Brexit One Year On: The Will of the People: Did Brexit Break the British Constitution?

British, Irish and Empire Studies
University of Texas at Austin

Scholars Stuart Ward and Robert Saunders explore the complicated relationships among Brexit, the British people and the British Constitution

Wednesday April 27, 2022 • Virtual

12:00 PM – 1:30 PM

Please join us at noon CDT on Wednesday, April 27, for the final installment in our spring virtual speaker series, Brexit One Year On: “The Will of the People: Did Brexit Break the British Constitution?” Scholars Stuart Ward of Copenhagen University and Robert Saunders of Queen Mary College University of London will delve into the complex relationships of Brexit, the British people, and the British Constitution. Marc-William Palen of Exeter University will chair.

Please register in advance using this Zoom link:

After you register, you will receive information on how to join the meeting.

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Dr. Saunders previews his presentation:

“Taking Back Control”? Brexit and the British Constitution

From 2016 to 2019, the struggle to “Get Brexit Done” strained the British Constitution to the limit. Parliament was unlawfully suspended, ministers threatened to ignore legislation and judges were denounced as “enemies of the people.” To some, Parliament itself had become an anti-democratic body; to others, the prime minister had been guilty of a “coup d’etat.” This paper explores why a constitution once lauded as the most stable in the world was so destabilized by Brexit, and what the legacy might be for Britain’s constitutional future.

Dr. Ward previews his:

“The crisis of democracy and the rupture of the referendum”

The tortuous implementation of the Brexit referendum exposed the anomaly of applying the principles of direct democracy to a system rooted in parliamentary sovereignty. For more than a century, constitutional lawyers have debated whether referendums are at all suited to the “British tradition.” As the first nation-wide referendum in UK history that actually resulted in a change to the status quo, the Brexit vote brought these largely academic debates into much sharper focus. This paper sets out to show how British constitutional history is actually awash with prior episodes where referendums were brought to bear – they just happened to have taken place offshore, in decolonizing contexts from Newfoundland to the North-West Frontier, Rhodesia, Togoland, Malta, Gibraltar, Singapore, Jamaica and elsewhere. The British were entirely comfortable with direct democracy for determining selfhood throughout the decolonizing empire: the question is how such a divisive constitutional instrument came home to roost. It will be argued that the entanglements of empire were highly consequential in triggering the contemporary crisis of the British constitution.