The pace of events in British politics is so bewildering that one hesitates to put pen to paper. At the time of writing we are awaiting the Supreme Court judgement on whether the Government’s prorogation of Parliament was lawful. Whichever way that judgement goes, it is unclear what will happen between here and the end of October, let alone beyond.
Many people are talking of a constitutional crisis. I don’t know if that is the right language, but it is certainly true the British constitution is being stress-tested to an unusual degree.
The legislature and executive appear to be stalemating each other and it is not yet apparent if the judiciary could, would or should break the deadlock. What is clear is that the presumably unintended consequence of the fixed-term Parliaments has been to close down the traditional reset mechanism of a General Election.
Sometimes it feels that on any given day much happens but nothing changes. While the spotlight is on Parliament and the Supreme Court, the action is in town halls across the country.
The Government has been keen to stress that the scenarios laid out in the grudgingly-published Yellowhammer papers – civil unrest, food shortages, transport gridlock – are worst-case scenarios and not predictions, but if any of these things happen to any degree, local government will be at the forefront,picking up the pieces.
As the leader of Plymouth City Council told the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) fortnightly podcast recently, local government does so much that we will be involved in everything. And, with local government finances increasingly tied to the economy, the economic impacts of Brexit – whether negative or positive – will affect local government budgets for years to come.
But this is not all about things that might happen in the future. Brexit has already had an impact on local government in terms of the time, money and attention that has already been spent.
Forthcoming LGiU research will show council chief executives are thinking about Brexit every day. Whatever the eventual outcome, from a no-deal exit on 31 October through to revocation of article 50, that capital is gone and as the philosopher James Williams said: ‘We pay for attention with the lives we could have led’.
The energy directed at Brexit could have been focused on other things and, goodness knows, local government has enough challenges to be getting on with.
Nor should we think the local impact is all about the practicalities while the big political picture plays out at national level. Local government will not be immune from the constitutional fallout, though it could be part of the solution.
At this point it is just possible to make an argument that the current impasse shows our constitution is doing its job, albeit somewhat clumsily and creakily, in providing scrutiny, checks and balances. But I’m not sure it feels that way.
I am going to go out on a limb and predict that at the end of this process, whenever that may be, very few people will be saying that the UK constitutional settlement has performed perfectly. The debate will continue about whether we need a more formal written constitution and this, in turn, should reanimate the debate about a formal settlement between local and national Government.
More important is the nature of the settlement between citizens and the state. What are they entitled to expect of each other? How are those roles and responsibilities changing? What sort of civic conversation should we expect? That is genuinely hard to negotiate at a national level, but you can do it locally.
Councils can set out a settlement with their communities, and in doing so, they can begin to build a stronger national constitutional framework from the bottom up.
Jonathan Carr-West is Chief Executive of the LGIU. This article first appeared in The MJ.