Library Talks: “A lot of things we took for granted about our institutions are not in fact set in stone”

Posted On: 
11th September 2019

With constitutional questions abounding, we asked the Commons Library expert, Graeme Cowie, about what it’s like being the brain behind the briefings Westminster relies on. 

“There’s an interest in what happens here that there simply hasn’t been in previous Parliaments.”
Isabel Infantes/PA Wire/PA Images

Can you tell us a little bit about your role?

I am a constitutional law researcher in the House of Commons Library, a research and information service based in the UK Parliament. We publish impartial briefings on parliamentary business and topical issues to inform MPs and the wider public. MPs and their staff can also come to us confidentially for explanations about a wide range of subjects in connection with their Parliamentary duties. My subject area covers various aspects of the constitution, courts reform, the role of law officers and, for the last 18 months or so at least, all manner of things to do with Brexit and Parliament’s role in that process.


How has the day to day of your role changed in the last session?

I was actually recruited in January 2018, so I haven’t a previous session with which to compare this one! I think there are two notable ways in which the job has developed in my time here though.

Firstly, Library researchers involved in Brexit now work on a day-to-day basis much more closely with the wider House service (especially in the committees). Information sharing has been key to doing our jobs well. The other aspect has been a greater desire to explain the process (and Parliament’s role in it) to the wider public. There’s an interest in what happens here that there simply hasn’t been in previous Parliaments.


What briefing did you find the most interesting to write this session?

The “Prorogation of Parliament” briefing paper. There had been surprisingly little written in the public domain about prorogation, because it had been such an uncontroversial formality for so much of our history. But I had a sense a few months ago that people were going to start asking questions about it. I was slightly taken aback when the paper was referred to in court cases in Scotland and England in the last couple of weeks, but it’s good to know the Library is valued and trusted as a resource in these uncertain times.


What bill was the most complicated to explain? Do enjoy the complicated bills more?

It might surprise you to find that this one had nothing to do with Brexit! Last year the Government brought in the Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill. I have a background in the Scots law, but I’m less familiar with the English and Welsh courts system. I treated that bill as a learning experience: “becoming the expert” in a new area by learning from other people. I have now forgotten more than I ever thought I’d know about which courts certain judges can sit in and what responsibilities judges can delegate to other people! Courts reform is a really pernickety subject but you can get lost down some really geeky rabbit holes along the way.


What is the most common question you’ve been asked about Brexit and/or the Constitution?

That’s a difficult one to answer because we are of course a confidential enquiries service! The kind of questions we get fluctuates depending on the political context: about a year ago everyone wanted to know about Parliament’s “meaningful vote” in approving a deal, everyone wanted to know about extension of Article 50 in March, potential early elections was a big thing just before the summer break and in the last two weeks or so, prorogation has been front and centre.


Do you think Brexit has fundamentally changed our approach to the Constitution?

Brexit has engaged so many aspects of our constitutional arrangements that it’s hard to keep track. I think it’s shown that a lot of things we took for granted about our institutions and the relationships between them are not in fact set in stone. It’s really important in that environment that the fundamentals of our constitution – Parliamentary sovereignty, the rule of law, democracy, devolution and constitutional conventions – are properly understood and protected. If the Library can do its bit on the understanding side of things, hopefully the protection will follow!


Graeme Cowie is a senior Library Clerk at the House of Commons Library specialising in Brexit and the constitution