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Should there be set texts for MPs?

Establishment ignorance of the texts we should be governed by is endangering the United Kingdom

Artillery Row

If we were unfortunate enough to live in a Republic with a written constitution, that text would be studied in our schools and our MPs — well, some at least — would know and debate its terms. In the United States their foundational text has a significance to lawyers and in political ideology difficult to understand in the UK. As we saw recently some UK MPs hold a similar reverence for “International law” in the abstract, but in the case of the United States there is an actual hard readable text to grapple with.

But that is not to say we are not governed by our own important political texts. We are. Many of these texts were introduced by Tony Blair. However, lacking the American tradition of veneration for our foundational texts our politicians and political commentators are wont to take these at second hand via commentators or more dangerously, in the case of the Belfast Agreement, as interpreted by an unfriendly foreign state and its academic idiot chorus.

Without an understanding of the actual texts we are governed by, our politics suffers. Yet, if you asked a British politico what are the important documents they need to understand, what might they come up with? Magna Carta? Yes, of some cultural significance but it’s largely superseded as a text. Its references to things like fish weirs on the Thames are of marginal importance. There is the Bill of Rights 1688 — interesting with regards to the proceedings of Parliament and the Courts (Article IX), perhaps, but also not of day to day relevance. The Acts of Union 1707 and 1800, they largely do what they say on the tin and are mostly of interest to historians.

So, with those out of the way here are a few easy to understand texts that are often misunderstood by commentators.

  • The Human Rights Act. This Act is of major constitutional importance as it places the European Convention on Human Rights (itself easy to follow and one MPs should read) into UK law. In particular MPs should read sections 3 & 4 which explain how Courts should, let’s be kind, interpret the meaning of Acts of Parliament so that they are deemed to be in line with the Convention, and how, if that’s not possible, the Courts can issue a declaration of incompatibility. If more MPs read the Human Rights Act they would realise that our Courts are not always expanding their own competence but doing what an ill-informed Parliament instructed them to do.
  • The Parliament Acts. Often, we hear comment about House of Lords threats to veto legislation being responded to with threats of the Parliament Acts where it’s clear neither party has taken the trouble to read them. The main provisions are surprisingly easy to understand, the key passages being that the Commons must wait a year and be in a new session of Parliament to get its way — unless it’s a Money Bill. 
  • The Conservative Party’s leadership rules. These are surprisingly difficult to come across and invariably misunderstood. Essentially for a vote of no confidence, you need 15 per cent of MPs to send in a letter to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee. That has been the case for nearly 20 years, yet journalists still have a folk memory of stalking horses and leadership challenges. They should read the 1922 rules alongside the Party constitution and realise the stalking horse went to the knackers years ago.
  • The Devolution Settlements. (The reserved powers). Another set of disastrous Blair era legislation. They are important to understand with regards to their limitations. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all have different powers set out differently. In Scotland everything was devolved except for those in the ‘reserved powers’ list; in Wales it was the other way around; and Northern Ireland now has a constitutional mess involving EU law and compulsory power sharing, regardless of trivia like election results. 
  • Party Manifestos & the Addison Salisbury convention. I would not recommend reading Party manifestos, they have little legitimacy and are seldom followed. However, they do have one important significance regarding the Salisbury-Addison convention. It was the convention that policies set out in a Parties manifesto would not be blocked by the House of Lords. This is however seemingly going out of date to be replaced with an exception for policies the Progressive super majority of Peers object to.
  • Fixed Term Parliament Act. One set text that is thankfully no longer required reading is the Fixed Term Parliament Act, in its time hardly ever read yet one of the most destructive, directly leading to the gridlock of Parliament in the years following Brexit. Thankfully this has been consigned to the history books, showing thereby that the clock can be turned back. Whatever progressives self-servingly claim, there is no one-way constitutional ratchet effect. 

I shall perhaps return on another occasion to the civil service’s pleasant fantasy that their “cabinet manual” is part of our constitution, maybe even justiciably so. One could also mention the Equalities Act, Climate Change Act, International Development Act 2015 as texts that bind our legislature and governance to such a degree that they should be read by all MPs. 

Which brings me back to the most abused and underread text of them all. The one where false interpretations have caused the UK the most trouble. It is one where it’s not even possible to agree what it’s called — the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

The Unagreement

The agreement is actually not even an Agreement but actually two agreements — which are surprisingly short and easy to follow: the Multi Party Agreement and the International Treaty, properly called the British Irish Agreement. 

These are perhaps the least read and most wilfully misquoted and misinterpreted of any UK constitutional text.

First, the “Multi Party Agreement”, which as the name explains was made up of several but not all the Northern Irish political parties (the DUP was not a signatory for instance — nor, tellingly, was Sinn Fein) and other parties. This agreement concerned devolution in Northern Ireland and was not an international treaty. It is, in short, constitutionally insular and purely a matter of domestic British politics. 

Second, there was a British Irish international treaty, with two parties, the signatories. This set out the two countries’ agreement to specific outcomes, the North South Council, the British Irish Council, the principle of consent and in return the Republic of Ireland Ireland changing its constitution, which had laid an annexationist claim to a part of the UK, regardless of its inhabitants’ wishes.

Quite a simple agreement yet most politicians and commentators have allowed it to be interpreted and extrapolated to the point of absurdity. Both through ignorance and malice.

The main instigator of these inventive, irresponsible and destabilising interpretations is the Irish Government. Determined to have a role in the governance of Northern Ireland, Southern politicians can invoke concepts such as “the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement” and Ireland’s supposed role as a “Guarantor” of the Good Friday Agreement to claim a role that is not theirs and not in the actual text. 

This wilful misinterpretation and invention saw its zenith during the Brexit negotiations, where the “spirit” of the Good Friday Agreement was invoked by Ireland and some in London to insist that EU membership and open borders were legally mandated for Northern Ireland — it does no such thing. 

This is all dangerous nonsense but widely believed. This week we saw the unfortunate choreography of Varadkar, an Irish Prime Minister, visiting Stormont as if he were a shareholder in what is UK local government. This choreography, based on an ignorance of the texts, led to an even more fundamental misunderstanding among UK politicians who believed that an Irish Sea Border inside the UK was needed as a result of the same agreement. 

The text does not give Ireland a role in Stormont, something that might surprise commentators. More ludicrously, we have even had to bear American politicians claiming that the United States is somehow a guarantor of Northern Ireland too. This has no factual basis whatsoever, but it doesn’t stop the people manufacturing this stuff even asserting post facto that the European Union was somehow involved in the agreement.

Northern Ireland is not a condominium where Ireland gets a say on its governance

For many years Ireland had it all one way, allowing its interpretation to go unchallenged by an often indifferent or complicit Northern Ireland Office. Only recently did the UK Government decide to play Ireland at its own game and start to talk about “the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in all its aspects” to meet Ireland’s “spirit” of the GFA. A gentle acknowledgement that the UK also has a role in the agreement and East/West was supposed to be at least as important as North/South. 

That was a start but the rot has set in deep.

Contrary to the impression given by some UK politicians and amplified by Dublin, Northern Ireland is not a condominium where Ireland gets a say on its governance. Their Prime Ministers are foreign leaders and not a part of the domestic set up. It is our failings that have allowed this state of affairs to develop.  

The Irish Government has done a great job in taking ownership as the sole custodian of an invisible text they have largely invented aided by an ignorance among UK politicians.

So, I propose that every British MP be given a welcome pack including and explaining these key texts — what they do and do not do. Only then can we have informed debates on key topics and push back on rogue ideas such as that brought forward under the influence of the “spirit of the Good Friday agreement”.

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