United Kingdom

I - Political context

Political change      
What is the political context of the Eurozone crisis period in the United Kingdom? Have there been changes in government, elections, referenda or other major political events during the period of 2008-present?

The UK’s last general election was on 6 May 2010. None of the parties achieved the 326 seats needed for an overall majority. The Conservative Party won 306 seats and so a coalition government was formed with the Liberal Democrat Party. Coalition governments are unusual in the British Parliamentary System. Governments are elected on the basis of the first past the post system which usually leads to one party having a majority.

The Coalition Agreement ruled out Britain joining the euro and further agreed that there would be “no further transfer of sovereignty or powers over the course of the next Parliament.” It also set out the intention to “amend the 1972 European Communities Act so that any proposed future treaty that transferred areas of power, or competences, would be subject to a referendum” and to “examine the case for a United Kingdom Sovereignty Bill to make it clear that ultimate authority remains with Parliament.”[1]

The European Union Act 2011 intended to implement the Coalition Agreement regarding the EU. In introducing the Bill, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (William Hague (Conservative)) stated that it intended to address the problem that whereby the EU has “a greatly enlarged place in our national policy and politics” there is also a “growing disconnection between…- the British people, the voters – and the EU’s institutions”. He also noted that there is a “growing sense… that the EU’s democratic legitimacy in the country has been weakened.”[2]

The European Union Act 2011 has two main sections relevant for present purposes. Firstly, the Act provides for a referendum to be held in certain circumstances before an amendment of the Treaties, before any new Treaty replacing those currently in force and before a decision that would transfer a power or competence from the UK to the EU.  Included within the decisions requiring a referendum is the decision to make the euro the currency of the UK (s.6(5)(e)). Secondly, it declared that EU law is only directly effective in the UK by virtue of an Act of Parliament. This aims to reaffirm the sovereignty of the UK Parliament.[3]  

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has expressed his intentions to try to negotiate a better settlement for Britain within the EU. On 23rd January 2013, Cameron made a speech in which he stated that the time had come either to renegotiate Britain’s settlement within the EU or for Britain to leave the EU.[4] More recently, Cameron stressed the benefits of EU membership,[5] but he still maintains that there ought to be a referendum where the public are able to vote either to stay in (on newly negotiated terms) or to leave the EU. The referendum will take place after 2015 if the Conservative Party wins the next election.[6] It is unclear whether the other parties will hold referendums on Europe if they are elected in 2015, when the next general election takes place.

The pressure for an independent Scotland has also increased since the 2010 election.  a referendum will be held in 2014. One issue behind the drive for independence is the dissatisfaction of the current austerity programme in the UK.[7] A further issue is EU membership. A recent poll demonstrated that support for Scottish Independence increased depending upon whether it seemed Britain would be a part of the EU.[8]

The coalition government introduced several constitutional reforms which, according to McEldowney were to ensure a strong government in the face of the “political uncertainties that might lead to financial market instability.” For instance, there is now a Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 which means that it is no longer up to the Government to decide when to call an election: there is a fixed term of five years. An election will only be called before this point if there is a vote of no confidence in the government or a vote by at least 2/3rds of MPs in favour of an early election. The Cabinet Manual has also now been published, putting large parts of the UK constitution into a written form.

[1] Liberal-Conservative Coalition Agreement https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-coalition-documentation

[2] Second Reading in the House of Commons of European Union Bill, HC Hansard 7 Dec 2010, Col 191 http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmhansrd/cm101207/debtext/101207-0002.htm#10120737000002

[3] Section 18 of European Union Act 2011 states “Directly applicable or directly effective EU law (that is, the rights, powers, liabilities, obligations, restrictions, remedies and procedures referred to in section 2(1) of the European Communities Act 1972) falls to be recognised and available in law in the United Kingdom only by virtue of that Act or where it is required to be recognised and available in law by virtue of any other Act.”

[4] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/eu-speech-at-bloomberg

[5] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/plan-for-britains-success-speech-by-the-prime-minister

[6] http://www.conservatives.com/Policy/Where_we_stand/Europe.aspx

[7] http://www.snp.org/sites/default/files/document/file/scotlands_economy-_the_case_for_independence.pdf

[8] http://news.stv.tv/politics/225950-poll-possible-eu-withdrawal-could-boost-scottish-independence-support/