Monday, 26 June 2017

The Politics of the Labour Manifesto

Ben Jackson

At the outset of the 2017 election campaign there seemed to be a good chance that the Labour Party would be broken – possibly irreparably – on the anvil of nationalism. After all, that was why Theresa May had called the election. Enormous credit is therefore due to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left for running an excellent campaign that capitalised on the abject weaknesses of the Conservatives and ultimately saved Labour from what many people – including me – thought would be a shattering historic defeat. After two years of bleak political news, the forces of conservatism in Britain have finally lost some ground. Much conventional wisdom now looks questionable as a result of the election, but I want to focus here on one point that raises some challenges for all parts of the Labour Party, including for Jeremy Corbyn and the left.

Corbyn himself said that Labour’s manifesto was the star of its campaign. It is widely agreed that the radical policies in the manifesto made a substantial impact on the election by offering a clear, positive vision of what a Labour government would do. Indeed, so successful was this vision that the Conservatives – whose positive political appeal for decades has been based on reducing direct taxes and handing out cut price houses – are now lamely accusing Labour of having bribed the voters. But what precisely did the Labour manifesto offer? Key measures in the manifesto included promises to increase income taxes on people earning over £80,000 a year; to introduce new workplace protections and rights; to bring energy, water, the Royal Mail and the railways back into public ownership; to invest in infrastructure; and to increase funding for public services, including for childcare, the NHS, and the abolition of university tuition fees. While there were some perfunctory gestures towards constitutional and democratic reform, and a more substantial but under-developed idea about promoting co-operative ownership structures, the heart of the manifesto was about strengthening the role of the state in reducing inequality and managing the economy.

One startling aspect of the success of this prospectus is that it essentially offered a fairly conventional social democratic politics of the sort that much of the professional elite and supporting intellectual network of the Labour Party has harboured grave doubts about since Labour left office in 2010 (and in some quarters even before then). Centre-left think tanks, commentators and academics have in recent years spent a lot of time worrying that ‘traditional’ social democracy required too much public spending or too great a role for the state, or lacked a patriotic rapport with Britishness and/or Englishness, or presented a deracinated metropolitan liberal perspective untethered to the parochial realities of working class life. While there was clearly something to these worries, some of this now looks overblown, in the sense that it underestimated both the volatility of the British political landscape and the strength of Labour’s traditional brand when given a sufficiently distinctive political focus. Although it would be foolish to feel certain about what will happen next, we can now see that the Conservative Party also faces fundamental challenges in holding together the electoral coalition constructed for it by Cameron and Osborne. In the wake of the European referendum, the Conservatives seem to have alienated a significant chunk of (predominantly younger) voters through their stance on Brexit while simultaneously repelling other voters through their policies on public services. As long as the Conservatives remain in government and have to deliver Britain’s exit from the EU, with all its attendant economic risks, then their voting coalition looks vulnerable to the sort of positioning Labour adopted during the 2017 campaign.

But it is paradoxical that the group in the Labour Party that actually had the courage to take a robust vision of social democracy to the country is one that has itself not been historically strongly attached to it. The stance of the Labour left has always been that social democracy is not enough. They have traditionally argued that a state-led welfare state lacks opportunities for popular participation and control, and that taxing and spending without democratising the ownership of capital will ultimately yield only limited gains. A fascinating aspect of the campaign is that it fell to Jeremy Corbyn to mount a potent defence of some of New Labour’s great achievements: high public spending on health and education; the Educational Maintenance Allowance; government investment in childcare and Sure Start; and a universal winter fuel allowance for pensioners. The crucial difference with New Labour was that, ever since the 1992 general election, Labour’s leaders have assumed that the party must be excruciatingly specific in its tax and spending commitments or it will face a fatal media and Conservative onslaught during the campaign. Although the 2017 manifesto proclaimed itself to be ‘fully costed’, the truth is that the tax and spending commitments of Labour in 2017 were not as focused and watertight as they had been at every general election since 1997. It is an interesting question as to why this was nowhere near as problematic for Labour as it might have been. One possibility is that it was simply another example of a dysfunctional and complacent Conservative campaign that failed to get to grips with its opponent. But another possibility – discussed by Helen Thompson in this issue – is that for the electorate economic credibility is beginning to mean something different in the context of an unprecedented period of monetary policy, in the wake of the vote to leave the EU, and as the grinding impact of public austerity hits home. For example, the existential challenge of how the British economy can succeed outside the EU may now simply be crowding out the more mundane debate on the deficit reduction timetable. In this environment a bold rather a minimalist economic and social policy package could therefore have greater electoral traction than in more cautious times.

Once the relief of the election result wears off, there will be a need for intellectual honesty rather than political posturing on all sides of Labour in order to work out how to build on 2017. Like the Conservatives, the Corbyn electoral coalition also looks vulnerable to fracture, particularly if Labour were to take office while Brexit negotiations are still underway. There is a lot to do, but Labour has already achieved what seemed impossible only a few months ago – not just avoiding a hopeless defeat but also putting the Conservatives in a severe, maybe even inescapable, political fix.


Note: An earlier version of this commentary appeared on the Renewal blog, 21 June 2017, and can be seen here.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Explaining the resurgence of nationalism in politics

Colin Crouch

Theresa May’s claim that the Conservative party is the true representative of working people at the wrong end of society’s inequalities is surreal, but it does locate her within a distinct political tradition. Understanding that tradition is therefore vital to understanding where the United Kingdom might be heading under her leadership. Since she is just one of a number of similar politicians dotted around the advanced world at the present time, this is not just an issue confined to one country. There is Donald Trump in the USA, Marine Le Pen and the Front National in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the Freedom Party in Austria, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the People’s Party in Denmark.

May’s claim is surreal, because the Conservative Party continues to be primarily the party that represents wealthier people and opposes strongly redistributive taxation. May herself does not claim to be an egalitarian. She presents herself as the defender of ordinary working people, just managing families, those living in neglected regions, etc., without challenging the overall framework of inequality within which the problems of these variously categorized groups is defined. She also plans to use Brexit to achieve a ‘Singapore’ status for the UK. Singapore – apart from being barely democratic - is a tax haven that provides very little public social policy for its citizens. A similar stance is adopted by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). UKIP, like May, insists that it represents the ordinary working people who have been ignored and spurned by the elite. But it believes in lower taxation for the wealthy (and presumably therefore reduced social policy and public infrastructure spending), and (again like May) the revival of grammar schools, which notably reduce the educational chances of children from lower and middle-income families. Much the same can be said for Donald Trump. He speaks passionately about the neglected working class, who have suffered at the hands of an elite; but his policies include cutting taxes for the rich and deregulating the financial markets, the behaviour of the operators in which were among the main causes of the discontents of many US workers.

There is nothing new in conservative politicians arguing that lower- and middle-income people can thrive only if entrepreneurs, company directors and the rich in general are allowed to run ahead of the pack, creating wealth that will eventually trickle down to everyone else. But that appeal stresses a shared interest among elite and mass. What is distinctive about May, Trump, Le Pen and the rest is their rhetorical attacks on elites, which are nevertheless combined with a defence of authority and tradition.

The paradox is resolved by the nature of the sins for which elites are criticized: they are not attacked for being rich, but for allegedly siding with various kinds of foreigner – foreign countries, immigrants, ethnic minorities – against native, national working families. It is in fact only a certain kind of elite that is being attacked: the adjective ‘liberal’ is usually attached to the noun.

The stance of May (or Le Pen or Orbán) would be impossible without the European Union and immigrants being available to stand as the enemies, favoured by liberal elites, of native British (French, Hungarian) people. Mexicans, Moslems, the Chinese and Germans similarly enable Trump to reconcile his own contradictory position. Xenophobia is essential to the ability of this kind of politics to square the circle of its rhetorical support for both traditionalism and ‘ordinary working people’.

These politicians are distinctive, but they are not historically unique, and they do belong to a recognizable tradition, though it is one which, because of the tension within it, tends to be unstable, making only occasional visits to the political scene. Its last major appearance was as Nazism and fascism. These too combined appeals to traditionalism with criticism of elites, using an intense nationalism and the identification of foreign enemies and ethnic minorities to square the circle. This is not to argue that this political position is always fascist. Distinctive of Nazism and fascism was an official commitment to aggressive war and physical violence; accusations of fascism can only be launched at occupants of this political position when they move to such a stance. However, the association of xenophobia with fascism restrained mainstream right-wing politicians from exploiting it for decades after the Second World War.

Several developments have come together to change this and encourage conservative – and some social democratic and neoliberal – politicians to enter formerly forbidden territory. First is the collapse of true conservatism. Almost no-one defends traditionalism any more. Its religious base having almost disappeared (in Europe though not in the USA and Islamic lands), established conservative parties have become committed to change, both neoliberal economic change and social liberal changes in gender, sexuality and other areas of life. The class identities of industrial society that supported conservatism, liberalism and socialism alike have declined alongside industrialism itself. But tradition as defence of The Nation has acquired new prominence through the separate but related phenomena of globalization, immigration, waves of refugees and Islamic terrorism.

People with a strong interest in politics find it hard to understand that a large majority of their fellow citizens feels touched deeply by politics only when a social identity that is important to them has clear political implications. Class and religion used to provide such links, especially when they were the focus of struggles over inclusion and exclusion. If one knows one is a member of a class (or religion) that is being excluded from citizenship rights, or which is benefiting from privileges from which certain others are or could be excluded, then one knows whose side one is on in the major political struggles of the day. Nation and ethnicity provide further social identities of this kind. As class and religion decline, while globalization increases the salience of nation and ethnicity, these latter leap to a new, potent salience, reaching across classes. Can a commitment to liberal values and enjoyment of the benefits of multiculturalism rival them and provide them with a serious antagonist in the politics of the 21st century?

You can read Colin Crouch's article 'Neoliberalism, Nationalism and the Decline of Political Traditions' here.

Monday, 29 May 2017

The rise and fall of Martin Schulz

Jörg Michael Dostal

Sometimes the (ir-)relevance of ‘academic’ articles rises and falls before their ultimate publication. This is the case with my paper on German social democracy in the current edition of Political Quarterly, written in December of last year. Briefly, my main thesis is that a social democratic party turned neoliberal could not, cannot and will not win elections run under an electoral system of proportional representation – as is the case in Germany. My thesis is neither new nor in any way original. If you do everything you can to demobilize your (former) core voters, by adopting socio-economic policies that are directly opposed to their material interests – such as cutting taxes for high earners, removing social protection and shifting the tax base away from progressive to regressive taxes, as was all done during the red-green coalition government led by the former German SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder between 1998 and 2005 – you will simply destroy your political support base.

Since the Schröder years, half of former SPD voters – around 10 million people altogether – have drifted away. The probably largest group has opted out from the political process and no longer votes in elections (differences in electoral participation between residential areas with lower and higher socio-economic status are dramatically high in Germany). Other former SPD voters have turned to the CDU/CSU (why vote for the copy of a neoliberal party if you can vote for the original?), the Left Party or the right-wing populists of the AfD. Yet losing one’s traditional voters has not, in fact, meant that new centrist voters would have turned to the SPD to compensate for the losses – as Blairites used to claim. In electoral terms, the SPD has virtually nothing to show for its ‘modernization’ during the Schröder years. Since the German proportional electoral system allows voters a greater degree of choice when compared with British majority voting, the SPD cannot take its traditional voters for granted and must work hard to attract new ones. In earlier times, the core of the social democratic message used to be the commitment to ‘social justice’. Today, the SPD can no longer explain to voters from disadvantaged milieus why they should vote social democratic, and the party appears to stand for nothing much in particular.

In an oblique way, the SPD has recently tried addressing its poor electoral track record in the federal elections of 2005, 2009 and 2013. First, the SPD has engaged in a major shuffling of its leadership personnel. The former SPD foreign minister, Frank Steinmeier, has become the German president (a largely ceremonial role), and the former SPD chairman, Sigmar Gabriel, has taken Steinmeier’s position in the current grand coalition government in which the SPD acts as junior partner of Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU. This prepared the stage for the re-entry of Martin Schulz, the former chairman of the European Parliament, into German domestic politics. On 24 January 2017, he was announced to be the candidate for chancellor of the SPD and, shortly afterwards, was also elected as the new SPD leader with the North Korean-style electoral support of 100 per cent of the party delegates.

To the surprise of most observers, including this writer, Schulz quickly gained political momentum: the SPD experienced the virtually first sustained upturn in opinion polls since the Schröder years and, at one point, Schulz matched Merkel’s popularity figures. This development became known as ‘Schulzmania’ in the media and on Twitter. It appeared to hand the SPD a real fighting chance to defeat Merkel in the polls in September 2017.

Why did ‘Schulzmania’ occur? From my point of view, candidate Schulz did something right: he appealed to what German sociologists usually describe as the ‘traditional employee milieus’ in German society (in his own words the ‘people who keep things moving’), and he clearly stated that it was unjust that people losing their jobs for reasons beyond their control also lose their rights in the German social security system after a single year of unemployment benefits. He suggested that people who had paid into the social insurance system all their life should be treated better, and that re-training of the unemployed for qualified jobs, rather than forcing them into poor quality employment, must be a right that the SPD should honour. In fact, his words had a very strong impact and there was a short-lived wave of enthusiasm welcoming the candidate as the saviour that the SPD had been waiting for all along.

As was to be expected, the counteroffensive of the mainstream media – mostly aligned with the conservatives – pushed the opposite story line. They suggested that the Schröder-SPD’s welfare retrenchment and deregulation of the labour market, mostly between 2003 and 2005, had been a ‘success’ and that Schulz was riding the dead horse of social justice. To quote two typical voices, one journalist suggested that ‘efforts to regain the insecure clientele at the margins of society are so last season. After three [SPD] defeats in regional elections, Martin Schulz wants to avoid more than ever to scare the centrist electorate with expensive initiatives’ (Spiegel, 20 May 2017). In the same spirit, an opinion pollster suggested that ‘it is the cardinal mistake of Schulz to put the topic of ‘justice’ so much at the centre of his campaign’ (Stern, 21 May 2017).

Yet if these observers could really be right, how could we possibly take account of ‘Schulzmania’ in the first place? The basic issue of whether or not labour market deregulation and welfare retrenchment count as a ‘success’ is of course determined by the politics of class: it certainly was highly successful from the point of view of employers and the well-off. Yet it was a major blow from the point of view of employees fearing for the security of their jobs and those depending on welfare state solidarity.

Overall, the SPD must make an effort to clarify its electoral message. Does the party continue to advocate for neoliberalism-lite, or is it going to demand major policy change in favour of the socially disadvantaged? Most opinion pollsters claim that ‘social justice’ is not a winning topic in the forthcoming election, suggesting that other issues such as the refugee crisis, domestic security, and health and pension policies are more significant. Yet opinion pollsters frame such issues too narrowly: each of the ‘other’ major issues has a strong social justice component. A weak and deregulated state is not going to be able to solve any of the problems facing the German public at present. Thus, Schulz would be well-advised to stay ‘on message’ and to avoid blurring his initial focus on social justice. The current (late May 2017) main SPD talking point – namely reorganizing health insurance by creating a more universal system – is too obscure and has already been around in SPD announcements for many years. It is certainly not a topic that is going to solve the SPD’s search for a clear programmatic message. Schulz must reassert his position or face a lengthy and painful decline as a candidate until election day on 22 September.

Let us be honest: even the best electoral strategy would in all likelihood not allow for a left-of-centre government in Germany later this year. The current age is not a social democratic one, and electoral failure on the part of the SPD is ultimately due to difficulties shared by all progressive parties in offering convincing alternatives to neoliberal retrenchment and austerity. The SPD, the Greens and the Left Party all struggle with their own particular mobilization problems in elections, and they have collectively failed to create a mood in favour of political change in Germany. Yet this does not change the fact that the SPD and candidate Schulz really must try harder to run an election campaign with a coherent message. This would at least allow re-gaining some of the lost electoral ground.

The full article 'The Crisis of German Social Democracy Revisited' is available here

Friday, 26 May 2017

Why Grammar Schools? Why Social Mobility?

The controversy about increasing admissions to Britain’s surviving grammar schools has re-opened old, half-forgotten, lines of political controversy. The result is that some issues, such as the negative impact of selective schools on others in their areas, attract considerable attention, while many do not. Among the latter are the questions of why, and when, selection in secondary education can be justified, and of the plausibility of the justification actually deployed by Theresa May’s government.

One defence of selective schooling is that a country’s pool of educated people is too small to sustain its future economy and state administration. Indeed, this was at the centre of the National Efficiency movement’s support for a major expansion in grammar schools (which began in 1907). The pool was then too small because many pupils in private schools were not well educated, and had little interest in training for careers where a high level of skill was required. This was a system in which personal connections were crucial to job recruitment, for the middle class as much as the working class, and many of the skills eventually needed were acquired during employment. National Efficiency advocates wanted to broaden access to secondary education to social classes beyond the more affluent middle class so as to fill this “skills” gap.

A century later nearly all private schools have to demonstrate to parents that their pupils obtain high academic credentials, because their children’s success in the labour market now depends on it. This massive transformation in the operation of private education since the mid-20th century has meant that, nationally, more than enough adolescents are educated to a sufficiently high standard to fill the most skilled jobs. Indeed, five years after they complete their degrees more than one third of current graduates are still not in jobs designated as requiring graduate entry. Thus, with the important exception of some specific sectors, there is no shortage of highly qualified entrants to the workforce. Moreover, while it is possible that these exceptions might conceivably be rectified by the creation of very specialized selective schools, increasing the overall number of grammar school places could not do so. The May justification for her policy is different therefore, being couched in terms of increasied social mobility. This is an implausible rationale that has attracted surprisingly little comment, despite its underpinning assumptions being largely spurious.

First, the scale of the proposed increase in grammar school places is so small that any impact on British social structure overall will be tiny. It is akin to claiming that economic inequality nationally can be reduced by the government establishing a lottery fund from which a few poorer people each month will be set up as millionaires.

Secondly, even if that expansion were much larger, disadvantaged primary school children would have to be the beneficiaries of positive discrimination in selection processes for most to compete successfully for places, given the family and school advantages many middle-class children would have had beforehand. While May wants schools to ensure that some places do go to the disadvantaged, the whole history of selection in those areas (notably Kent and Buckinghamshire) where comprehensivization was not introduced 40 years ago has been of a strong association with social class. Obviously what middle class voters in those areas do not want is for their grammar schools to be given over primarily to the children of the disadvantaged; their aim is to reduce stress for themselves and their children in relation to the 11+ examination, by having more places available to them. They will surely get their way, and the class bias in grammar school selections will largely continue.

Thirdly, there is a widely held, but false, myth that for any position, providing you devise the right sort of selection procedures, you can always determine an approximate rank order among candidates, thereby ensuring the “best” are selected. In fact, even with adults, with vast amounts of information about them available, and with extensive testing, selection is imperfect. While it is relatively easy to determine competence – who does, and who does not, have the skills to be proficient in a particular activity – rank-ordering the competent is subject to considerable inaccuracy in all cases. That is, assessments of relative potential for future performance are always, and necessarily, highly imprecise. That situation is far worse when information is limited and when it is children being ranked for rationed places (at grammar schools). Among those children who do demonstrate competence, it is luck that will primarily determine which of them gets admitted and which rejected.

Finally, like most politicians, May invokes social mobility as if it were always a desirable social goal. It is not. Obviously, few today would advocate a society in which social advancement was impossible, and most argue that mobility during the last century has been socially beneficial. However, the expansion of the middle class then was the result primarily of changes in the labour market, with proportionately fewer non-skilled jobs and more skilled ones. Some of those born into working class families thus became middle class. Relative social peace was possible because there was much less downward mobility than upward mobility. If this earlier shift in the labour market does not continue this century, and there is strong evidence that it will not, then any upward mobility will be associated with corresponding downward movement. Too much of the latter can be at least as politically destabilizing as too little of the former, as Poujadism in 1950s France demonstrated.

For a leader portraying herself and her party as agents for political stability, May’s invocation of social mobility as a core objective is somewhat ironic therefore. While some mobility is always valuable, too much would almost certainly not be promoted by anyone supposedly intent on preserving the polity’s stability during the present century. While St Augustine supposedly exclaimed “Make me good, God, but not yet”, May is surely committed to the view: “Give me social mobility, but not too much”.

You can read Alan Ware's article 'Grammar Schools, a Policy of Social Mobility and Selection - Why' here.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

How the sovereign speaks: The changing language of parliamentary legislation

Matt Williams

At just seventy words, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 is roughly half the length of an article abstract. But, in terms of impact, it is fair to say that few academics will achieve as much in so few words. The language used is plain, with short, unadorned sentences:

    ‘1(1) The Prime Minister may notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU.
    (2) This section has effect despite any provision made by or under the European Communities Act 1972 or any other enactment.’

The only language used whose meaning could be contested is the modal verb ‘may’. As in: ‘The Prime Minister may notify’. As it happens we know the Prime Minister will give notification before the end of March. But the law technically allows her to escape this commitment if gripped by a sudden change of heart. This is unlikely. But the modal verb ‘may’ is not always so innocuous. Section 28 of the Digital Economy Act 2010 swapped modal verbs in existing law:

   ‘(2) In subsection (1) for “must do all that they can to” substitute “may”…
    (4) Accordingly, in the heading of the section, for “Duty” substitute “Power”.’

As this legislation lays bare, switching must to may changes a duty to a power. And executive powers are the subject of public concern, parliamentary scrutiny and judicial review. Former leader of the Conservative Party, Michael Howard, came against the sharp end of ‘may’ when he was Home Secretary. It was in a lawsuit brought by the Fire Brigades Union. At issue was section 171 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988:

    ‘(1) Subject to the following provisions of this section, this Act shall come into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument appoint and different days may be appointed in pursuance of this subsection for different provisions or different purposes of the same provision.’

Specifically, the Home Secretary had been empowered to create a compensation scheme for victims of violent crime. The problem is that he did not want to. An older non-statutory scheme of ex gratia payments to victims of violent assaults was preferred by the Home Secretary, who thereby chose to interpret ‘may’ as ‘may not’. The Appellate Committee of the House of Lords disagreed. Thereby pulling the court into public policy making. As per Lord Mustill (1):

‘To avoid a vacuum in which the citizen would be left without protection against a misuse of executive powers the courts have had no option but to occupy the dead ground in a manner, and in areas of public life, which could not have been foreseen 30 years ago.’

Misuse of executive power was, in this case, non-use of executive power. But one can imagine ‘may’ creating a variety of uncertainties as to the ‘whens?’, the ‘whys?’ and the ‘how fars?’ of power. Lord Mustill points to a fundamental change in British law when he argues the case would not have been imaginable in the 1960s. The change he alludes to has been so slow and subtle as to be barely perceptible. It is by taking a long view and using the latest machine reading technology that a pattern of linguistic change emerges. It will not be a surprise to readers that the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 is unusual. But then what is the usual use of language for the sovereign Parliament in the twenty-first century?

My new article in Political Quarterly shows that, besides an astonishing increase in the volume of legislation enacted, the language used increasingly relies on parts of speech that enable discretion and are adaptable to unforeseen circumstances. In terms of volume, having surveyed all 191,080 pages of legislation enacted between 1900 and 2015, a clear pattern emerges. Fewer laws are enacted of much greater length. Just 198 pages of legislation were enrolled in 1900, covering sixty-three separate Acts. In 2015, there were 2,428 pages of legislation enacted in thirty-seven Acts. The average statute was just three pages long in 1900, and sixty-six pages long in 2015. Of course, size is not everything, as the EU Act 2017 will no doubt demonstrate. But besides changes in scale, there have also been changes in language. In 2015, 18% of all sections enacted relied on the modal verb ‘may’, where in 1900 it was just 4%. And besides the verbs used, the sovereign in 2015 relied on significantly more adjectives and adverbs (62%) as compared to 1900 (30%). Adjectives such as ‘reasonable’, ‘vulnerable’ and even ‘conducive’ require interpretation. This interpretative necessity will typically favour the powerful. If, for example, an immigrant needs to prove that their deportation is not, in fact, ‘conducive to the public good’ (as per s. 3(5)(a) of the Immigration Act 1971) it will be their word against the Home Secretary’s.

And, finally, there has also been an extraordinary increase in the use of conditional conjunctions in parliamentary legislation (73% in 2015, up from 31% in 1900). Conjoining indeterminate conditions in law will also create latitude, again largely to the advantage of those able to fight for their preferred interpretations in court. The Equality Act 2010 demonstrates the potential elasticising effect of adjectives, adverbs and conditional conjunctions:

    ‘159(1) This section applies if a person reasonably thinks that –
    (a) persons who share a protected characteristic suffer a disadvantage connected to the                      characteristic, or
    (b) participation in an activity by persons who share a protected characteristic is disproportionately low.’

So the EU Act 2017 is highly unusual, in terms of its length, its use of language, and, of course, its content. Given one ambition of the Act is to retake sovereignty from the EU, it is timely to consider how sovereignty actually operates in the twenty-first century. What we see are not clear instructions handed down by a self-possessed sovereign, but indeterminate delegation to the government and private citizens. If Britain is to take back control, perhaps more attention is needed not only on what the sovereign may say, but how.

(1) R v Secretary of State for the Home Department ex parte Fire Brigades Union


You can read the full article 'The Grammar of Politics: A Brief History of Legislative Language in Britain' here.