The Case of Brexit and the Supreme Court

On 24 January 2017, the Supreme Court of the UK ruled 8-3 that the UK Government could not trigger Article 50 without asking Parliament first (but not necessarily the devolved assemblies). For AS students, this is a brilliant example for so many topic areas. There may be more to follow after the Parliamentary debate but there is more than enough in the meantime!

Judiciary (Unit 2)

Given that the Supreme Court is effectively less than 10 years old, having opened on 1 Oct 2009, this decision to rule against the Government in such a landmark case is a great demonstration of their power. It is also a demonstration of just how separate our powers are now – not only are the judiciary separate from the House of Lords, they are absolutely willing to challenge the government directly. Equally, the fact that the Government in no way seems to be ready to ignore this decision shows that despite their lack of sovereignty, the Court appear to wield a considerable amount of power.

Parliament (Unit 2)

The case for Brexit was always made that it was to return sovereignty to Parliament; ironically the Supreme Court probably achieved more of that today than anyone else. In confirming that Article 50 cannot be triggered without Parliamentary consent they uphold the sovereignty of Parliament and challenge the potential ‘elective dictatorship’ of the government. It is also a demonstration of representative democracy in action (not direct democracy as the referendum was) with the elected officials being able to debate and cast their vote as trustees of their constituency.

Prime Minister (Unit 2)

This underlines that in some circumstances, it is difficult to see the UK Prime Minister as a ‘President’. In this case not only is she challenged by the Supreme Court, but they have effectively ruled her power is subservient to that of Parliament. This is therefore good evidence that the power of the PM depends widely on circumstances, and in this case they look rather weak. (That said, I imagine they are secretly glad as if Brexit goes wrong they will be able to blame it on Parliament!).

Constitution (Unit 2)

The referendum itself is an example of a constitutional convention in action – the now expected use of referenda for big constitutional change by the UK population. The fact that there was public pressure for one at all shows how much of a convention they have become given that before 1997 they were a reasonably rare occurrence. It also demonstrates the flexible and evolutionary nature of our constitution, both in the creation of the Supreme Court and the changing nature of the location of power in the UK.

Democracy (Unit 1)/Elections (Unit 1)

Referenda sometimes fall in between these two topics. The fact that the referendum was held at all, in response to public pressure and party divisions, is a show of direct democracy in the UK. However, good students should see through the rhetoric of politicians Referenda in the UK are not binding, so Parliament is free to ignore it if they wish (and at their peril). Equally, politicians have suddenly become advocates of the ‘majority’ – lots of them commenting that this is what Britain wants…it is worth remembering it is what a slim majority of what those who voted want, and that the Tories themselves have far from a majority to form government and yet they claim legitimacy. All this is by way of reflecting on the contrast between direct and representative democracy – whilst this was a form of direct democracy, the actual triggering of Article 50 (now to be done by Parliament) will therefore be an act of representative democracy. In this case, MPs are supposed to act as trustees and not delegates.

Pressure Groups (Unit 1)

The addition of the Supreme Court to the UK judicial system meant an addition of access points for pressure groups too. This is a brilliant example of a move away from traditional pressure groups methods and demonstrates the changing nature of their power. Gina Miller brought this court case as a citizen, rather than under the auspices of a group, and used crowd-funding in order to cover the costs. This is therefore not only a demonstration of increasing access points, but also of political active people being able to more directly exercise their influence over those who do have power.