The official residence of Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's first minister © Getty Images
Once upon a time, wise British small-c conservatives and small-u unionists knew better than to meddle with constitutional matters. Even though, from time to time, constitutional changes were necessary, they were not to be entered into lightly. You never knew what would happen next.
The folly of David Cameron’s un-conservative referendum on UK membership of the EU now has a fresh consequence: today, the Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon said there should be a new independence referendum once the UK’s terms of departure were obvious. The date for such a referendum will be between autumn 2018 and spring 2019. The union with Scotland is therefore at stake. Read more
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It is one thing to assert “Brexit is Brexit” and quite another to make it come about. Any departure of the UK from the EU is not going to happen by mere incantation of a grand phrase. There also has to be some legal means. So what are the legal means by which Brexit can happen?
Some say it can be done by the prime minister (with or without cabinet) as part of the so-called “royal prerogative” – the legal fiction that a minister may exercise the remaining powers of the crown which have not been limited by statute. The prime minister can, for example, enter into treaties on the basis of the royal prerogative.
Others say it can only be by an Act of Parliament — and these people are willing to litigate the point. The argument here is that there is legislation such as the European Communities Act which give individuals rights under EU law so it is not open to the executive to frustrate or circumvent this statute. Primary legislation would therefore be needed. Read more
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Not all problems have solutions. And the political problem now caused by the decisive Leave vote in the UK does not lend itself to any straightforward solution in practice.
Part of this is because there was never a good objective reason for the referendum in practice, and part is because the referendum did not have any legal effect. It was always an unnecessary referendum with no legal consequences. In legal terms, it was a glorified opinion poll. Read more
In June 2006, 10 years ago this month, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, promised to replace the Human Rights Act of 1998 with a “British bill of rights” when he and the Conservatives obtained power.
Ten years later the Human Rights Act is still the law of the land, even if it now seems Mr Cameron — prime minister since 2010 — may not be in office much longer. The Human Rights Act is as safe (or as unsafe) as it has ever been, and it looks as though the act will survive the premiership of Mr Cameron. Read more
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Public policy in England seems to have a rather illiberal tone at the moment. (And this post deliberately refers to England as, since devolution, it is increasingly hard to generalise about all the national governments in the UK.) Almost every day comes some new announcement about how the government wants to have more power at the expense of its citizens. Is England getting more illiberal? If so, how has this come about? And will any such illiberal trend continue?
First, the evidence of illiberalism. At its most stark, it is about life and death. In the last few weeks alone the prime minister has called for the army to be put above the law and for the law to be changed so as to make it easier for the police to shoot people. It would appear that David Cameron sees no role for the law in restraining those who can exercise lethal force on behalf of the state.
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Last week the UK’s Cabinet Office sought silently to remove the reference to “international law” from the Ministerial Code.
The text had stated that there was an “overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice and to protect the integrity of public life”. The new version states that there is an “overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life”.
Does this matter? From a strict legalistic perspective, there is an argument that it makes no difference: inclusion or exclusion of text from a ministerial code by acts of ministerial or civil service discretion do not create or change substantive law. And there is some force in this contention, though the courts can and do look at such documents when construing the obligations of the state under public law and the legitimate expectations of individuals who can be affected by state actions. Read more
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To what extent does the influence of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia reach into the domestic government of the United Kingdom? And what does the UK get in return? Read more
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On Monday, the prime minister told the House of Commons that a specific UK citizen had been killed deliberately by the UK state in a UK military operation:
Today, I can inform the House that in an act of self-defence and after meticulous planning, Reyaad Khan was killed in a precision airstrike carried out on 21 August by an RAF remotely piloted aircraft while he was travelling in a vehicle in the area of Raqqa in Syria. In addition to Reyaad Khan, who was the target of the strike, two Isil associates were also killed, one of whom, Ruhul Amin, has been identified as a UK national. They were Isil fighters, and I can confirm that there were no civilian casualties.
We took this action because there was no alternative. In this area, there is no government we can work with; we have no military on the ground to detain those preparing plots; and there was nothing to suggest that Reyaad Khan would ever leave Syria or desist from his desire to murder us at home, so we had no way of preventing his planned attacks on our country without taking direct action.
The rather legalistic tone and phrasing was no accident; what the prime minister was telling the Commons was not only that the operation had been a success but that it was also “lawful”. Like a defence advocate in court, David Cameron was keen to show that all the required elements to justify an otherwise unlawful action were present: it was “self-defence”, it was necessary — “there was no alternative”, and it was proportionate — there was no other method to achieve the aim of eliminating this target. The statement was, in essence, a formal box-ticking exercise. Read more
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The Queen’s Speech last week had one notable omission: the firm commitment to a new Bill within months to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and for it to be replaced with a “British Bill of Rights”. Read more
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The United Kingdom’s Conservative party no longer has to share power as part of a coalition. Now it has a majority in the House of Commons, one of the very first things the Tories want to do is repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with something that purports to protect the rights of citizens but has a weaker connection to the European Convention on Human Rights. Getting rid of the Act is a long-standing objective of the Conservatives, and they now want to repeal it at speed.
According to the Guardian, repeal of the Act is an urgent priority for the new government:
The scrapping of the human rights act, a pledge included in the Tory manifesto, is one of the measures to be included in the prime minister’s plans for the first 100 days, when the Queen’s speech is delivered on 27 May.
The “pledge” is in the 2015 party manifesto, which contains the following statements about the Act:
We will…scrap the Human Rights Act and curtail the role of the European Court of Human Rights, so that foreign criminals can be more easily deported from Britain. [...]
The next Conservative Government will scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights. [...]
We will scrap Labour’s Human Rights Act and introduce a British Bill of Rights which will restore common sense to the application of human rights in the UK.
What would be better than this sentimentality about a thirteenth century manuscript would be for the UK to have proper constitutional guarantees: to make it possible for a defendant to rely on his or her fundamental rights in practical case, and to make it impossible for parliament and the executive to violate these rights. But this would mean that the UK would at last have a mature approach to constitutional rights. Read more