Case study The struggle over Brexit

Who is Sovereign Parliament or people?

The battle for Brexit in Britain pitted Parliament against the government, but it also pitted Parliament against the people. In so doing it exposed the reality and problem of representative democracy, that Parliament is not the instrument of the British people it is there to do what it thinks is best for the British people whether they like it or not. The referendum instructed Parliament to do something it was opposed to doing- hence a delay of over three years and two general elections. In a sense the British people had to vote twice for Brexit, once in the referendum and once in the election of 2019, when Boris Johnson succeeded in making it a Brexit election in a way which Theresa May had failed to do in 2017. The people have finally got there way and the assertion of popular sovereignty has once and for all established that in matters of constitutional significance it is the people and not Parliament who are sovereign. What exactly Brexit means and whether it will be what the coalition of divergent groups who unified around a desire for Brexit, will be pleased has yet to be seen. The final deal to establish a post Brexit relationship between the EU and the UK will be settled (or may be settled) by the end of 2020.

The Courts have been pulled into constitutional politics.

The fight over the prorogation of Parliament amplified the role of the courts in arbitrating on constitutional matters that had previously been left to politicians alone. The courts have not usually become involved in the unwritten elements of the constitution in such a direct way. It may have strengthened calls for more of the British constitution, including the role of the queen and the prerogative powers of the PM, to be clarified or changed through legislation or a codified constitution.

The timeline story of Brexit

Impact of Brexit on Parliament

Parliament defeated May's deal on three occasions as well as delaying Johnson's request for an election. This was a level of Parliamentary Independence and assertiveness not seen since the days of John Major. Far from being a rubber stamp the Parliament began to resemble something like a US Congress however it was never able to take control of Brexit policy and although it blocked May's deal it never unified around a policy of its own. Parliament was against Brexit, against soft Brexit, against a no Brexit and against another referendum although groups within Parliament supported all of these alternatives.

Has anything changed? After Johnson's victory in the 2019 election it might seem that the regular order has been restored since he has 80 seat majority, but it may also be that Parliament has set a precedent for future assertiveness - the revolt over Huawei and the appointed of Julian Lewis to the chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee against the government's wishes might be a sign of this continued assertiveness.