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 Good Friday Agreement and Brexit

12th April 2021

Before the Brexit referendum, one British politician made an emphatic statement about the impact of Brexit on the position of Northern Ireland:

‘Relations between London and Dublin are by far the warmest they have ever been since Irish independence, and the people of Northern Ireland are among the beneficiaries of that.

‘For that, the credit goes to a whole succession of British and Irish leaders, and to the tireless diplomacy of the United States. Yet it has also partly been facilitated by both countries being part of a common framework.

‘If the UK were not in the EU, the impact on such close relations, though hard to quantify, would certainly not be positive.

‘The Good Friday Agreement was based on the assumption that the two countries would be in the EU together, and the various cross-border institutions it established are built on that.

‘Hundreds of millions of euros of European funds are currently diverted into the border region through a special peace programme.

‘Most important of all, the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would be called into question.’

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The key sentence of that passage bears repeating:

‘The Good Friday Agreement was based on the assumption that the two countries would be in the EU together, and the various cross-border institutions it established are built on that.’

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Who was this politician?

Was it some starry-eyed Europhile writing in some left-wing magazine?

No, it was former Conservative foreign secretary William Hague writing in the Daily Telegraph on 9th May 2016.

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Hague’s warning was not the only one – and he was also not the only one to make the connection between the European Union and the Good Friday Agreement.

The then Taoiseach Enda Kenny said, just days before the referendum:

‘When the Good Friday agreement was concluded 18 years ago, the detail of the negotiations and the agreement itself were brought about as a result of intensive engagement by the British and Irish governments in conjunction with the Northern Irish political parties.

‘But often underestimated was the international support for the process, not least that of the European Union.’

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And if one looks at the Good Friday Agreement itself, you will see the following recital:

‘The British and Irish governments […]

‘Wishing to develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union’

The agreement also expressly provided that the north-south ministerial council ‘consider the European Union dimension of relevant matters, including the implementation of EU policies and programmes and proposals under consideration in the EU framework. Arrangements to be made to ensure that the views of the Council are taken into account and represented appropriately at relevant EU meetings’.

Indeed, there are eight mentions of the European Union in the agreement.

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Of course, an agreement made in 1998 did not and could not have anticipated the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union in 2016 and then leaving in 2020.

But that shared membership of the European Union was a presupposition cannot be sensibly denied.

As Hague also points out about Gibraltar, shared membership of the European Union was a handy and effective solution to tricky cross-border issues.

The European Union was a useful geo-political work-around for many otherwise insoluble problems. 

And so be departing from the European Union, such advantages of membership were removed.

This should not have been a shock.

Hague set this out plainly in the Brexit-supporting Telegraph, and the Taoiseach also put his name to articles explicitly stating this.

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Brexit, of course, is not in and by itself a contradiction of the Good Friday Agreement – in that the Good Friday Agreement still is in force now that the United Kingdom has departed the European Union.

In the first Miller case, the supreme court was asked to rule against the Article 50 notification, and they stated in respect of the legislation implementing that agreement:

‘In our view, this important provision, which arose out of the Belfast [Good Friday] Agreement, gave the people of Northern Ireland the right to determine whether to remain part of the United Kingdom or to become part of a united Ireland.

‘It neither regulated any other change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland nor required the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland to the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union.’

As such continued shared membership of the European Union may well have been a presupposition of the Good Friday – but it was not (as a lawyer may say) a condition precedent.

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The Good Friday Agreement is, in terms of its practical importance, perhaps the most significant single constitutional instrument in the politics of the United Kingdom.

It is of far more practical importance than, say, Magna Carta.

It shapes what is – and is not – both politically permissible and politically possible.

It largely explains the curiously elaborate – and, for some, counter-intuitive – nature of Brexit in respect of Northern Ireland.

It meant that the clean absolute break with the European Union sought by many Brexit supporters did not happen.

The Irish border was to be kept open.

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But the Good Friday Agreement does not only protect the nationalist community, it also should protect the unionist community.

And the Brexit arrangements – with a trade barrier effectively down the Irish Sea – is seen as much as an affront to the unionists as a visible land border infrastructure would have been an affront to the nationalists.  

There is no easy answer to this problem – perhaps there is no answer, easy or hard.

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It took membership of the European Union to make the Belfast Agreement possible.

Perhaps there is no alternative geo-political workaround to take its place.

Had the United Kingdom stayed within the single market and the customs union, even if as a matter of legal form it would not technically be a member of the European Union, then perhaps this problem could have been averted.

But the fateful decision by then prime minister Theresa May in the months after the Brexit Referendum that Brexit would mean leaving the single market and the customs union meant that problems in respect of the position of Northern Ireland would become stark.

And as nods to the articles by Hague and Kenny show, it cannot be averred that the United Kingdom government was not warned.

***

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Prince Philip, the monarchy, and the precariousness of crowns

10th April 2021

One of the more wonderful rabbit-holes on the internet is to start with one Wikipedia page and to then click and click and to see where it takes you.

And so yesterday, as an exercise, I started with the page of Prince Philip, whose death has been announced, and clicked to find out more about his royal and noble ancestors.

Going down the direct father-to-father line by itself takes you back to Elimar I, Count of Oldenburg (1040-1112), via such splendid fellows as these:

 

 


 

According to Wikipedia, at least, these are the direct forefathers of Philip and thereby of princes Charles, William, and George.

Of course, few will be certain that all this is the case as a matter of historical and biological fact – we are going on secondary historical sources at best.

And, of course, you can back click through the mothers instead, or a combination of fathers and mothers, and so on.

But two things become obvious, whichever way you click.

First, some of the noble and royal families of Europe have been around as noble and royal families for a very long time.

And second, those noble and royal families have often adapted and evolved, as has the nature of lordship and kingship – but sometimes those families do not adapt and do not survive, which is also in the nature of lordship and kingship.

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When we get to Philip’s paternal grandfather we have a seventeen-year old second son of a king of Denmark who was somehow elected king of Greece in 1863.

Then Philip’s father – the fourth son of this almost-accidental king of Greece – was, in turn, exiled, court-martialled and then banished from Greece, and was to live in Vichy France and to die in Monaco.

Previous posts on this blog (here and here) have emphasised that for Queen Elizabeth the crown is precarious.

Her grandfather – who was king when she was born – had been crowned king of Great Britain and Ireland, as well as emperor of India and the other dominions.

But as a child and teenager she saw her uncle forced to abdicate, the United Kingdom forced re-invent itself with Irish independence, and the forced conversion of the empire into a commonwealth.

One suspects that the Queen does not take the crown for granted.

The same, one suspects, was also true of Philip.

Within the previous two generations of his own family, crowns had almost-literally come and gone, and he spent his childhood being quickly moved from one place to another.

Elsewhere in Europe, royal reigns and noble privileges and monarchical systems were abruptly coming to an end, and overseas empires were collapsing.

When Elizabeth became Queen in 1952, there was no particular reason to think that the United Kingdom or the crown itself was especially stable or sustainable.

And it is perhaps only with hindsight that it now looks ‘inevitable’ that both the United Kingdom and crown have continued to the current day.

But against the history of the seventy years before 1952, such stability and continuity is unusual in European terms rather than the norm.

And a good part of that is because the slow and quiet reinvention of the crown under Elizabeth and Philip – which was not perfect, but it did mean that the crown and the royal family continued generally to have high public support and largely avoided partisan political controversy.

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The next generation of the royal family, as with the politicians currently with the charge of governing the United Kingdom, do not – and cannot – have this same sense of anxious fragility as the generation of the Queen and her late husband.

And as such, things will be taken for – and as – granted.

For them, turmoil and reversals are the exception – rather than the norm.

But history is often not like that for more than one or two generations in succession.

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Parliament is an event and an institution – but not a building

5th April 2021

Restoring the palace of Westminster is proving to be rather expensive.

This news prompts a thought about what is – actually – a parliament.

I happen to be a (non-militant) atheist but I have friends who are Christians who will say that a church is not a building but the people – and that a church can exists just as readily in people’s houses, or in the street, or over an internet zoom call.

A similar approach can be adopted to parliament.

The great historian of the Stuart period Conrad Russell averred that the parliaments of the seventeenth century were an event not an institution.

And this goes to the word itself – a parliament is where people, well parley.

As such, it can take place anywhere – and indeed parliaments have been held away from Westminster.

And parliaments have been held in different parts of Westminster.

It is only by sheer familiarity that we identify a parliament with a particular building.

But there is no constitutional reason why parliament has to sit in Westminster.

For example, take for example the preamble of an act of parliament:

‘Be it enacted by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:—’

There is nothing in that introductory text which provides that the lords and the commons have to be sitting and voting in parliament.

(And, if you read the text carefully, you will also see there is nothing that says peers and commons need to have voted separately on the bill.)

So, just like a church, there is nothing which would ultimately stop a parliament meeting just as readily in people’s houses, or in the street, or over an internet zoom call.

It is, however, a measure of the sheer pressure of those dollops of Victorian nostalgia and surviving procedure on our political imagination that it is almost impossible to conceive of a parliament sitting anywhere else than that neo-gothic pile just by the Thames.

And it certainly seems beyond the political imagination of some members of parliament to conceive of their constitutional role and duties being capable of performance and discharge other than in the palace of Westminster.

Four hundred years later, it has to be be conceded that parliament now is an institution rather than just an event – but it still an institution that can manifest in a number of places and in a number of ways.

And not just in the palace of Westminster.

That so few parliamentarians can see that parliament is what one does, rather than where one is, is a cost to the rest of us of more than twelve billion pounds.

It is the cost of our parliamentarians confusing what they do for where they are.

If parliamentarians took parliament seriously, it would not matter where the parliament sat, as long as it could perform its role and discharge its duties.

Our constitution is in great part a creaking Victorian dysfunctional monstrosity – there is no need for parliamentarians to meet in one too.

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Happy 300th birthday, office of the Prime Minister – or is it?

3rd April 2021

Happy birthday, office of the prime minister.

Well, almost.

The office of the prime minister was not invented in one sudden moment.

The term ‘prime minister’ came to be used generally over time to describe the main minster of the crown, and who was answerable to parliament.

For a long time, the office of prime minister was invisible to our constitutional law.

The first time it was used in a formal instrument was, we are told, when Benjamin Disraeli signed the treaty of Berlin in 1878.

Even in the twentieth century it hardly left a trace on the statute book.

And this gives us an insight in to the strengths and weaknesses of the position.

In constitutional theory, the power of a prime minister derives – ahem, primarily – from two sources.

First, the prime minister has powers derived from the royal prerogative – the fiction being that the prime minister exercises those powers on behalf of the crown.

Second, the prime minister has powers derived from commanding a majority in the house of commons – and thereby control over finance legislation.

The prime minister’s power rests thereby on two constitutional stools.

What the prime minister does not have – at least not formally – is his or her own explicit constitutional centre of gravity.

Almost everything a prime minister can and cannot do ultimately comes from, in theory, either the crown or parliament.

This, in turn, means that the office is difficult to ‘reform’ – for as there are almost no legal instruments that set out the powers of the prime minister, there is no text to amend or replace.

It would be like trying to net a constitutional ghost.

It also means that the office can be as powerful and as weak as personalties and circumstances allow – you would not be able to tell just from constitutional law alone why certain prime ministers are strong or otherwise, and how certain prime ministers lose power.

For explanations for why, for example, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair both left office despite winning three general elections each you will have to look at books about politics and not about constitutional law.

And so what we are celebrating is not so much three hundred years of an office but a lack of a defined office, but one at the centre of practical political power.

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The problem with the United Kingdom is not a lack of a ‘written constitution’ but the lack of constitutionalism

30th March 2021

This is just a quick post to draw together a couple of points in my law and policy commentary that appear to some people to be contradictory.

On one hand, this blog and my commentary elsewhere relentlessly point out the constitutional failings and trespasses of this government – especially the propensity of current ministers to evade or remove checks and balances.

On the other hand, I am not a fan of a codified constitution (popularly though misleadingly called a ‘written constitution’) and can indeed be quite dismissive of those who contend it is a panacea for our political ills.

How can I be one and not the other?

Usually my first response is to aver that any written constitution would be more likely than not to entrench executive power – especially one which was introduced while the government had a high parliamentary majority.

But there is a second reason which I should perhaps emphasise more – especially when the knee-jerk accusation is that any legal commentator is legalistic – and that is that there needs to be a change in political culture.

‘Constitutionalism’ means taking constitutional rules and principles seriously in any given political circumstance – that things should be done or not done in a certain way because constitutional rules and principles matter in and of themselves.

One can have constitutionalism within a political system without a codified constitution – indeed the lack of codification arguable makes the following of basic constitutional precepts more important in political action.

And in the United Kingdom, there have been constitutionalist politicians in all parties.

The merit of constitutionalism is an acceptance and appreciation that there will be tensions between the elements of the state and that there are certain ways in which these tensions can and should be addressed before they harden into conflicts.

Without the political culture of constitutionalism, however, there is no point in having grand words in a codified constitution.

In the current politics of tribalism and hyper-partisanship – especially where the government wishes to eliminate all checks and balances – what is needed more than ever is a sense of constitutional propriety.

Some may aver that constitutionalism would be a happy consequence of a codified constitution – though the recent example of President Trump in America perhaps indicates that even with codified constitution there can be rampant anti-constitutionalism.

The revival and promotion of constitutionalism, however, would require political leadership –  for leading politicians to insist there are principles and rules that are distinct from the partisan self-interest.

And writing in early 2021, such a shift in political culture seems as remote as any codification.

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Why Ministers are less practically accountable than Judges – and how the accountability gap is the most fundamental problem in United Kingdom government and politics

29th March 2021

Many will have Very Strong Opinions about the basic ills in the United Kingdom political system.

Some will point to individual politicians (Thatcher, Blair, Johnson, Corbyn, Farage etc) or political parties (Tories!).

Others will point to political ideas (Brexit, Remain, Centrism, neo-liberalism, ‘woke’-ism).

A minority will aver that there are structural failures – unelected head of state or upper chamber, the lack of proportional representation, and so on.

Perhaps these views are correct, but the more I write about the law and policy of the United Kingdom, the more there seems one particular fault in the conduct of public public affairs.

Accountability.

It is almost impossible – in practical terms – to hold many with executive power to account.

Of course, there is constitutional theory – such as the supposition that ministers are accountable to parliament.

But even typing or saying that  feels artificial if not ridiculous.

Ministers routinely avoid saying things to parliament and, if they do, they are adept at saying untrue, or misleading, or incomplete things.

And there is no real sanction if a minister does mislead or disregard parliament.

That ministers are accountable to parliament is not so much a constitutional principle, but a lack of a principle.

It is a rhetorical cloak that hides the lack of any real accountability.

Contrast with, say, judges.

A judge has to give reasons for their decision – and those decisions must explain why they took that decision and not any other decision; the decisions of judges can be appealed or reviewed by other courts; and the law applied by a judge can be changed.

You may sneer at judges in their (daft) robes and wigs, but they are practically day-to-day accountable in at least three ways.

Ministers, in contrast, do not need to have reasons that add up for most of their decisions; they are free from having those decisions properly scrutinised by their political peers; and there is no real limit to what they can legislate if they are so minded.

And apart from the remote possibility of a legal challenge, or an eventual general election, they are safe from actual accountability.

There are various causes of this:

– the elective dictatorship of parliament, where the government also has control of the elected part of the legislature, is a primary cause;

– the lack (with a few notable exceptions) of a press that is geared to holding ministers to account rather than being a means of transmission of information from/about the government to the public;

– the hold that political parties continue to have in the recruitment and promotion of candidates;

– our tribal and increasingly hyper-partisan political culture;

– the increasing lack of care of voters about being lied to by ministers – for, as this blog has previously averred, there is no practical point exposing the lies of ministers if people do not mind being lied to; and

– the absence – despite the Very Strong Opinions of constitutional hobbyists – of a consensus for what alternative constitutional arrangements would be an improvement.

(‘We demand a written constitution’ say those who rarely then explain how a written constitution would not just be an opportunity by the executive to entrench its own power.)

An index of how weak our constitution is in respect of accountability is how, when things go wrong, it is customary to demand a public inquiry.

For if our constitutional worked well in respect of accountability then there would be proper scrutiny at the time – and public inquiries would be an exceptional event.

Mere exposure of problems is not enough – indeed, few of those who think anything about our public affairs will be unaware of many of the problems.

It is instead an everyday failure to get ministers to engage with those problems, to explain what went wrong and to say how the problems can be addressed – the very stuff of accountability.

So many things in our political system now point away from this lack of accountability being fixed quickly.

And so the accountability gap widens and widens.

Brace, brace.

***

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The performative nastiness of the Home Secretary

24th March 2021

The office of home secretary is one that often does not bring the best out of its occupants.

Indeed, for a while the phrase ‘former Labour home secretary’ was one of the most illiberal phrases in the political lexicon.

Once could think of exceptions – Roy Jenkins, of course, and to a limited extent William Whitelaw and Douglas Hurd (though the latter two only seem more ‘liberal’ by comparison).

On the whole, however, just as certain experiences bring out the worst in human nature, being home secretary can bring out the worst in any politician.

But.

At least former home secretaries had the grace to pretend otherwise.

Remember the grave sorrowful face of, say, Jack Straw as he solemnly warned of the need of some ‘tough new measures’ – enticing you to nod-along with his sense of national emergency.

And Theresa May as home secretary even once stunned the police federation with a full-on speech about police reform.

In essence: the home office was a tough-old job, but some politician had to do it.

But what home secretaries did not do – at least not in public – is revel in the capacity of the office to cause harm and upset.

And so we come to the current home secretary.

Today’s news is typical of their approach:

Before May was home secretary there was a famous conference speech – framed in cautionary terms – about the Conservative Party becoming the ‘Nasty Party’.

For the current home secretary that speech has instead become a manifesto.

And as someone has averred on Twitter, this is not exceptional to the United Kingdom:

The Cruelty Is The Point.

(See here.)

What an unpleasant vista this is on our current politics.

The important thing to note, however, is not so much (yet) that the powers and objectives of the home office have profoundly changed.

These are just about the sort of policies that other home secretaries may have adopted – and not only Conservative politicians.

What seems novel (at least to me) is the sheer glee which accompanies the announcement and promotion of each policy announcement.

One shudders to think what the current home secretary would do publicly if the office still have the power to (not) commute a death penalty.

And rhetorical change can have substantial consequences: each great office of state is subject to and can shape public expectations – that the chancellor, for example, can and will do things in respect of the economy generally, and with taxation and spending in particular.

The more the home office is loudly deployed as a vehicle for nasty policies, presumably the more the demand for more such policies.

And so the approach of the current home secretary cannot be written-off as just vile verbiage: it may and perhaps will lead to more repressive policies.

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All this is an example of a more general problem with the current political arrangements of the United Kingdom.

The lack of political and constitutional self-restraint – and the removal of the gate-keepers.

There has never really been anything before – other than custom and decency – that has prevented a home secretary exploiting their office in this way.

Just as there was nothing which stopped the prime minister from using the prerogative powers in various unfortunate and unwise ways.

What the home secretary and some other ministers are now doing is showing openly what the constitution of the United Kingdom has long been capable of permitting.

And so what is demonstrated by this exercise of performative politics is not just the politics of the current home secretary – but that there is nothing in place that can prevent such things.

***

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Union Jacks being placed indoors in politicians’ offices is a constitutional distress signal

23rd March 2021

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“They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths.”

– overheard in Camden Town, 1969

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In thirty-five years of reading and writing about the constitutional history of the United Kingdom I have never given a second thought to the Union Jack (or Union Flag).

To the extent I thought about flags at all, I just had a vague notion that they were things which people in other countries had – like the fact they put their country names on postage stamps while the Royal Mail does not.

It was not so much that I felt strongly against a flag – I just did not really think about it at all.

And now it seems to be the most potent political issue of our age.

It is all very strange.

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Let us start with the law providing that the Union Jack is our national flag.

There is no law providing the Union Jack is our national flag.

Indeed, it seems there was doubt that the Union Jack was our national flag until the early twentieth century.

Here is a revealing exchange between three earls in the house of lords in 1908:

From that exchange we can infer that in the Victorian period the Union Jack was not regarded widely as the national flag – else there would be no need for such a debate and clarification in 1908.

So it may not even be Victorian nostalgia – but something of which has only been a big thing for a hundred years or so.

Another ‘invention of tradition’ as some historians would say.

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There are two things, however, which one must know about the Union Jack.

The first is that some people will have Very Strong Opinions on whether it is called a Union Jack or a Union Flag – though those three earls of the realm were quite at ease calling it a jack.

The second is that the same people are also likely to have Very Strong Opinions on which way up the flag should be flown.

This blog does not have such strong opinions.

But the one thing which seems to be overlooked in the current heated political controversy about flags is that, well, they are supposed to be flown outside – on land or at sea.

That is the point of a flag, if you think about it.

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To have political arguments about flags in indoor rooms seems, on this basis, to be rather weird.

It is like having a row about closed umbrellas.

Our ancestors did not give us much guidance about the Union Jacks being indoors as political props, as it may not have occurred to them that a flag would ever be used for such a purpose.

*

That said, there is some trace of flags in our legislation.

In schedule 1 of the grandly titled Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) (England) Regulations 2007, there is this provision for things that do not need consent:

But nothing about flags inside.

*

This lack of any formal recognition of a national flag is not surprising in those often casual arrangement that we describe as the constitution of the United Kingdom.

A thing can be – and presumably cease to be – a national flag without any legislative intervention.

A thing can become official in an unofficial way.

Whether this relaxed approach will continue in this age of hyper-partisanship and performative nationalism is unlikely.

One can quite imagine a new act of parliament ‘enshrining’ the Union Jack as our national flag, with ‘tough new offences’ to ‘crack down’ on disrespect.

One wonders how we managed so far.

*

The timing of this phenomenon is telling.

By reason of Brexit, there is a non-trivial likelihood that there will be Irish unification and maybe also Scottish independence in the next few years.

So there is a real risk that two of the crosses on the Union Jack will soon not be there if the flag were ever to be adjusted for accuracy.

(Though one can quite imagine England carrying on with the Union Jack even with the loss of Northern Ireland and Scotland – like those pop bands that still tour with just one original member.)

And although it is easy to mock this flag-showery, it is not without political purchase, as my wise Financial Times colleague Robert Shrimsley avers:

But taking this sensible warning seriously, there still seems symbolism in this, well, symbolism.

Lore tells us that a Union Jack flown upside down was a sign of distress.

It is almost as if the current prevalence of indoor Union Jacks – upside down or otherwise – is itself a distress signal – and one for the future of the Union.

Brace, brace.

***

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Time for a peer review – why focusing on just fixing the problem of hereditary peers would not be enough

22nd June 2021

The Sunday Times this weekend did a good piece of journalism on the hereditary peers in the house of lords.

Who could possibly disagree?

Well – certainly not this blog, in principle.

Removal of the hereditary element in the house of lords is one of many ‘micro’ reforms of the constitution of the United Kingdom which should be done – regardless of the interminable ‘debate’ on the merits of a codified constitution.

*

Yet.

Here are some things to think about as you nod-along.

There are other (perhaps even worse) problems with the composition of the house of lords: the power of patronage of party leaders – especially the prime minister, the rights of bishops of just one denomination of one church to have twenty-six votes, the number of life peers who do not take any active role but can be summoned to vote, and so on.

And contrary to the impression given by the headline of that piece: ninety of the ninety-two hereditary peers sitting in the house of lords do not have automatic seats – they are elected by the hereditary peers generally.

This means, somewhat paradoxically, they are the only members of the house of lords that are there by means of any sort of electoral process.

They are also free from any allegiance to any party manager or any debt arising from an act of patronage.

In other words: they are part of the legislature outside the control of the government or party leaders.

*

But.

Whatever the case that can be made for hereditary peers in the house of lords, they still need to go – and sooner rather than later.

Some constitutional abominations are too awful to be tolerated.

And removing the hereditary peers would also make the house of lords more, shall we say, ‘legitimate’ in its constitutional role.

(And can we please get rid of all the mock-chivalric-pseudo-feudal-medieval titles while we are at it – if you really want to be a lord or lady of something, join a historical enactment society.)

All that said: there should not be the removal of one of the genuinely independent features of the house of lords without regard to the overall balance.

There is little to be gained from clapping and cheering the removal of the hereditary peers if the effect would be to tilt the balance of the house of the lords towards more governmental control.

For, as the constitution of the United Kingdom currently stands, the house of lords is the most effective check and balance to a house of commons dominated by the government.

The house of lords cannot block any legislation – and nor should it, as it does not have any democratic basis – but it can force the house of commons to think again and more carefully about its legislative proposals.

And often the reasoned amendments of the house of lords are accepted by the house of commons – and, indeed, often the house of lords amendments can provide convenient cover to ministers who eventually realise that the initial proposals were unsound.

Given that the most important constitutional function of the house of lords is that of a check and a balance – rather than to be a chamber with a rival democratic basis – then the most important quality is that it should be independent.

Stripping out one feature that provides any independence in the upper chamber should thereby be matched by other measures to maintain that independence.

That is why there should be a more general (ahem) peer review.

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And luckily, there has actually been a useful review.

The Burns report of 2017 puts forward sensible and persuasive proposals for reforming the composition of the house of lords while keeping its independent constitutional role.

The key proposals are to limit the size of the upper chamber and to convert lifetime membership (of the life peers) to a single term of fifteen years.

That report, however, did not make direct proposals for the hereditary peers and bishops.

But, in principle, there is no reason why such a reform could not also mean the removal of the hereditary and spiritual peers – as the overriding objective of a balanced upper chamber outside the domination of any government of the day would be retained.

So – yes, nod-along with the attack on the hereditary elements and, also yes, let’s get rid of them – but when the nodding-along ends, let us also make sure we have not ended up with a less independent upper house in our current constitutional arrangements.

***

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