Brexit. A word none of us knew three years ago now divides dinner parties in the United Kingdom and around the world. What it will all mean seems to be the main concern. But at its heart, it’s the biggest, most surprising constitutional change the U.K. has seen in decades. This is a country famed for one of the world’s oldest, slowest-to-change political systems — so much so that it’s never even bothered to write a constitution down on paper, choosing instead to rely on oral and legal traditions.
Now that tried-and-true political establishment has been upended by what University of Sheffield politics professor Matthew Flinders calls “a big cock-up.” That cock-up? Former Prime Minister David Cameron’s political calculation that he could silence the disquiet within his Conservative Party about the country’s relationship with Europe through a public vote. Many have blamed Cameron for misjudging public sentiment and gambling the country’s political future to settle an internal debate. But instead of blaming the man, maybe there’s something wrong with the political system that allowed a prime minister to take such a gamble. While revolutions over the centuries have dis-empowered royals — and dismembered some too — perhaps it’s time to rein in the politicians of the people and give more authority back to the crown.
Hear me out.
She’s so well-loved in this country that she could probably get away with it.
Politics professor Matthew Flinders on the notion of the queen using a veto
The U.K. is the father of the Westminster style of parliamentary democracy, now used to govern more than 2 billion people worldwide. According to the system, the largest party in the main house of parliament supports the government of the prime minister, almost always the party head. And here’s the rub: There aren’t many formal checks on the government’s power, as long as it maintains the support of its party. A second house in parliament (in the U.K., it’s the House of Lords) can revise and delay legislation but cannot veto it, and then the final hurdle is to get the head of state’s signature. The British head of state, the king or queen, hasn’t vetoed a bill since 1708.
But maybe she (or someone else) should. In an era where grand cultural shifts are pulling apart the social fabric of many Western countries, parliamentary democracies need a mechanism that provides a better check on the short-term whims of political parties in favor of the long-term interests of the country. Maybe it should be an elected official or president, maybe a more empowered House of Lords, or maybe the queen herself should have the power to veto Brexit.
Technically, after all, she already does. But not practically — in terms of tradition, that is. Meanwhile, the House of Lords recently has been flexing its muscle. “Right now the House of Lords is more powerful than it’s ever been,” says Flinders. The body considers itself “the one true opportunity to have a sensible conversation about Brexit.” And yet it still has very minimal powers to truly influence the end result of the biggest political issue in a generation. Prime Minister Theresa May’s government, for example, has recently suffered 15 defeats in the House of Lords over details related to the key EU Withdrawal Bill, but as long as she can muster the political capital, Mrs. May can theoretically force the bill back through without changes.
This isn’t just about Brexit. In recent years, some commentators have argued that the lack of meaningful action on climate change also can be linked to the short-termism and partisanship of democratic politics. While the House of Lords — or the monarchy, for that matter — is hardly flawless given that its members are privileged, unelected aristocrats, its life-appointed members (usually political veterans) can still offer a long-term perspective on issues often trampled on by the mud-slinging of modern politics. Too much pure democracy, after all, can be a bad thing. “When you look at Brexit, in many ways you can be too democratic when making big decisions,” says Flinders.
Of course, not everyone agrees with my framing of the problem, or my proposed solution. The institutions of the British constitution are “just one of the factors at play” that impact Brexit and other major political events, says R.A.W. Rhodes, professor of government at the University of Southampton. He instead emphasizes the importance of context and “realpolitik” in determining political outcomes. Meanwhile, despite the lack of a formal veto, the process of debate and compromise within the British parliament means power of the government never really becomes too centralized. Besides, before the House of Lords can take on a greater role, the body needs to be reformed and elected to help mend its “fragile legitimacy,” says Rhodes. House of Lords reform has evaded the attention of the public and major parties for years; electing the head of state for the same reason might require a revolution.
The populist success of the Brexit campaign came from its emotional appeals to “nostalgia, the Commonwealth [and] the Empire” as “a golden past” offering stability in uncertain times, says Flinders. And the ultimate figure of that stability and nostalgia? Surely that’s none other than Queen Elizabeth. Perhaps she’s the only one who could unite a divided country by stepping into the Brexit debate.
So is a veto out of the question? “She’s so well-loved in this country that she could probably get away with it,” Flinders says.
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