UK facing constitutional standstill

by Lee Findell

Yesterday, the power-sharing talks for Stormont broke down when the DUP and Sinn Fein could not reach agreement on forming a government. Today in Holyrood, the Scottish Parliament will vote to seek permission to hold a second independence referendum before Spring 2019. Tomorrow in Westminster, Theresa May will trigger Article 50, setting in motion the two-year Brexit countdown clock.

Across the UK, the structures of government and parliamentary democracy are entering a constitutional quagmire from which we may not emerge for years.

Whatever people may think; governing is a difficult business. There are enormous day-to-day pressures placed on our elected representatives and appointed civil and public servants just keeping the show on the road, and that is before they try to enact manifesto promises or tackle public sector reform. Even governments with stable mandates and favourable economic conditions struggle to do all they want to do, and almost invariably fall short of their ambitions, but that is, after all, an integral part of a democracy.

Governing parties work hard to fulfil their mandate and political vision, and then once every 4 to 5 years they put their record to the voters and ask them to judge their achievements. If the public deem them to have been a success and worthy of another term of office, they will re-elect them, if not, they will kick them out and give someone else a go.

The central principle of the system is that governments can be mandated to get on with what they set out to achieve across a wide range of issues – education, health, crime & justice, transport & infrastructure, jobs & growth. These are the core issues of government that voters need to judge their elected representatives by, as these are the issues that affect people on a day-to-day basis.

But this week our democratic institutions collectively set off on a tortuous and complicated legal and constitutional road which will provide very little room for thinking, debate and implementation of anything other than these constitutional questions.  It is altogether possible that by the next set of elections, our governing parties – and their opponents – will have very little to show except months of constitutional negotiation.

Democracy requires a government to have a record to run on and opposition to run against. But what if there has been no actual governing because all the resources of the state have been focussed on answering these difficult constitutional issues?

In years to come, we could be looking back on this week as the point at which the traditional business of government ground to a halt and our democratic structures faced one of their greatest challenges. The last week of March 2017 – Constitutional Stasis Week.