Why did we have a referendum with a simple majority, rather than a supermajority? If we had a written constitution we could point to conflict between one Agreement, i.e. Brexit, and another, i.e. the Anglo-Irish agreement.

 

– Neil Walker, Regius Professor of Public Law and the Law of Nature and Nations at the University of Edinburgh

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Constitutional expert Prof Neil Walker tackles populism and the conflictual politics of Brexit

14 May 2019

Constitutional expert Professor Neil Walker took on the thorny issues of Brexit and the problems caused by populist politics in a sell-out lecture at Wolfson College last night.

LISTEN NOW: Populism in the Age of Brexit

 

Professor Walker, Regius Professor of Public Law and the Law of Nature and Nations at the University of Edinburgh, opened his address to the audience at the Leonard Wolfson Auditorium by characterizing populism in terms of a binary division of society, moralizing political rhetoric, and a resentment of the so-called ‘Establishment’.

He argued both that populist forces encouraged Brexit and that Brexit has in turn hardened populist attitudes, identifying this cyclically reinforcing process as a key feature of British populism: 

Populism, by contributing to the political and cultural impasse, may exacerbate the very discontent to which it is one response.

 

He categorized the type of populism evident in the UK as being uniquely distinctive in that it is associated with the condition of stalled Opposition, rather than with a hegemonic force or with an insurgent force, as is typically the case.

Prof Walker went on to describe the distinctive and divisive features of the Brexit divide, which becomes a proxy for various demographic and cultural divisions within society: ‘ordinary’ people vs elites, provincial vs metropolitan, North vs South, and old vs young.

There is a deeper form of cultural or political affiliation to Leave or Remain [roughly 1 in 5 of the population] than to any political party [1 in 6 of the population].

 

Such political-cultural identification is undermining traditional alignments and allegiances to political parties, meaning that "the political and constitutional system as the potential source of solution is otherwise compromised."

Looking to the future prospects for the UK as a whole, Prof Walker spoke of a long-term political cultural rift and drift – a ‘two tribes’ effect – and voiced a degree of scepticism that we will find a constitutional solution to the problem of Brexit. He acknowledged that a written constitution for the UK containing standard provisions for referenda on major constitutional changes, as is common in many countries, may have forestalled many of the problems raised by the Brexit referendum process, asking, by way of example: 

Why did we have a referendum with a simple majority, rather than a supermajority?

 

Another advantage of a written constitution would have been that:

If we had a written constitution we could point to conflict between one Agreement, i.e. Brexit, and another, i.e. the Anglo-Irish agreement.

 

Appraising the prospects for some form of constitutional reform and renewal in the wake of Brexit, Prof Walker was nevertheless pessimistic. Given the particular combination of political system, cultural attitudes, and development of constitutional thought in the UK, he concluded that “the idea that a written constitution could be brought into the UK is sociologically naïve.”

For those disappointed to miss out on tickets for the lecture, a podcast is now available to download from our Podcasts pages.

Download the Podcast: Populism in the Age of Brexit

 

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