Brexit and the English Constitution

Political chaos is driving a spike in online interest in the foundations of British democracy.

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Amid election uncertainty, constitutional chaos reigns in the United Kingdom. Yesterday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson threatened to call an election for October 14 should MPs attempt to block a No-Deal exit from the European Union this week. Despite the brinkmanship, online audiences are more fixated on the United Kingdom’s unwritten constitutional system -- and thus the foundations of British democracy -- than on a potential near-term election. 

As the chart below shows, online interest in the prospect of a fresh General Election was last elevated in late March through early April, when the UK was originally due to leave the EU. Around that time, then Prime Minister Theresa May faced extensive pressure to call an election after her Brexit deal failed three times in the House of Commons–an unprecedented rejection of a UK government’s legislative agenda. Since then, attention to elections in the UK has steadily trailed off.

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Scrutiny of the British constitution began to increase in late July, shortly after Boris Johnson entered into office. As the debate between Johnson’s administration and his opposition crescendoed last week -- when the Prime Minister announced he would be suspending Parliament -- online audiences increasingly researched the conventions, legal texts, and case law that comprise the UK constitutional system. Notably, traffic on a page related to Walter Bagheot’s 1867 text The English Constitution has reached its second-highest ever level. The book is considered to be a ‘work of authority’ on the UK Constitution, giving it special legal status. Its current level of traffic was only outmatched in November 2016, when it was introduced to a broader audience via Netflix’s television series The Crown

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The strong focus on the constitutional underpinnings of British parliamentary democracy should give pause to politicians on all sides of the Brexit debate clamoring for a General Election. It seems that the British people may be concerned with matters more fundamental than which political party will lead the UK into its post-EU future.