As Dr Andrew Blick highlighted in his piece on this blog looking back at the year just passed, if there’s one thing 2020 has demonstrated it’s the propensity for the unexpected to change the narrative. This propensity of course remains present as we move into 2021, making predictions about what lies ahead provisional at best. Nevertheless, as the new year begins there are a number of issues that look set to loom large.
Before 2020 came to a close, a deal governing the UK’s future relationship with the European Union was agreed, passing into law in the early hours of 31 December. Whilst many may hope that this will mean the Brexit issue is finally settled, the reality is that this marks a major shift in the UK’s legal and governance arrangements, the consequences of which will continue to be played out over the coming year, and many more after that. On the most immediate and material level, there are likely to be border delays as the month goes on – avoided for the time being by a post-Christmas lull in the movement of freight. Furthermore, as the UK government begins to chart its post-Brexit course, Brexit-related political divisions are likely to re-emerge. If the government decides, for instance, to deviate from the level playing field in a way that would incur retaliatory measures, then divisions over the nature of our relationship with the EU and the purpose of Brexit will again be significant.
In particular, Brexit will continue to colour relations with the devolved administrations. The UK Internal Market Act is now law – despite consent being refused by both the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments. Whilst the legislation in the end lost the controversial clauses breaching international law, it retained many of the elements that led to it being characterised as a Westminster ‘power grab’ – so much so that the Welsh Government have taken the unprecedented step of signalling their intention to begin legal proceedings on the matter.
The future of the Union between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is likely to be the defining constitutional question of 2021. The argument that Brexit was imposed against the wishes of the Scottish people will, alongside the totemic issue of a second referendum on independence, form a major part of the SNP’s campaign in the Scottish Parliamentary elections in May. Boris Johnson has recently reiterated his position that the vote on independence in 2014 was a once in a lifetime event. Nevertheless, an SNP landslide at Holyrood will put additional pressure on this position. Possible routes to a second referendum without agreement from Westminster will no doubt feature more prominently in the debate, and could be tested in court.
It is in this context – and fearing for their chances in the May elections – that Labour have announced a constitutional commission to look at how ‘power, wealth and opportunity can be devolved to the most local level.’ This commission’s remit is potentially broad, encompassing local and regional as well as national devolution. It is unclear at this stage what form it will take other than that it is to be led by Gordon Brown. It seems to be Labour’s intention that aspects of the commission’s findings will inform their campaign in Scotland in May – although it will require fast work to achieve this.
Some clarity on the government’s own approach to the Union may come with their response to the Dunlop Review, which was tasked in 2019 with examining whether the institutional architecture of the UK is up to the job of maintaining the Union. Despite having been completed, the review is yet to be made public. Additionally, a longstanding review of intergovernmental relations is due to be completed shortly and which may lead to an update of the Memorandum of Understanding on Devolution. Given their relevance to one another, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, has said that he wants to publish the reviews at the same time. When they are eventually released, there will no doubt be much for those concerned about the future of the Union to take stock of in the two documents. Sometime later in the year we may also see the long-awaited English Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper – an important further aspect of the devolution picture.
There are also a number of significant ongoing constitutional reform processes that will warrant attention as the year progresses. The Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, tasked with both reviewing the Act’s operation and considering the draft legislation to repeal it, has to report by 26 February – an absurdly short timeframe for a complex task. Furthermore, the Independent Review of Administrative Law (IRAL), set up to examine the operation of judicial review, is due to finish its work soon, whereas the more recently initiated review of the Human Rights Act will not conclude its work until June or July. The Lord Chancellor has indicated that a review of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 could also be forthcoming in the course of the year.
These independent review initiatives are intended as partial fulfilment of the manifesto promise to look at ‘the broader aspects of our constitution’. The Ministry of Justice appears to have moved more quickly than the Cabinet Office on this. However, Gove has hinted at an announcement from either himself or the Prime Minister on further constitutional reform, as well as promised an overview paper on his plans for civil service reform. Yet to be covered issues mentioned in the manifesto include the functioning of the Royal Prerogative and the role of the House of Lords. Whilst the government have moved away from its initial plan for a more all-encompassing Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission, it seems the ‘aspects’ of the constitution mentioned in 2019 are still very much up for consideration.
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic is conspicuous in its absence from this list thus far – a reflection not of its insignificance, but rather its pervasiveness. The public health and economic emergency caused by Covid-19 has reached a new nadir and will continue to define British life and politics over the coming months and beyond. The government’s handling of the pandemic has damaged public perceptions of its competence, and the decisions it has taken over the last year will come under further scrutiny in 2021. The vaccine provides hope for a sustainable way out of the current cycle of lockdowns, but the pandemic will likely have long-term constitutional as well as political and economic consequences that are yet to be fully understood.
We can only speculate as to what actually lies ahead. However, as the year unfolds, The Constitution Society blog will look to provide insight and commentary on these issues and the many others that will become apparent as we go on.
The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.
Alex Walker is The Constitution Society’s Communications Manager. He manages, edits and contributes to the blog.