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The impact of Brexit on the British political system

More than three years have passed since 23 June 2016, when British citizens decided to vote for the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union. After this period of time, the British have not yet left Brussels and the deadline is, from time to time, postponed. The issues at stake are many and it is difficult to compose the different souls of Westminster with the opinion of the government, with that of Brussels and with that of other European countries, Ireland and France in the front line. Many commentators argue that the first mistake was made by former Prime Minister Cameron: convening a referendum, in fact, would have had the effect of politicizing a highly technical issue like that of Brexit. The exit, passed on by many as a way to return to the splendor of the late British Empire, must be carried out by monitoring, step by step, the most friction issues, such as the Irish border and international trade.

Thousands of pages have been written over the years on the most technical issues, focusing public attention. There is, however, one very important aspect that has been overlooked in this period and which few have dealt with. In fact, Brexit has brought to light structural problems within the British political system. As perhaps not many people know, the United Kingdom does not have a real written constitution: what can be defined as the fundamental law takes shape from a set of statutes (which date back even to the Magna Carta of 1215), treaties and legal decisions. There are therefore a number of sources that give life to British laws. All this is in stark contrast to almost all the other experiences of liberal democracies, where there is a constitution written and drafted by a Constituent Assembly representing the will of the people. Another important point is that in the United Kingdom there is no difference between ordinary law and constitutional law, just as there is no supervisory body comparable to our Constitutional Court.

What does Brexit have to do with this? A lot. In these three years, we have seen a series of decisions that have deeply undermined the British political system. The last time was in 1642, when Charles I decided to suspend parliamentary activities and as a result found himself in the midst of a civil war that saw his head end up hanging on a cliff seven years later. It is no coincidence that Thomas Hobbes published his Leviathan in 1651, laying the foundations for the construction of a modern political power capable of handling chaotic situations such as the clash between King and Parliament. In London in 2019, for now, no civil war has broken out and the most likely solution seems to be the vote in December and the exit from the European Union in early 2020. However, all this has led to the emergence of a structural problem: as long as there was agreement on the basic categories with which to pursue the political debate, the flexible "Constitution" was not a problem, but now? Chris Patten, the last British Governor in Hong Kong and European Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, has published a reflection[1] asking whether the UK is becoming a failed state. Asked this way, the question can make you smile, but Patten points out some very interesting points. British parliamentarianism has always been closer to Edmund Burke than to Rousseau, establishing a culture based on precaution, compromise and the rejection of simplistic solutions that wink at the moods of public opinion. The latter underwent a rapid process of radicalization that led to the leadership of Labour Jeremy Corbyn, a leader who led the Party to very strong left-wing positions. The same phenomenon has occurred in the Conservatives: Boris Johnson is anything but a moderate politician, as he has shown several times in recent months. Patten also points out how the concept of the "experts" has changed: it has never occurred that they are seen as members of an establishment that pursues its own interests to the detriment of those of the people. What does this radicalization lead to? Those who speak on behalf of the people go against the experts, even at the cost of presenting anachronistic solutions.

To better understand the whole speech we can compare the British political system to a football game: without a Constitution, there is no referee, but the game can go on the same and take place normally if the players agree on the basic rules. When this agreement is broken, however, the match will be continually interrupted by quarrels about what is lawful and what is not, leading to paralysis of the system. It is no coincidence, therefore, that many intellectuals are activating themselves on this front. Professor Bogdanor of King's College London has argued[2] for a British Constitution if the UK is to emerge seriously from the European Union. His reasoning is very simple: in recent years, the EU Treaties have bound cross-Channel politics, forcing it to respect certain fundamental norms, for example, on the protection of human rights. Bogdanor wonders what will happen to all this when the Treaties no longer bind the United Kingdom. The only solution he sees possible is for London to have a written constitution, as do most of the democracies in the world. Brexit has brought to light some of the problems inscribed in the political concepts that are used in Britain and who knows whether it is really capable of bringing about a radical change in the country that, during the nineteenth century, was the first to work to support parliamentarianism throughout Europe.



[1] https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/britain-brexit-failed-state-by-chris-patten-2019-08

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fUeK6_3ejXc


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  • L'Autore

    Leonardo Cherici

    All’interno della famiglia di Mondo Internazionale ricopre la carica di Direttore di Mondo Internazionale Hub, la sezione specializzata nella ricerca e nell’innovazione. Oltre a questo, è Vice-Responsabile del Progetto EuropEasy e del Progetto Framing the world.

    He has the honor of being the Director of Mondo Internazionale Hub, the section specialized in research and innovation, within this family. In addition to this, He is Vice-Manager for the EuropEasy project and the Framing the World project.

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