The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 has been a failure – but the decision for an early general election should not be in the hands of the prime minister

7th December 2020

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 is an odd and unloved piece of legislation.

And it has not been a successful piece of legislation – in that the parliament elected in 2015, which should have lasted until 2020, did not run its full course, and neither did the parliament after that.

Indeed, instead of no general elections between 2015 and 2020, we had two – in 2017 and 2019 – instead.

No general election held since the Act was passed has resulted (so far) in a parliament of a fixed term.

In this key sense, the Act has been a failure.



Is it an entirely useless piece of legislation?

No, as there is one important thing the statute gets right.

Before 2011 the decision for a parliament to dissolve and for there to a fresh general election was, in effect, in the hands of the prime minister – subject to a statutory long-stop of five years.

Nominally the source of this power was the the royal prerogative, for the crown had the ability to dissolve one parliament and to then issue a proclamation for a general election.

But in practice, it was ‘on the advice of’ the prime minister, and it was a powerful political weapon.

The 2011 Act took this power out of the hands of the prime minister.

Now, again subject to a five year long-stop, there cannot be an ‘early’ general election just at the whim of a prime minister.


So far, so welcome.


Where the statute goes wrong is in respect of how there can still be an ‘early’ general election.

On the face of the Act there are two ways, both of which are problematic.

The first is that there is a ‘super majority’ of MPs – and this is how the then prime minister Theresa May got her general election in 2017.

The second is if an elaborate scheme of two successive ‘confidence’ motions – one of ‘no confidence’ and, if there is not then a ‘confidence’ motion soon after passed by MPs, there is a general election.

This second route has not been used, not least as it is not clear what should happen in the period between the two confidence motions.

And in any case, it does not really matter what the Act provides on the face of it, for parliament can just pass a ‘notwithstanding’ statute for there to be an early general election anyway.

This does not need a ‘super majority’ or elaborate succession of confidence motions.

It just needs a bare majority in the house of commons and a lack of opposition in the house of lords (and the house of lords will tend not to deny the commons its way on questions of appeals to the electorate).

And this is how the current prime minister got his general election a year ago.

The Early Parliamentary General Election Act 2019 was passed in a matter of days.

It was as if the early election provisions in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 made almost no real difference at all.


There is now a review of the 2011 Act.

The government has published a draft bill repealing the Act and seeking to revive the royal prerogative of dissolution.

Clever constitutional lawyers will argue about (a) whether the prerogative was abolished with the 2011 Act and (b) whether it can be revived.

(My own view only goes so far as (a) the 2011 Act did not expressly abolish the prerogative power and (b) a new statute can purport to say that the 2011 Act had no effect on that prerogative power – but I do not know which way a court would go if the point was ever litigated.)


Repealing the Act outright would, in my opinion, be a mistake.

Instead, the two mechanisms for an early general election should be replaced by the need for a majority of MPs (including vacant seats) to pass a motion for an early general election.

Given that, as in 2019, the early election mechanisms in the 2011 Act can be side-stepped anyway, this would be an affirmation of what the real practical position.

A prime minister unable to command a majority in the Commons should not be able to use the threat of an early general election against opponents and their own party.

It should be a matter for the elected representatives themselves to make that significant decision.

The 2011 Act may be odd and unloved and, in practice, not that successful.

But it did get one thing right.

Early general elections should be possible, but the decision should not be in the hands of the prime minister of the day.


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How Brexit may lead to Scottish independence and Irish unification

1st December 2020

So familiar is the three-word phrase ‘the United Kingdom’ that it can be forgotten that it does not name any particular country.

It is instead a description of dry and abstract political arrangement – the kingdoms that are (somehow) united could be anywhere on the globe.

Of course, the term is short for ‘the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ – but the shorter form is more common.

It is worth pausing and thinking about the phrase, as it reminds us that the United Kingdom is itself a political union, as much as the European Union or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

And political unions come and go: there is no inherent reason why any political union is permanent.


This post is prompted by a tweet yesterday from the Conservative leader in Scotland.

The sentiment of the second sentence of the tweet can, however, be applied to another example of ‘independence’.

And this will be a recurring problem for British Conservative politicians in opposing Scottish independence: the arguments they deployed in respect of Brexit and against the European Union can be re-fashioned in turn by those in favour of dissolving the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.


For what it is worth (and it is not worth much as someone writing from England), I happen to support both Scottish independence and an Ireland united by consent.

This is not because I am anti-English and a rootless cosmopolitan, but a recognition that, in the end, all political unions will tend to come and go.

And although I dislike all forms of nationalism (which often tend to be illiberal), self-determination is very much a liberal value.

The people of Scotland and of Northern Ireland (and of Wales) should decide on their own political arrangements.

The United Kingdom is not necessarily a permanent arrangement.

Indeed, but for events before the Norman conquest, England itself could have carried on for many centuries being a geographic expression with a collection of smaller kingships (Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria), just as Spain did until the early modern period, and Italy and Germany did until the nineteenth century.

‘Great Britain’ itself – a combination of the union of the English and Scottish crowns and then of parliaments 1603 to 1707 – has no greater claim for political permanence than, say, the combined role of the British monarch being also the Elector of Hannover (which lasted from 1714 to 1837).

(On ‘Great Britain’ being a construct, it is worth reading – or at least knowing about – Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837.)


But liberal arguments may work both ways.

The liberal principles of internationalism and self-determination can often be used both for and against any particular attempt at political union – for example, an independent Scotland (having exercised self-determination) will seek to be part of the European Union.

The European Union itself has no claim either to permanence, and it may one day join a list of historical attempts at unifying Europe.

Brexit and the recent political events in Poland and Hungary are an existentialist challenge to the European Union, which it may or may not survive.

The point is that no political structure is necessarily eternal.

Many once thought the sun would never ever set on the British Empire, before its fairly rapid dismantlement after the Second World War.


There is also a plausible argument that it was only membership of the European Union of both the United Kingdom and Ireland that enabled the peace process in Northern Ireland to work and the Good Friday Agreement to be put in place.

Take away the European Union and that handy practical solution becomes unstuck.


So one particular irony that may come from Brexit is that the so-called Conservative and Unionist Party – by its absolute insistence on forcing through departure from the European Union – may be instrumental in breaking up the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

An independence referendum in Scotland and a border poll in Norther Ireland are both now more likely than not in the next few years – and both may well go against being part of a United Kingdom.

And that would be an exercise in ‘taking back control’ – just not the ‘taking back control’ that Brexiters perhaps had in mind.


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The TRUTH about Article 61 of Magna Carta

Yesterday someone posted on Twitter the following (now deleted) tweet.

Another (also now deleted) tweet linked to a video of what seemed to have been an exchange between a person called Brad and the police, in which Brad sought to rely on his rights under Magna Carta.

The video is still available on Facebook and is worth watching in full.


A quick internet search also reveals sites like this one purporting to set out your rights under Article 61 of Magna Carta.

And on Twitter there are still tweets such as this.


Is this true?

Is there a right of lawful rebellion under Article 61 of Magna Carta?

Does displaying Article 61 of Magna Carta in a shop window mean you cannot be fined or closed?

Let us find out.


Magna Carta is Latin for ‘the Great Charter’, a legal document written in Latin that first came into existence in 1215.

(By convention, and because it was originally in Latin, the ‘the’ is often missed out in the title by historians and lawyers when discussing Magna Carta, which I find amusing but is really not at all significant.)

An English translation of this Magna Carta is at the British Library website.

You will see this original Magna Carta is divided into numbered sections (known to historians and lawyers as chapters, not ‘Articles’).

At Chapter 61 is the following:

SINCE WE HAVE GRANTED ALL THESE THINGS for God, for the better ordering of our kingdom, and to allay the discord that has arisen between us and our barons, and since we desire that they shall be enjoyed in their entirety, with lasting strength, for ever, we give and grant to the barons the following security:

The barons shall elect twenty-five of their number to keep, and cause to be observed with all their might, the peace and liberties granted and confirmed to them by this charter.

If we, our chief justice, our officials, or any of our servants offend in any respect against any man, or transgress any of the articles of the peace or of this security, and the offence is made known to four of the said twenty-five barons, they shall come to us – or in our absence from the kingdom to the chief justice – to declare it and claim immediate redress. If we, or in our absence abroad the chief justice, make no redress within forty days, reckoning from the day on which the offence was declared to us or to him, the four barons shall refer the matter to the rest of the twenty-five barons, who may distrain upon and assail us in every way possible, with the support of the whole community of the land, by seizing our castles, lands, possessions, or anything else saving only our own person and those of the queen and our children, until they have secured such redress as they have determined upon. Having secured the redress, they may then resume their normal obedience to us.

Any man who so desires may take an oath to obey the commands of the twenty-five barons for the achievement of these ends, and to join with them in assailing us to the utmost of his power. We give public and free permission to take this oath to any man who so desires, and at no time will we prohibit any man from taking it. Indeed, we will compel any of our subjects who are unwilling to take it to swear it at our command.

If one of the twenty-five barons dies or leaves the country, or is prevented in any other way from discharging his duties, the rest of them shall choose another baron in his place, at their discretion, who shall be duly sworn in as they were.

In the event of disagreement among the twenty-five barons on any matter referred to them for decision, the verdict of the majority present shall have the same validity as a unanimous verdict of the whole twenty-five, whether these were all present or some of those summoned were unwilling or unable to appear.

The twenty-five barons shall swear to obey all the above articles faithfully, and shall cause them to be obeyed by others to the best of their power.

We will not seek to procure from anyone, either by our own efforts or those of a third party, anything by which any part of these concessions or liberties might be revoked or diminished. Should such a thing be procured, it shall be null and void and we will at no time make use of it, either ourselves or through a third party.


You will see that the phrase ‘lawful rebellion’ does not appear in Chapter 61, and neither is there anything which provides that if Magna Carta is displayed it renders a person or business immune from closure or fines.

The provisions is instead what is called a ‘security’ provision, setting out how the rights under Magna Carta could be practically secured and enforced.

If you read the provision you will see that the rights and powers of security are given to twenty-five barons (elected by other barons).

There is nothing in the provision to support the claims made on its behalf by the social media posts set out above.

If you do not believe this, read the provision for yourself.


But even if the original text of chapter 61 of Magna Carta had provided for lawful rebellion, or that the mere display of Magna Carta in a shop window would be enough to ward off law enforcement officials, the provision was removed within a year, when Magna Carta was reissued in 1216.

(It was reissued and amended many times.)

There is no sensible explanation for why a provision that was only in force 1215 to 1216 (and then only granted a power to 25 barons) would have the effect in 2020 of preventing a shop being closed under public health regulations if Magna Carta was placed in a shop window.

And that is the truth about Article 61 of Magna Carta.


There is, however, a serious point to be made about the various claims made about ancient legal documents, such as Magna Carta or the Bill of Rights.

There is not a strong tradition of ‘constitutionalism’ in England, and in the United Kingdom we do not have a portable and accessible document we can point and say ‘this is our constitution’.

And in the absence of a widely shared knowledge of the constitution, claims about Magna Carta, the rights of freemen of the land, and so on, become popular but unchecked.

As a matter of law and history, Magna Carta is now little more than a legal ornament rather than a living instrument, and it is rarely if ever successfully relied on in practice.

It is a legal text which politicians and others can praise safely, as it provides no real protections.

(In contrast, legal texts that do actually provide practical rights such as the Human Rights Act 1998 are  often attacked by those same politicians.)

Some of Magna Carta is still in force, in its 1297 reissue, and you can see these provisions on the official legislation website.

You can also read my piece from the 2015 anniversary, and this is an informative and insightful speech on Magna Carta from the medieval historian Jonathan Sumption.

And you can watch this, from another Brummie commentator on Magna Carta, Anthony Aloysius Hancock.




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Two gruesome legal topics: the law of slavery and the law of torture

19 October 2020

As a solicitor in practice I tend to specialise in commercial, media and communications law, and as a commentator I tend to explain public and international law.

(And as a historian of sorts, I am interested in law and anthropology and how complex societies can develop oral and written systems of law.)

But in addition to these areas, there are two special legal topics which fascinate and appal me.

Fascination: because I find it hard (as a western liberal writing in 2020) to believe that my own species has used and still uses the concept of law for such purposes, and so I want to understand why.

Why would and do people do these things?

Appalling: because both deal with the worst of human nature.

The first is the law of slavery: the extraordinary notion that there can be property rights for one human being in another human being.

By reason of the Black Lives Matter movement, I have recently published a few things on this (see here, here, here and here).

The second is the law of torture: the regulation of the deliberate and involuntary infliction of cruelty by some human beings on other human beings.

This second horrible subject has come up because of the United Kingdom government now seeking to make it harder to prosecute former and serving service personnel for war crimes and torture.

On this, I have done this video for the Financial Times.

And I have now done this podcast.

Not a pleasant thing to talk about, or to listen to others talking about, but important still the same.

Please watch and listen if you can.

Thank you for taking an interest.


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Law, history, slavery

15th June 2020

Many people – even those who have studied law and history – know almost nothing about how the law was used to facilitate slavery in English history.

People may have heard of Wilberforce and that the slave trade was abolished in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833.

They will therefore know a bit about how slavery ended but not how it was kept in place.

Over on Twitter I have recently done a couple of threads on law, history and slavery.

The first is on the Yorke-Talbot Opinion of 1729.

The second is on the Zong case of 1783.

I also did a thread in response to a former Member of Parliament who had invoked the jurist William Blackstone to suggest slavery had been abolished in 1753.


The point of these threads is to show that slavery was, at the time, commonplace and was facilitated by the law, as well as by insurers and so on.

Slavery was not just Edward Colston of Bristol going off on a frolic of his own.

There was an immense legal, commercial and administrative apparatus in place to enable slavery.


Slavery is about property in human beings, and the slave trade is about transactions in respect of that property.

Slavery was managed from afar: few slave merchants and very few domestic owners of slaves ever saw the enslaved face-to-face. Slavery was thereby dealt with by correspondence: with crews, agents and estate managers.

And so, because it was about property and transactions and done from afar, there are lots of records.

Lots and lots of records.

And so like that modern horror, the Holocaust, you can see the dealings with slavery in record after record.

For those involved, it was mundane.

Slaves bought and sold, and managed, by ink and paper, by everyday people on an everyday basis.

Great Britain’s very own banality of evil.


Nowhere has this been shown so well as in the BBC documentary on Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners.

In this documentary David Olusoga uses the detailed records of the immense compensation paid to slave owners in 1833 to demonstrate just how far and wide slave ownership was in British society.

Slave ownership was like owning a time-share in Spain or a special savings account.

The import of all this should be to correct the skewed cod-history of British nostalgic exceptionalism and to remind us of the extent to which Britain was involved in (and benefitted from) slavery and the slave trade.

And a rounded, more accurate understanding of our past is a good thing in itself.


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