In his second daily press briefing on Tuesday, the Prime Minister stated ‘We must act like any wartime government.’ Few would dispute the exceptional nature of the challenges we now face, or that extraordinary responses are required. The wartime analogy might not be perfect, but perhaps it has some value. What are the implications if considered from a constitutional standpoint? The value of speculation in this area is necessarily limited by what we do not know: how bad the emergency will become, the precise form it will take, and its duration. But it is possible to make certain observations taking into account the constitutional impact of the two world wars of the twentieth century. They saw:
- The formation of coalition governments, to maximise political and by extension social consensus around the extreme measures required. There is no sign, at present, of such an initiative being in prospect.
- Postponing of elections. Both world wars saw delays in General Elections. While there is no General Election due in the UK (under present legislation) until 2024, polls below this level have already been postponed.
- The considerable expansion of the scope of governmental activity, including economic intervention, and limitations on personal freedoms. We are seeing movement in this direction currently.
- The centralisation of power within Whitehall around the Prime Minister and a streamlined War Cabinet. The existing government was already characterised by a concentration of authority at the centre, and COBRA has some of the features of a War Cabinet.
- Significant restructuring of the machinery of government and the creation of new ministries. So soon after the reshaping of Whitehall associated with Brexit, this option might seem unwelcome, but depending on how the emergency plays out, perhaps we can expect some serious changes on this front.
- The recruitment of large numbers of temporary civil servants to help deal with the enlarged burden on government, and to provide specialist knowledge needed within Whitehall. Today, experts already within government are taking on prominent roles. It remains to be seen whether there will be a larger-scale recruitment drive. If there were, the nature of the virus would present practical difficulties, and remote working might be necessary.
In both wars, the constitutional system shifted to enable the leadership to focus on the burning issue of the day, and away from other matters. What might have seemed of preeminent importance before the war (such as the Home Rule issue in 1914) could lose urgency (at least for a time). It seems likely that post-Brexit trade negotiations with the European Union (EU) and other powers, and perhaps the absolute commitment to ending the transition period by the close of 2020 – will be subject to such a downgrading in priority. So too might further initiatives that would otherwise have been on the constitutional horizon, such as attempts to alter the system of judicial review and ‘update’ the Human Rights Act 1998.
What might be the long-term implications? A war footing cannot be maintained permanently. But it can lead to lasting changes. The First World War, for instance, saw the introduction for the first time of routine minuting of Cabinet meetings, and the formation of what became the Cabinet Office, both indispensable features of contemporary government. Analysts of the decline of local government in the UK often depict both major conflicts of the twentieth century as contributing to a transfer of power towards the territorial centre. Both 1918 and 1945 saw General Elections with important consequences for the party and political system. In the period from 1945 in particular, government retained key aspects of the expanded role it had taken on during the war. On an international level, a number of countries emerged from both conflicts committed to greater cooperation with each-other, and to establishing permanent structures to achieve this end. From 1945, this movement led to the formation of both the United Nations and what is now the EU, among other initiatives. We can only speculate as to the repercussions of the present episode.