Sunday, 24 November 2019

Liberal Democrats and the Constitution

The Liberal Democrat Party has published its manifesto for the 2019 Election. This post looks briefly at some of their key proposals and, in particular, those relating to constitutional reform.

Brexit:

At the forefront of their campaign is the plan to Stop Brexit. The manifesto states:

"The election of a Liberal Democrat majority government
on a clear stop Brexit platform will provide a democratic mandate to stop this mess, revoke Article 50 and stay in the EU. In other circumstances, we will continue to fight for a people’s vote with the option to stay in the EU, and in that vote we would passionately campaign to keep the UK in the EU."

and further -

"The importance of the UK’s membership of the EU has never been clearer. Working together through the EU, the countries of Europe have achieved peace and prosperity on a continent historically wracked by war and division. That is a tremendous achievement; it should not be taken for granted, particularly as Europe faces new dangers from an increasingly aggressive Russia and as the US turns away from its old alliances."

Civil Liberties:

The manifesto commits to defending the Human Rights Act and to resisting any attempt to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. 

They would establish a new right to affordable, reasonable legal assistance, and invest £500 million to restore Legal Aid, making the system simpler and more generous. This sounds like a reform to be welcomed but the manifesto is lacking in detail.  (Note: The Liberal Democrats were responsible, as part of the 2010-15 coalition, for the removal of legal aid from many areas by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012).

Electoral System:

The party would introduce proportional representation through the Single Transferable Vote (STV) for electing MPs, and local councillors in England. 16 and 17 years olds would also gain the right to vote in elections and referendums.

The House of Lords would be reformed "with a proper democratic mandate."

Parliament rather than the Privy Council would have to approve when Parliament is prorogued and for how long.

Where there is a change of Prime Minister, a vote of confidence would be required in the House of Commons.

Devolution:


The manifesto has a lot to say relating to devolution - "Liberal Democrats want home rule for each of the nations of a strong, federal and united United Kingdom." They will "champion a federal future for the UK."  To that end they plan a written, federal constitution which would include a permanent Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales.

The party opposes a further Scottish independence referendum.

Wales would be given a distinct legal jurisdiction to reflect the growing divergence in law as a result of devolution - see Law Society 21 March 2018.

The party would work constructively with the political parties in Northern Ireland and the Irish Government to urgently restore the devolved institutions.  This will be an issue for any British government to try to resolve. See the Urgent Question debate on 21 October 2019.

Military action and Parliament:

In the section entitled "A Peaceful World" there is a promise to legislate to ensure there is a parliamentary vote before engaging in military action, while preserving the ability to engage in action in emergencies or under treaty obligation without requiring parliamentary approval.

Discussion:

The above highlights some of the key statements in what is a detailed manifesto which, as ever, must be read in full.  

Under Conservative governments the Human Rights Act has always appeared to be under threat and the Liberal Democrat defence of the Act and the European Convention on Human Rights is therefore important.  
Reform of the electoral system is a long-standing Liberal Democrat commitment. In particular, the party has long sought proportional representation for elections to the House of Commons.  The present first past the post system tends to operate to the disadvantage of minority parties who fail to secure a number of seats proportionate to their actual voter support.

Reform of the House of Lords is a matter that has been on the political agenda for over a century - previous post 20 May 2011. The 2010-15 Conservative / Liberal Democrat Coalition government looked at reform but it was abandoned - The Guardian 11 July 2012.  The manifesto proposes a reformed House of Lords with a "proper democratic mandate" but does not set out a detailed plan.

Although federalism is a long-standing desire of the Liberal Democrat party, it is debatable whether a Federal UK would stop demands for Scottish Independence. Brexit is opposed in Scotland and was bound to add impetus to the independence movement [See the discussion at BBC News 27 November 2019].

I wrote about Federation on this blog some time ago (e.g. post 10 January 2012) but it is an idea that does not appear to have gained any substantial support probably because of the larger population and economic strength of England compared to the other nations making up the UK - The Herald 22 February 2018 - Can federalism ever work in the UK?

Their idea for a written federal constitution would include a permanence for the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales.  The Northern Ireland Assembly has not been sitting since January 2017 and that explains why the manifesto commits to working to restore the devolved institutions which will be an issue facing any incoming government.

Prerogative powers to prorogue Parliament and to engage in military action would be addressed by legislation.  

The purported prorogation of Parliament in September 2019 was ruled to be unlawful by the Supreme Court in Cherry / Miller 2 [2019] UKSC 41.  In the event, Parliament did not sit from 10 September to 24 September. The purported prorogation was seen by many opposition politicians and political commentators as a controversial and unconstitutional attempt by the prime minister to avoid parliamentary scrutiny of the Government's Brexit plans.

The proposal to make military action subject to Parliamentary approval would entail legislation to bring into law what may be already a convention that such approval should be obtained from the House of Commons - see House of Commons Library 17 April 2018. The legislation will require careful drafting to ensure that, where circumstances require it (e.g. imminent attack), the government can take military action without first having to seek approval even if it must subsequently do so. The proposal in the manifesto also refers to consent not being required where the UK has a treaty obligation to take military action. It would be interesting to know how many treaties create, or possibly create, such obligations.

23 November 2019

BBC Liberal Democrat Manifesto - 12 key policies explained 

Sky News - Interactive Manifesto Checker

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