In a new report published by UK in a Changing Europe, 41 leading scholars provide a comprehensive analysis of the state of the UK’s constitution and governance which has come under unprecedented strain since the 2016 EU referendum. Is the UK’s political constitution fit for purpose? Would it improve if it had a stronger legal basis?   

By Joanna George 

Research Associate, University of Cambridge 

To coincide with the Constitution and Governance in the UK Conference, which is taking place on Tuesday 29 March 2022 in person as well as online, UK in a Changing Europe have published a new report assessing six areas of the UK constitution: Parliament, Cabinet and Ministers, the Civil Service, the Courts, Rights, Judicial Review and the Rule of Law, Devolution and the Union and Elections, and Democracy.

Each chapter provides analysis by leading scholars who have reviewed the impacts of Brexit, Covid-19 and the Johnson government on the UK’s constitution and system of governance. The combination of these three influences have raised profound – and increasingly urgent – questions as to whether the norms and conventions that form the basis of the UK’s uncodified constitution are still fit for purpose.  

A number of constitutional conundrums are emphasised. Firstly, that the restoration of parliamentary sovereignty as part of the Government’s Brexit agenda has not been put into good practice. This can be illustrated by the Government passing significant pieces of Brexit and Covid-19 legislation via delegated legislation with little scrutiny, meaning that parliamentarians are not providing effective oversight of major changes in these and other areas.  

Secondly, the Government’s current constitutional reform programme has a theme (albeit not one that the Government articulates in these terms) of reducing scrutiny of government decision-making at the expense of maintaining and enhancing constitutional equilibrium. The Elections Bill, for example, which is currently at Committee stage in the House of Lords, seeks to bring the Electoral Commission’s strategy and policy under government control, thereby reducing the Commission’s independence and increasing the Government’s influence and power over the election process.   

Thirdly, the UK Government’s combative approach to devolution and its relationships with the devolved governments has caused friction within the UK Union. This has raised concerns that the UK Government is Unionist by name and rhetoric but not by nature because of its Westminster-centric response to UK-wide concerns including Brexit and Covid-19.  

Anand Menon, Director of UK in a Changing Europe, said: 

The past six years have seen significant upheaval, and this seems like an appropriate moment to try and take stock. How has the role of Parliament changed? What of the relationship between politics and the courts or of the state of the rule of law? Is the ministerial code fit for purpose?’ 

Professor Alison Young, Professor of Public Law at the University of Cambridge and an academic lead on the Constitutional Law Matters project, will be speaking at the Constitution and Governance in the UK Conference on the future of judicial review.  

You can access the full ‘Constitution and Governance in the UK’ report here.