Guardian University Guide 2018

Today’s 2018 Guardian University Guide league tables include Birkbeck, University of London, for the first time, with Philosophy ranking  3rd in London and 17th in the UK, while English as well as Modern Languages and Linguistics feature in the capital city’s top 10.

However, the value of what Birkbeck offers in changing lives is not always well represented in league tables and rankings. Birkbeck remains true to its founding mission of widening access to education for all Londoners and our evening teaching makes Birkbeck uniquely different from all other universities included in the Guardian’s ranking.

Many of our full-time undergraduate students are the first in their families to study at university, or are returning to education after many years of lacking the confidence to do so. The Guardian league tables measure, among other things, the qualifications that students arrive at university with. Across the sector, just 2% of full-time undergraduates begin university without A-Level or equivalent qualifications. But Birkbeck demonstrates an unstinting commitment to accepting applicants with non-traditional qualifications: 35% of our part-time and 21% of full-time students arrive without A-Level or equivalents.

And our students have outstanding success in progressing to further study and rewarding, fulfilling careers, with 95% of our full-time students and 97% of part-time students in employment or further study upon graduation.

Birkbeck’s appearance for the first time in this ranking is a consequence of the College’s innovation in offering three year evening undergraduate degree courses which are classified as full-time.

Many years of hard work have gone in to establishing Birkbeck’s full-time undergraduate degree programme: in less than a decade the College has gone from having no full-time undergraduates to over 3,000. However, like all other Birkbeck undergraduate courses, they are accessible to motivated students without formal qualifications, and most importantly, take place in the evening, allowing students to work during the day.

Birkbeck is a research-led institution and this directly informs our teaching of predominantly non-traditional students but the Guardian’s league tables do not take research metrics in to account. Our scholarship informs public policy, delivers scientific advances, supports the economy, promotes culture and the arts, and makes a positive difference to society. Over half of our research was in the top 20 in the UK in the most recent REF exercise and our 40+ research centres and 700+ research students play a vital role in our success. Birkbeck has corresponding excellence, too, in postgraduate programmes, which have a superb reputation both nationally and internationally.

The College’s world-leading reputation for both research and teaching is well established. Birkbeck has been ranked in the top 250 universities worldwide in the latest THE World University Rankings and has been placed within the world’s elite institutions in a number of subjects in the QS World University Rankings by Subject, published earlier this year.

In the most recent Research Excellence Framework (REF) Birkbeck was ranked 30th nationally in terms of research intensity, with three departments in the top 10 nationally. Birkbeck’s academic staff are active researchers, many with world-leading reputations, and no fewer than 83% of the eligible academic staff were returned to the REF.

Birkbeck’s track record of opening routes to highly-skilled employment, in particular for students beginning their studies without standard academic qualifications, demonstrates that learning gain is a core aspect of teaching excellence at Birkbeck. Our mission is to make previously unthinkable life choices thinkable and achievable; a transformative impact demonstrated by the core metrics and the high proportion of undergraduate students who go on to postgraduate study.

“We offer all our undergraduate students, of which a sizeable proportion come to us with no formal qualifications at all, rigorous teaching and a transformational intellectual experience, enabling them to achieve a University of London qualification,” said Professor David Latchman CBE, Master of Birkbeck.

“Since its inception, Birkbeck has offered a distinct opportunity for working Londoners to gain qualifications through evening study. Nearly 200 years later, the College is still unlike any other higher education institution in the UK today – a distinctiveness of which we are proud.”

In issuing its league tables today, where Birkbeck entered the rankings at 113th, the Guardian University Guide noted: “Birkbeck is ranked alongside other universities in the league tables for the first time this year. It has not appeared in our league tables before now because its full-time provision is a relatively new development. The majority of Birkbeck students still study part-time, alongside full-time students. However, Birkbeck remains unique in that all its provision (full-time as well as part-time) takes place in the evening. This needs to be kept in mind when making comparisons with the rest of the sector.”

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Trailblazing in mathematics

To mark International Women’s Day, this post was contributed by Professor Sarah Hart, Head of the Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics at Birkbeck.

Here, she explains why there is more to do to ensure representation of women in mathematics – and how that can be achieved

Today is International Women’s Day – a day which as well as celebrating the achievements of women also serves as reminder we still have work to do to achieve gender parity. In my field of mathematics, the last century has seen a series of women pioneers who have blazed a trail for future generations. An example was highlighted in the recent film “Hidden Figures”, which tells the story of the female African-American mathematicians and engineers working at NASA in the 1950s and 1960s. Those women overcame many obstacles, including having to go to court to gain the right to attend graduate classes in engineering. We have come a long way in the last 50 years, but not as far as you may think. For example, in mathematics it is still the case that fewer than 10% of the professors are women.

Could it be the case that women just aren’t as good at maths on average? No. Girls do just as well in maths at school – what happens is that the proportion who choose to pursue maths as a career is lower. This question isn’t even asked in most other areas where women are under-represented – are women “not as good as men” at being MPs? Or judges? The issue is certainly wider than mathematics. As Head of the Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics at Birkbeck, I’m very aware that women are underrepresented in the UK in all three of these disciplines. This matters because these fields are missing out on the contributions of those women who aren’t there but could be.

So what can we do? Research has shown that role models are very important. With that in mind, this month the department is involved with organising two events around women in maths and economics. Today, Birkbeck’s student-run Economics and Finance Society is putting on a Women in Economics Event with two eminent economists – Vicky Pryce and Oriana Bandiera – discussing barriers and opportunities, leadership and recognition, quotas and pay gaps. All are welcome to attend.

At the end of March we will be holding an event in collaboration with global investment management firm Winton, aimed at encouraging girls and young women to consider pursuing a career in mathematics. The Winton Women Trailblazers in Mathematics conference will be a two-day event. The first day is for girls in years 11-13 at school, where they can meet women working in mathematics and statistics and get an idea of what it’s like to take the subjects further. The second day, which is also supported by the London Mathematical Society, is a Women in Mathematics day, bringing together postgraduate and postdoctoral students to meet fellow mathematicians and hear from established women mathematicians from academia and industry about their work and careers.

Why are these activities important? Because it is our collective responsibility as a society to do what we can to further gender parity. “But things are changing”, you say. “Professors are old and there are more women doing maths and economics now, they’ll become professors eventually”. The World Economic Forum has calculated that yes, things are indeed changing, but that gender parity will not be achieved until 2186. I’m not prepared to wait that long. Are you?

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Improving access to student service information

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Winyard, Digital Publications Officer in Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations

Birkbeck offers a comprehensive range of services, to give our diverse student community the support and assistance it needs. These services are open to all and almost all of them are free to access. Our students consistently tell us that it is the human touch – meeting an academic at an Open Evening, emailing a Programme Administrator for assistance, seeking professional advice from our Careers and Employability Service, speaking to a counsellor about emotional issues – that makes Birkbeck so special. We are very proud of the willingness of our staff to go the extra mile: we’ve been helping students use their evenings to transform their lives for nearly 200 years now, so we know the challenges and obstacles they face – and the life changing opportunities we offer.

But how best to present over a dozen varied and distinct services on our website has been a particular challenge. In 2009, we launched My Birkbeck, a bespoke, specially designed website that presented these services in one place for the first time, to make reading about, and accessing, them more straightforward. However, in the intervening years, the design began to look antiquated – the pace of digital change is so breakneck that nothing ages more quickly and dramatically than a website – and the content became outdated, repetitive and progressively difficult to navigate. Increasingly, prospective and current students, as well as Birkbeck staff, have become frustrated with the outmoded design and the challenges of finding important and up-to-date information.

The My Birkbeck site was suffering from a proliferation of pages and files, an overload of content and a breakdown in user friendliness. We discovered that the site contained over 1100 content pages, of which 85% attracted fewer than 1000 views in the whole academic year – this is a very low number for a university with nearly 20,000 students. Moreover, well over 30% of the site had not been edited or updated in the past year, while 27% had not been updated for more than two years and 10% had last been updated three years ago. There were even pages that hadn’t been updated since the site launched in 2009. There was also excessive duplication of files: we found 1093 Word, Excel and PDF files on the My Birkbeck site, but the majority of them were copies or new versions of existing files that had already been uploaded – in one case, we found 25 published versions of the same file.

This confirmed that there was too much content and that the majority of it was out-of-date, underutilised and unloved. Although the original site had been impressive, user friendly and well designed, the intervening years had been unkind and, despite the valiant efforts of staff across Birkbeck, the site had become frustrating to navigate and off-putting to staff and students alike.

User feedback commissioned before Christmas confirmed that our students found accessing information about our services confusing and discouraging. They were aware that the My Birkbeck site was separate – in look and feel – from the main Birkbeck website, but they were critical of the site’s multiple failings. Although their perseverance and investigative prowess were impressive, our students shouldn’t have to expend lots of time tracking down information to access vital services.

In 2016 we launched a project to replace the My Birkbeck site, with the following objectives:

  • reduce the number of overall pages to make the site more navigable and user friendly
  • delete duplicate and out-of-date content
  • draw everything together into a single, definitive source of information
  • apply our new House Style and a consistent tone of voice
  • improve content to make it easy to scan and to make the key information, especially contact details, more prominent
  • optimise the content for search, to make it easier to find information via Google and other search engines
  • make it easy to login to online student services, such as our online learning environment, Moodle.

The first step was to meet with all of the key staff who run the services, to listen to their particular concerns and frustrations with the My Birkbeck site, and to work together to present the information in new, user friendly ways. We utilised high-tech tools – post-it notes and felt-tip pens – and asked staff to think about the key questions that a visitor to their services would have in mind. This helped us more intuitively structure the content on the site, giving priority to the most important and urgent questions and tasks. We also asked staff to consider the emotions that students might be experiencing when visiting the site – which ranged enormously, from excitement, optimism and determination to confusion, anxiety and frustration – which helped us adopt the most appropriate and helpful tone of voice when rewriting content. The focus throughout has been on meeting the needs of users and giving them the information they want, quickly and clearly.

The new Student Services site has reduced over 1000 webpages to just 100 – a tenth of the original size. The layout is brighter and easier to navigate, with more images and new, distinctive sections for each service. The content has been completely rewritten, following our new House Style, with an awareness of tone of voice and an emphasis on usability. Key pages from other areas of the Birkbeck website have been incorporated into the new Student Services section, to bring everything students need together in one place. As 30% of all visitors to the old My Birkbeck site were solely using it to access Moodle and other password protected areas for current students, we have improved access to those login areas by making them more prominent.

Overall, our ambitions have been to create a well-designed, user friendly and useful new area of the website, to bring together and re-present information about our impressive range of student services, and to make those services as open, welcoming and accessible online as befits Birkbeck’s ethos.

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Bringing life to the Brontës

This post was contributed by Dr Siv Jansson, Associate Lecturer in Birkbeck’s School of Arts. She was Literary Advisor on To Walk Invisible (written and directed by Sally Wainwright: BBC).

The Brontë Sisters by Patrick Branwell Brontë restored

The Brontë Sisters by Patrick Branwell Brontë restored

A drama about the Brontes was something which Sally and I had talked about over a number of years, and I knew it was a topic she had long wanted to do. In 2014  it was green-lit by the BBC, and by the end of that year the process of producing the script began.

Sally did a tremendous amount of research and had clear ideas concerning the approach she wanted to take, and it was my job to support that. There is no clear ‘job description’ for the role of literary advisor; it depends upon the people you are working with and the nature of the project. The literary advisor is there to do just that, advise: the decisions rest with the writer/director and producer. Sally and I had many, many lengthy discussions, and I read the drafts of the script bit by bit as she wrote them. I’d comment or suggest, but it was always Sally’s script. She made the decision to focus on the period 1845-8, and I agreed with this; even though the BBC gave us an extra 30 minutes – making it a120-minute instead of a 90-minute film – to try to fit all the Brontes’ lives – and deaths – into two hours would have been an impossible task. 1845-8 is the period when the writing emerged into the public domain so it made sense to concentrate on that.

A major part of my role was research; for example, I found the newspaper story which Charlotte is reading to her father in one of the early scenes. It’s from the Leeds Intelligencer: Sally wanted something which would have been in the news at that time and of interest to Patrick (it was a story about Irish politics). I also re-read all the biographical material available and anything Sally didn’t have time to look at, looked up details – for example what information was available at that time on delirium tremens – put together a compendium of descriptions of the Brontes and the various images which are or have been claimed to be them, and also investigated some of the most well-known but possibly unfounded Bronte myths. As Juliet Barker has pointed out, Branwell not only didn’t go to London, but was never intended to do so – there is a letter from Patrick which talks about sending him the following year. Following up on this, I spent an afternoon in the British Library looking at coaching timetables and journeys to establish that he actually could not have made the journey he is supposed to have made on the dates or times he is thought to have made it, and that the planned trip to London was, indeed, a myth. We considered whether to excise the flashback scene where Branwell is describing to his father and aunt that he had been robbed in London (while Emily observes from the doorway), but decided that it did important work in terms of establishing character and Emily and Branwell’s relationship, and that it should stay for these reasons. These kinds of decisions are part of the business of producing a drama.

We were very lucky to have rehearsal time with the cast who were playing the family, and they spent a week in Haworth with Sally, where I joined them for a couple of days. It was an opportunity for them to see the Parsonage and spend time with the staff, work with Sally, benefit from the expertise of people like Ann Dinsdale (Principal Curator at the Parsonage), Juliet Barker (historian and author of The Brontes)  and Patsy Stoneman (Bronte scholar), and to bond in a way which I firmly believe contributed a great deal to the success of the film and the strength of their performances.

There has, of course, been some coverage in the press over Branwell’s use of the word ‘fuck’. I understand that some people have been troubled by this as being inappropriate or too contemporary but Branwell would have been mixing with quite a range of individuals as his drinking and opium habit developed and I think it perfectly credible that he would have sworn at all of the family as his life deteriorated. We referred this to Ann Dinsdale who concurred with us. I also think that there remains an assumption that great writers, or even those associated with them, must talk in some kind of ‘elevated’ way rather than like ordinary human beings. Anyone who knows Sally’s work will be aware of the sheer believability with which she imbues her characters and her dialogue. One of our key principles in developing the script was that the Brontes should behave and interact as much like a real, ordinary family as possible; there was to be no mystic wafting on the moors or notions that people born and bred in Yorkshire would talk as if they had just left elocution school. It is also essential, from a commercial point of view, to create characters who will have some resonance with contemporary viewers who may not be Bronte experts, or even fans.

Getting details right was a commitment made by everyone involved, and when I saw the recreation of the Parsonage rooms at the studios in Manchester, I was, quite frankly, amazed; without the benefit of any contemporary images from which to work, Grant, our designer, and his team came up with brilliant representations. Equally, the reconstructed parsonage on the moors was astonishing; seeing it built (and seeing what it looked like before it was finished!) gave me a real appreciation of the levels of skill involved in making something like this happen.

As anyone who works with biography will know, it is a slippery art form. Biographies are shaped by their cultural moment and the direction pursued by the biographer, whether on paper or screen. Bronte biography is particularly problematic because it is so dogged by myth-making , as Lucasta Miller has so aptly observed, and also because it is so patchy and erratic. We know a reasonable amount about Charlotte, though there are significant gaps; less about Anne and Branwell; relatively little about Emily. This is both a gift and a curse; it leaves wonderful imaginative spaces but at the same time means that speculation is inevitable. All any biographer or dramatist can do is provide their interpretation of the information we have. Dramatising the Brontes brings with it additional demands because they carry such a mystique with the public and their readers, and I think we were all aware that whatever we did, there would be some who would not like it.

Do I like it? I love it. The film does exactly what I wanted it to do when Sally and I first discussed it; it resists the myths, it shows a real – and sometimes dysfunctional – family, and it portrays the significance and development of the writing. I am somewhat baffled by those who complained that it didn’t show enough of this – I could itemise so many scenes which showed, or talked about, the poetry, or the novels, or the juvenilia. It even revealed Branwell as a writer, though clearly nowhere near the stature of his sisters. Writing is not a dramatic act: it is necessarily static and largely internal as a creative process. To show repeated scenes of people writing at tables – or even walking round them – would have been utterly tedious; nor do I think it was imperative to keep reminding the audience that the Brontes wrote. Yes, I have favourite scenes: Emily and Branwell’s nocturnal exchange sitting on the gate, the opening with the children, Emily speaking ‘No Coward Soul’ to Anne, the scene in Smith, Elder & Co. in London, the discovery of Emily’s poetry (and her reaction), the visit of William Allison to Branwell in the Black Bull, and the bailiffs’ scene.

What advice would I give to anyone taking up the job of literary advisor on a similar project? Be flexible and open to ideas, be thorough, respond speedily to queries and requests, love the topic (but) keep the genre of TV and its demands in mind, don’t expect drama to operate as a documentary, accept that your suggestions or advice won’t always be taken, and realise that the writer, director  and producer have the final say.  I had never worked on a project like this before and it was a (sometimes steep) learning curve; but I loved the experience, was delighted with the response, and am very proud of what we achieved.

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Rebirth and regeneration, or just a Trojan horse for gentrification?

Mark Panton, researcher in the Department of Management, is currently investigating sport as a key agent for urban regeneration. Here, he considers the issues in the context of the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, as well as developments closer to home.

“It’s just a Trojan horse for gentrification” is a phrase I have heard frequently during my PhD research into stadium-led regeneration in Tottenham. With the Olympic Games as a “catalyst”, rebirth and regeneration was the message behind the Opening Ceremony that heralded the start of the Rio 2016 Olympics.  Where does the balance lie?

The estimated total Olympic spend in Rio is US$ 9.75 Billion[1] according to the Plan of Public Policies – Legacy report presented at the 2016 Play the Game international conference. Undoubtedly sporting facilities can have longevity and value – as can improvements in transport infrastructure tied to Olympic projects. However, they are costly and there is growing concern about “Cathedrals in the desert”; abandoned facilities that deliver little value after the event.

Transportation infrastructure is emphasised by Rio as the most substantial Olympic legacy.  Projects have included construction of two substantial museums, revamping of several public spaces and incentivized building construction. There has been urban renewal around the Maracanã stadium, but this has led to communities being evicted from surrounding areas and a public athletics centre closed without warning in 2013. None of the major environmental projects linked to the Olympics were completed before the Games and Mario Moscatelli, a biologist, who has campaigned for decades to clean-up Rio’s water, says he “only sees things getting worse”.

There is also recognition that in property terms, hosting the games creates winners and losers.  With Rio’s Games closely following the Brazil World Cup in 2014 there have been many losers. It is estimated that all over Brazil, families in their several tens of thousands have been moved.  This process has been described as “social cleansing rationalised as instrument of ‘slash and burn’ planning,” (Lawrence & Wishart Blog, 2016). For many who remain in areas of Olympic-linked reconstruction there is the fear of the effects of gentrification such as the displacement of lower-income families and small businesses – as there is in the stadium-led regeneration of Tottenham.

However, there has been an unplanned but similar legacy from these developments in Rio and Tottenham. This is the growth in community networks that have been mobilised, aided by increased access to new technologies. As RioOnWatch points out, this may be scant consolation for many of those whose lives have been harmed by the Olympic dream (or demolitions in Tottenham), but these connections may represent the real regeneration for communities wanting to influence future policy decisions.

[1] This figure used an undervalued exchange rate of US$1 = R$ 4.00.  If the exchange rate used in the dossier of the application of US$ 1.00 = R$ 2.00 had been maintained, the total cost would be US$ 19.5 billion.

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The importance of language

Baroness Bakewell, President of Birkbeck, spoke during Graduation Week at ceremonies to congratulate the College’s newest graduates.

Here, she explains the importance of the skills graduates from Birkbeck learn in the course of their studies and how it is vital, now more than ever, that the use of language needs to be reasoned to foster democratic debate  

You have all been studying hard to earn the degrees you have received today.  In so doing you have come to appreciate the important of being correct in how you express yourself:  mathematicians will appreciate that a digit out of place; a miscalculation can destroy chapters of effort.

Those of you studying social sciences, history and law will be finely tuned to the need for a precise and consistent pursuit of what is exact.  Those of you graduating in philosophy will have tangled directly with the nature of truth itself and when and how to present a statement – and to refute it.

I hope you excuse my telling you what you already know: because this matter of language is playing an important role in the life of not only our country, but in the world at large.  In two major arenas of public activity – the American election and the Brexit situation – language and how it is used is coming under great strain, not to say misuse and deliberation falsification.

Does it matter? It is only politics after all; it is only election rhetoric.  My case is that it matters very much – and that now, more than ever, the nature of language needs to be safeguarded by those trained in analysis, logic and deduction; that is, people such as yourselves.  I encourage you to welcome and uphold that responsibility.  Here’s why.

We have lived through an American election that insults the reputation of that great country and the foresight and shrewdness of its founding fathers.  When one candidate can insult and distort the role of the other with such impunity – speaking of Hillary Clinton as a criminal, deserving of prison, even a possibly target for direct violence – then civilised language has reached its limit.

When there is nowhere else to go with language then strong feeling gets expressed in action – often violent action. What is significant is that the strong statement itself – eye-catching  but wrong and  taken up by the media – is unyielding to correction.

It is no good to say, ‘she isn’t a criminal’, or more challengingly ask, ‘where’s the evidence?’ Damage has already been done.  Damage in public life is what we seek to avoid.  Damage – harm to our civil life and to our political institutions – can be long term and permanently undermining. That is why respect for language and the delicacy which it can express subtle ideas needs to be part of all our – of all your – lives.

The situation with Brexit is equally alarming.  It is one of the most serious changes to our constitution in more than 50 years. Unfortunately it has been  subjected to what many of us recognised as extravagant exaggeration: quite  separate from the very important issues that deserve thoughtful  assessment and judgement.  “Come out of the EU and the NHS can get the millions saved”; “Turkey is joining the EU so soon millions of Turks will be coming to Britain” – these  widely publicized slogans were to distort the very sound case to be made for leaving the EU and damage the reputation of  leading politicians  for the foreseeable future.

Well, OK, they’re politicians and they can be expected to be casual with language. Then last week a national newspaper accused three High Court judges, ruling on the rights of Parliament to discuss Brexit or not of being ‘enemies of the people’. Historically enemies of the people have been subject to charges of treason, to Star Chamber trials, to torture and execution.  It is a use of language that is well beyond any civilised exchange of opinions. It is of course, quite correct to challenge judgements made by the courts – there are checks and balances that allow us to do so – and such a challenge will indeed take place.

My point is that the use of such emotive and irrational language drives out the more subtle arguments that are the nature of democratic exchange and leads to a gross distortion of what is actually the intended case.

While we all digest the prospect of Brexit let me address some of the crucial issues close to the heart of Birkbeck.  We are an open society:  look around at the diversity by age, gender, ethnicity and faith of those around you.  This is society as we want it to be.  We at Birkbeck know it works:  it brings happiness and fulfilment into many lives. It promotes discourse, harmony, tolerance and civic responsibility among those who come here.

We rejoice that you too have been and I hope will remain part of such a society and take into your homes, your jobs and your communities the values we all share.  Do not let false and damaged language persuade you otherwise. The society of learning is global, interconnected and mutually respectful:  you are all welcome to its ranks.

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The Brexit High Court judgment: what it means

This article was contributed by Dr Frederick Cowell from the Birkbeck School of Law’s Department of Law.

The High Court today handed down their judgment in the case brought by Gina Miller and Deir Dos Santos against the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union.

Billed as the ‘Brexit’ litigation, what was at issue was whether the Prime Minister had to go to parliament before triggering Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union (also known as the Lisbon Treaty), which would set in motion Britain’s exit from the European Union.  The judgment was first and foremost a question of resolving a basic legal question; is it the government or parliament that has the power in these matters?

The court were, in fact, keen to cut out the party political question altogether, declaring that they were “dealing with a pure question of law”. The judgment is, however, likely to become the ultimate political football and within half an hour the Government had announced that intended to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court on the 7th of December.

The core issue was the scope of prerogative powers relating to foreign policy, which are held by the Prime Minister and other government ministers. Historically, treaties were signed between monarchs by their representatives and, as the UK’s constitution became more democratic in the nineteenth century, prerogative powers were delegated to government ministers.

Many prerogative powers are now governed by legislation – for example, the 2010 Constitutional Reform and Governance Act put the power to manage the Civil Service onto statute governed by clearly definable legal powers. Prerogative powers are not easy to control as they can be exercised by ministers without the approval of parliament – for example Margaret Thatcher’s decision to ban trade unions from GCHQ (the secret service signal intelligence headquarters) did not require an Act of Parliament in the way that her other restrictions on trade unions did.  They are also difficult to control through the courts, which are often reluctant to intervene in areas where these powers are exercised, especially when it comes to foreign policy. On the eve of the Iraq war the High Court held that they could not hear a case from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, who were asking for Tony Blair to seek a resolution from the UN Security Council authorising the use of force.

Shortly after becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May took the position that she didn’t need parliament’s approval to activate Article 50 and she could exercise her prerogative powers to take the UK out of the EU. In fact, she went so far as to guarantee in October that Article 50 would be activated by the end of March.  In 1971 the question of whether the government should accede to the European Economic Community (as it then was called) was debated in the House of Commons, even though technically, under the UK’s constitutional system, the Prime Minister of the day Edward Heath did not need an Act of Parliament to accede to the EEC.

What he did need parliament’s approval for, and what was at the heart of the Brexit litigation, was the 1972 European Communities Act which brought EEC law (later EU law) into UK law. This took nearly 300 hours of debate to pass, with Labour and Conservative MPs voting against their own party line repeatedly in an early indication of how divided the two main political parties were on this issue.

The 1972 Act – as the High Court Judgment noted – created rights for individuals as well as empowering the lawmaking institutions of the EU (paragraph 37 R(on application of Miller) v Secretary of State of Exiting the European Union). There were three kinds of right created under the 1972 Act; rights the EU had created and could be incorporated into UK law (such as the 48 hour working week and the right to cheap data roaming), rights enjoyed by citizens of other EU member states in the UK (the right to work) and rights enjoyed by UK citizens in other EU member states (the right live in other EU states).

The big issue was whether the loss of rights conferred by the 1972 Act could not sanctioned by the Government acting without parliamentary authority.  The Court noted that the lawyers for the Secretary of State had effectively conceded that some rights would be lost were this to happen (para 63). Therefore, the question was who should make the decision. In deciding this, the High Court noted that since the English Civil War in the seventeenth century the basic proposition was that the Crown (the executive branch of government) could not override parliament.

It is noteworthy that when the courts have previously reined-in abuse of ministerial power they have pointed out that one of the founding principles of Britain’s unwritten constitution was parliament’s supremacy over the executive.  The Secretary of State’s lawyers relied heavily on an earlier court ruling at the time of Maastricht Treaty in the early 1990s which held that ratifying a new treaty was within the government’s prerogative powers. But this was a different question all together as Paragraph 94 of the judgment made clear, as the government’s actions on an “international plane” (i.e. activating Article 50) would remove rights granted via a domestic statute (the 1972 Act): therefore they needed the approval of parliament.

What this means is difficult to say at this point, although the Government’s strategy – and possibly its timetable for leaving the EU – have been dealt a significant blow. Whilst there are potentially points of law to appeal in the judgment, it is difficult to see some of the core conclusions reached by the High Court being overturned by the Supreme Court as they follow a century of established case law on the subject.

The real danger for the Government is that it will be very difficult to get their version of Brexit in a statute through both the House of Commons and the Lords, as Jolyon Maugham QC explains here. This is why political commentators are speculating heavily on the possibility of an election next year which would give the government the political mandate, and the Commons majority to push exit legislation through the House of Commons. Although the status of the June 23rd referendum was only advisory, were a Government to be elected in a General Election on a pro-Brexit manifesto there would be no way of stopping that in parliament.

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