2020 – and more in hope than expectation – my column at Prospect magazine was entitled ‘Why we need to stop talking about a written constitution’.

My three main contentions were as follows.

First, a written constitution (that is, for the purpose of discussion, a codified constitution) is inherently neither a good nor a bad thing – and, indeed, such a constitution can either entrench or mask illiberalism or tyranny.

Accordingly, the knee-jerk demand for a written constitution at every constitutional trespass is misconceived, as such a constitution is not a panacea.

Second, in England (and, as presently constituted, the United Kingdom) there is no plausible path to entrenching any constitutional code, regardless of any theoretical attractions.

And third, the demands for a written constitution whenever there is a constitutional trespass are too often a substitute for attempting any actual constitutional improvement.

All a pundit will announce is ‘you see, this shows the need for a written constitution!’ and nothing else will be said.

And this insistence on an absolute ideal in any conversation about the constitution, instead of any practical suggestions, was and is (in my view) part of the problem.

*

But.

Regardless of the (provocative) title of that column, there are times to revisit the debate about the merits and otherwise of a codified constitution.

This morning, the news reports from the United States are that the Democrats may have won both Georgia senate seats – and, if so, that would mean the Republicans will lose control of the senate.

Today the United States congress will meet and it is expected that the electoral college vote will be certified, meaning Donald Trump has lost and Joseph Biden has won.

The Trump presidency will thereby end, and the Biden presidency will begin, on 20 January 2021 by automatic operation of law.

These are welcome political developments for anyone opposed to the nasty authoritarian nationalist populism of Trump and his Republican supporters.

They have lost.

So surely: this shows the merits of a written constitution?

*

Tony Benn famously posited the five questions of any democracy:

‘What power have you got?’

‘Where did you get it from?’

‘In whose interests do you use it?’

‘To whom are you accountable?’

‘How do we get rid of you?’

Of these five questions, the one which (in my view) has the most power is the last one: ‘How do we get rid of you?’

And applying this question to the Trump experience, the answer is stark and indeed unavoidable.

Donald Trump has been got rid of because of the provisions of the constitution of the United States.

As the events since his election defeat have shown, there is nothing he would not resort to doing so as to keep office.

In an extraordinary and significant intervention, all living former United States defense secretaries wrote in the Washington Post warned against the armed services being used to affect the result of elections.

The same newspaper also released a similarly extraordinary and significant telephone conversation where Donald Trump was placing illegitimate pressure on the Georgia secretary of state to overturn an election result.

The grim reality is that if Donald Trump could find a way to stay in office he would use it.

And if this grim reality is accepted, then it must also be conceded that the only reason he has not stayed in office is because there was something more powerful in his way.

And that thing which is more powerful is the (codified) constitution of the United States.

*

Being, on one hand, critical of constitutional trespasses and abuses and, on the other hand, sceptical of the claims made for codified constitutions, has the merits of being an independent and (I hope) intellectually consistent point of view – even if it appears not to have the benefit of also being a popular one.

The Trump experience does not show (at least to me) the merits of a written constitution – every single bad thing that has happened over the last four years has happened despite there being a written constitution in place.

Every single one.

And this evidences, if not proves, that a written constitution is not a panacea – and those in favour of codification should stop pretending otherwise.

But.

Taking the last of Tony Benn’s questions seriously, it also has to be admitted that codification, in certain extreme situations, can help in getting rid of those in power who seek to abuse power.

(Of course, the tyrant can seek to amend such a constitutional provision – but at least it provides an additional high hurdle.)

The outstanding constitutional question, however is not about how Donald Trump was finally removed from office, but how he was allowed to get away with so many wrongs in the meantime?

And that is a far more difficult question for supporters of codification to answer.

*****

If you value the free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary please do support through the Paypal box above.

Suggested donation of any amount as a one-off, £1 upwards per post found useful or valuable, or £4.50 upwards on a monthly profile.

This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

Or become a Patreon subscriber.

You can also subscribe to this blog at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).

*****

Comments Policy

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.

The real origin of the European Union ‘supranationalist’ state – and why it still matters

4th January 2021

There is a view held by many in the United Kingdom that the European Union – and its predecessors – was not always a ‘supranational’ organisation.

That it was not always an entity which routinely transcended national boundaries.

The view is that it was once a mere innocent trading association and an international organisation – and that it was only after the United Kingdom joined in 1973 that it corrupted into a supranational organisation, which took rule-making and decision-making out of the hands of member states.

*

Some will know this is not true and will point, say, to the Treaty of Rome of 1957, which established the European Economic Community, with its express determination that the treaty would lay the “foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”.

Others will point to the 1960s caselaw of the European Court of Justice, such as the Costa v ENEL judgment of 1964 that made it as plain as a pikestaff (the lawyers’ equivalent of ‘absolutely clear’) that the domestic law of a member state was subordinate to the provisions of both the Treaty of Rome and the legal instruments made thereunder.

The United Kingdom thereby knew exactly what it was joining in 1973, and only a fool or knave could (and did) pretend otherwise.

*

Yet the supranational essence of what the United Kingdom joined in 1973 was older than the Costa case of 1964, and was even older than the Treaty of Rome of 1957.

Here it is important that the United Kingdom did not just join the European Economic Community in 1973 but also another community, the deceptively unglamorous-sounding, and older, European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) of 1952.

For some, the historical fact that the United Kingdom joined more than one community in 1973 is nothing more than an answer to a quiz question, or the reason why the European Communities Act 1973 employs the plural form of community.

But it was a lot more significant than that.

*

To understand why, we have to go back to the years after the second world war and the problem of what should be done about Germany – in particular, the industrial areas of Rhineland and Saarland.

In 1944 the plan was to eliminate much of this industrial capacity; and in 1946 another plan was to give France control.

But by the late 1940s neither of these strident approaches seemed sustainable, especially in view of the need to not de-stabilise (what was then) West Germany, and so another approach was needed.

In 1950, a suggestion was made that there be a ‘high authority’ be put in place, overseeing French and German coal and steel production.

And by 1951 – with the Treaty of Paris – this idea had developed into an array of supervisory institutions – not only a high authority, but also an assembly, a council of ministers and – significantly – a dedicated court, with these further institutions balancing the executive power of the high authority.

The high authority furthermore had the power to issue decisions and recommendations binding the signatories – France, West Germany, Italy and the three Benelux countries (who were already heading towards economic unity).

*

So we have in 1952 the establishment of the ECSC – with a supranational group of institutions in place and with the power to make law and adjudicate disputes, ensuring adherence to shared treaty obligations.

And the key element of this arrangement was not that it was aspirational – notwithstanding the heady language of integration that accompanied it – but that it was a solidly, deeply practical solution to a problem – of what should be done in respect of the post-war industrial relationship of France and Germany.

Just as, say the Good Friday Agreement used an imaginative cross-border approach to a thorny cross-border problem, so did the Treaty of Paris.

What the Spaak Report of 1956 and the Treaty of Rome of 1957 then did was to employ this supranational approach (with shared institutions and shared law-making) on wider economic questions, as it was seen as an approach that would work.

So when the United Kingdom joined the communities in 1973, the fact that it was joining a practical supranational enterprise had been – well – as plain as a pikestaff for over twenty years.

*

What makes this ‘pre-history’ significant is that it is often the view of critics of the European Union that its supranational nature is somehow airy-fairy – that it is impractical and unrealistic.

And this is seen as a contrast to rugged Anglo-Saxon empiricism and practical common sense.

The reality is that the European Union, as with its predecessor organisations the European Economic Community and ECSC, regards its supranational nature as eminently practical, as was as embodying certain ideals of European unity.

That it works.

Supranationalism is thereby an approach which has worked since 1952 – and not just somehow inflicted by surprise on the united Kingdom after 1973.

It is not as if the debate is between an unrealistic pro-European Union camp and a realistic band of critics.

The problem that the United Kingdom had for a long time when a member of the European Union is that it rarely wanted to work within a supranational organisation.

Supranationalism was, it seemed, for other people.

The United Kingdom regarded supranationalism as a bug of the European Union, and not as a feature.

So the United Kingdom sought – and obtained – opt-out after opt-out, until 2015-16 when it sought a ‘re-negotiation’ only to find the European Union could and would shift no further.

*

The supranationalism of the European Union is seventy years old.

The United Kingdom in its modern form as a collection of four nation states has only existed since 1922 – and so is a mere thirty years older than the first of the European communities. 

As this blog has previously averred, political unions come and go – and no political union can be seen as eternal.

And given that the supranationalism of the European Union is regarded as practical as well as an ideal, there is no inherent reason why the European Union will not last longer than the United Kingdom as a union of nation states.

*****

If you value the free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary please do support through the Paypal box above.

Suggested donation of any amount as a one-off, £1 upwards per post found useful or valuable, or £4.50 upwards on a monthly profile.

This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

Or become a Patreon subscriber.

You can also subscribe to this blog at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).

*****

Comments Policy

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.

 

The four ways the government of the United Kingdom is abusing and misusing the law – and the reason the government is getting away with it

2nd January 2021

Those with political power tend to want more power, and those who want more power will tend to then abuse it.

This is not a new observation, and it is perhaps one which can be made of most if not all human societies.

The role of law and government is thereby not so often to enable such abuse of power, but to acknowledge the likelihood of abuse and to seek to limit or prevent it.

That is why those with power are often subject to conventions and rules, why there can be checks and balances, and why many political systems avoid giving absolute power to any one person.

That those with power want to use, misuse and abuse that power is not thereby a feature of the current government of the United Kingdom, but a universal (or near-universal) truth of all those who seek and have political power everywhere.

Those with political power will tend to try and get away with misusing or abusing it.

*

The current government of the United Kingdom, however, is remarkable in just how open it is in its abuse and intended abuse of law, and in at least four ways.

And what is also striking is what has changed politically so as to enable them to be so open.

*

First, the current government sought to give itself the power to break the law.

This was in respect of the Internal Markets bill, and the ability to break the law was stated as the intention by a cabinet minister in the house of commons.

This proposal led, in turn, to the resignations of the government’s most senior legal official and a law officer in the house of lords.

And then it was even supported by a majority of the house of commons.

The proposal has now been dropped – and some would say that it was only ever a negotiating tactic.

But even with this excuse, it was an abuse of legislation and legislation-making, requiring law-makers to become law-breakers, and signalling to the world that the government of the United Kingdom does not take its legal obligations seriously.

There was no good excuse for this exercise.

Yet the government sought to do it anyway.

*

Second, the government of the United Kingdom is seeking to place itself, and its agents, beyond the reach of the law.

This can be seen in two bills before parliament: one effectively limiting the liability of service personnel for various criminal offences, including for torture and other war crimes, and the other expressly permitting secret service agents to break the law.

 

From one perspective, these two proposals simply give formal effect to the practical position.

It has always been difficult to prosecute members of the armed services for war crimes.

And domestic secret service agents have long relied on the ‘public interest’ test for criminal activity (for any criminal prosecution to take place there are two tests: whether there is sufficient evidence, and whether the prosecution is in the public interest, and guess who routinely gets the benefit of the latter).

And secret service agents abroad have long had legal immunity back in the United Kingdom, under the wonderfully numbered section 007 of the Intelligence Services Act 1994.

The primary significance of these two current proposals is that the de facto positions are being made de jure.

The government believes (rightly) that it can legislate to this effect and get away with it.

*

The third way – when the government cannot legislate to break the law or to make it and its agents beyond the law – is for the government to legislate so as to give itself the widest possible legal powers.

Again, this is not new: governments of all parties have sought wide ‘Henry VIII clauses’ that enable them to bypass parliament – legislating, and amending and even repealing primary legislation by ministerial decree.

But what is new here is the scale of the use of such legislation – both the pandemic and Brexit have been used as pretexts of the government to use secondary legislation for wide ranging purposes – even to limit fundamental rights without any parliamentary sanction.

And as I have argued elsewhere, there is no absolute barrier under the constitution of the United Kingdom to an ‘enabling act’ allowing ministers to have complete freedom to legislate by decree.

*

The fourth way is the flip-side of the government seeking more legal power.

The government is seeking ways to make it more difficult, if not impossible, for it to be challenged in the courts.

This can be done formally: by reducing the scope of judicial review or the reach of the laws of human rights and civil liberties, or by ‘ouster’ clauses, limiting the jurisdiction of the courts.

It can be done practically (and insidiously): by creating procedural impediments and by cutting or eliminating legal aid for such challenges.

It also can be achieved by the government either promoting or not challenging attacks on the judiciary and the role of courts in holding executive power to account.

If the government cannot break the law, or make itself immune to the law, or give itself wide legal powers – it certainly does not want citizens to be able to challenge it.

Of course, this impulse is also not new – and examples can be given of governments of all parties seeking to make it more difficult for legal challenges to be brought.

But again, what is different from before is the openness of these attempts.

There is no self-restraint.

The government is going to get away with as many of these barriers as it can.

*

The big change is not that those with political power want to abuse it – and to stop those who can check and balance that abuse.

That is a problem no doubt as old as law and government itself.

What is remarkable is how the United Kingdom government is now so brazen about it.

The government just does not care about being seen doing this – and if there is any concern or even outcry – that is regarded as a political advantage.

The ‘libs’ are ‘owned’ and those with grins will clap and cheer.

In this current period of hyper-partisanship there is no legal or constitutional principle that is beyond being weaponised.

What perhaps restrained the United Kingdom government – and other governments – from being so candid in their abuses and misuses of power was once called ‘public opinion’.

People cared about such things – or at least those in government believed people cared.

But, as this blog averred on New Year’s Eve, what happens if a public-spirited donkey does tell the animals on the farm that power is being misused or abused – and the animals still do not care.

‘The animals crowded round the van. “Good-bye, Boxer!” they chorused, “good-bye!”‘

*

And this brings us back to the key problem for liberalism – and for the principles of transparency and accountability – in this age of Brexit and Trump.

It is not enough to point out the lies and misinformation – or to show the misuses and abuses of law – if a sufficient number of people do not care that they are being lied to or misinformed and that the law is being misused or abused.

And there is nothing the media or commentators can do about this (though we should still be public-spirited donkeys anyway).

This requires a shift – not in media and communications – but of politics and of political leadership.

Only if enough citizens care about the government abusing or misusing the law will the government stop doing it, at least so openly.

And until then the United Kingdom’s indifference towards the rule of law and other constitutional norms will just be a register of the public’s general indifference about the government getting away with it.

*****

This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

If you value the free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary both at this blog and at my Twitter account please do support through the Paypal box above.

Or become a Patreon subscriber.

You can also subscribe to this blog at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).

*****

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.

 

 

The Koch Snowflake of Brexit

New Year’s Day, 2021

Alan Moore, in the appendices to his graphic novel From Hell, uses Koch’s Snowflake to illustrate the historiography of his subject.

Moore’s point is that every book on his subject – either with new minor details or imaginative theories – cannot go beyond certain central facts. 

New details and new interpretations can be added infinitely – but the significant events were finite.

(On the Whitechapel murders, do click and buy here for Hallie Rubenhold’s outstanding book.)

*

What Moore says can, of course, be said also of any group of connected historical events.

Take, for example, Brexit.

The central events of Brexit are: (1) the decision to hold a referendum on 23 June 2016; (2) the referendum result; (3) the Article 50 notification on 29 March 2017; (4) the extensions of the Article 50 period; (5) the United Kingdom departing the European Union on 31st January 2020; and (6) the end of the transition period yesterday, 31st December 2020.

These are the six tips of the Koch’s Snowflake of Brexit.

Now and in the future there will be far more detail: about the politics and the negotiations, about the content and effects of legal instruments; and about the impact of decisions made.

And there will be endless interpretations of what actually happened in these five or so eventful and exhausting years, and endless explanations of why it happened.

The amount of new detail on Brexit, and of new ‘takes’ about Brexit, is no doubt infinite.

But all the new details and all the new interpretations will not change the six central (procedural) facts of Brexit.

*

None of those six events were inevitable, of course.

Each event could have happened differently, or even not happened at all.

But those were the events that did happen, and so they are the things which ultimately do need to be explained.

And, as this blog has previously averred, even if certain crucial events of Brexit had turned out differently, we could have ended up with just a different form and manner of Brexit.

*

Now that this stage of Brexit is over – though the overall story of Brexit is far from being at an end, and may never end – it is time for me to finally complete the book I was asked to write on Brexit.

You can pre-order the book here – though the actual publication date will be later than April.

I had been waiting for the outcome of the transition period, and to discover whether there would be a relationship agreement, or not

I needed to know what would be the sixth tip of the Koch’s snowflake of Brexit.

The circumstances of the departure from the transition arrangements may explain more about else has happened since the 2016 referendum.

Of course, I could have told the story of Brexit with indifference to what happened at the end of the transition period – and there are many excellent books on Brexit already published.

But that was not the story I wanted to tell – or was able to tell in book form.

The story I want to tell as a book is how the United Kingdom went from a general election in 2015, where each major party was in support of European Union membership, to the United Kingdom leaving not only the European Union, but also (with the end of the transition period, and with special arrangements for Northern Ireland) the Single Market and Customs Union, in just five years.

People in the future will be struck by how much happened, so quickly.

(As some people are already.)

Brexit is the most extraordinary political-policy-legal-constitutional-economic group of connected events in the modern history of the United Kingdom.

It should be an interesting story to try to tell, and I hope for you to read.

A Happy New Year to all my readers and followers.

*****

This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

If you value the free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary both at this blog and at my Twitter account please do support through the Paypal box above.

Or become a Patreon subscriber.

You can also subscribe to this blog at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).

*****

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.

The Bill implementing the Trade and Cooperation Agreement is an exercise in the Government taking power from Parliament

30th December 2020

Today Parliament will be expected to pass, in one single day, the legislation implementing the Trade and Cooperation Agreement into domestic law.

This situation is exceptional and unsatisfactory.

The bill is currently only available in draft form, on the government’s own website.

As you can see, this means that ‘DRAFT’ is inscribed on each page with large unfriendly letters.

And we are having to use this version, as (at the time of writing) the European Union (Future Relationship) Bill is not even available parliament’s  ‘Bills before Parliament’ site.

The draft bill is complex and deals with several specific technical issues, such as criminal records, security, non-food product safety, tax and haulage, as well as general implementation provisions.

Each of these specific technical issues would warrant a bill, taking months to go through the normal parliamentary process.

But instead they will be whizzed and banged through in a single day, with no real scrutiny, as the attention of parliamentarians will (understandably) be focused on the general implementation provisions, which are in Part 3 of the draft bill.

And part 3 needs this attention, as it contains some remarkable provisions.

*

Clause 29 of the draft bill provides for a broad deeming provision.

(Note a ‘clause’ becomes a ‘section’ when a ‘Bill’ becomes enacted as an ‘Act’.)

The intended effect of this clause is that all the laws of the United Kingdom are to be read in accordance with, or modified to give effect to, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

And not just statutes – the definition of ‘domestic law’ covers all law – private law (for example, contracts and torts) as well as public law (for example, legislation on tax or criminal offences).

It is an ingenious provision – a wave of a legal wand to recast all domestic law in whatever form in accordance with the agreement.

But it also an extremely uncertain provision: its consequences on each and every provision of the laws of England and Wales, of Northern Ireland, of Scotland, and on those provisions that cover the whole of the United Kingdom, cannot be known.

And it takes all those legal consequences out of the hands of parliament.

This clause means that whatever is agreed directly between government ministers and Brussels modifies all domestic law automatically, without any parliamentary involvement. 

*

And then we come to clause 31.

This provision will empower ministers (or the devolved authorities, where applicable) to make regulations with the same effect as if those regulations were themselves acts of parliament.

In other words: they can amend laws and repeal (or abolish) laws, with only nominal parliamentary involvement.

There are some exceptions (under clause 31(4)), but even with those exceptions, this is an extraordinarily wide power for the executive to legislate at will.

These clauses are called ‘Henry VIII’ clauses and they are as notorious among lawyers as that king is notorious in history.

Again, this means that parliament (and presumably the devolved assemblies, where applicable) will be bypassed, and what is agreed between Whitehall and Brussels will be imposed without any further parliamentary scrutiny.

*

There is more.

Buried in paragraph 14(2) of schedule 5 of the draft bill (the legislative equivalent of being positioned in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’) is a provision that means that ministers do not even have to go through the motions of putting regulations through parliament first.

Parliament would then get to vote on the provisions afterwards.

This is similar to the regulations which the government has been routinely using during the pandemic where often there has actually been no genuine urgency, but the government has found it convenient to legislate by decree anyway.

Perhaps there is a case that with the 1st January 2021 deadline approaching for the end of the Brexit transition period, this urgent power to legislate by decree is necessary.

But before such a broad statutory power is granted to the government there should be anxious scrutiny of the legislature.

Not rushed through in a single parliamentary day.

*

There are many more aspects of this draft bill which need careful examination before passing into law.

And, of course, this draft bill in turn implements a 1400-page agreement – and this is the only real chance that parliament will get to scrutinise that agreement before it takes effect.

You would not know from this draft bill that the supporters of Brexit campaigned on the basis of the United Kingdom parliament ‘taking back control’.

Nothing in this bill shows that the Westminster parliament has ‘taken back control’ from Brussels.

This draft bill instead shows that Whitehall – that is, ministers and their departments – has taken control of imposing on the United Kingdom what it agrees with Brussels.

And presumably that was not what Brexit was supposed to be about.

*****

This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

If you value the free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary both at this blog and at my Twitter account please do support through the Paypal box above.

Or become a Patreon subscriber.

You can also subscribe to this blog at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).

*****

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.