Press "Enter" to skip to content

Britain’s Unwritten Constitution Suddenly Looks Fragile

LONDON — Britain has never had a proper, written constitution, a matter of some pride to Britons. While Americans haggle over their rules, British politics runs on an evolving array of laws and practices, refereed by the so-called good chaps in government, with their impeccable sense of fair play.

But popular faith in that approach was severely shaken this past week when Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided unilaterally to suspend Parliament at the height of a political crisis set off by his determination to achieve Brexit by an Oct. 31 deadline, with or without a deal with the European Union.

And that first shock was followed by a second, perhaps even more startling realization: Once someone starts kicking aside the conventions and customs that shape British democracy, there are surprisingly few hard and fast checks on executive authority.

[Throngs took to he streets to protest Boris Johnson’s move.]

Despite the howls of outrage from Mr. Johnson’s opponents, historians and legal experts say Britain’s entire political class has to shoulder the blame, having taken a series of steps in recent decades that opened the door to these sorts of disruptive tactics.

“We’ve always felt like we don’t need those legal safeguards,” said Professor Meg Russell, the director of the Constitution Unit at University College London. “We don’t need judges to tell our politicians what to do because we’re one of the most mature democracies in the world. We are stable. We do politics well. But I think we’ve probably become complacent.”

ImageCreditTom Jamieson for The New York Times

Whether that complacency has become dangerous could be demonstrated in the coming weeks. Mr. Johnson could conceivably upset a litany of constitutional norms by ordering the queen to veto anti-Brexit laws, refusing to resign if Parliament ousts him or inventing new national holidays to make sure lawmakers cannot sit.

All of those previously unthinkable maneuvers are on the minds of the parliamentary mavens and political operatives working for Mr. Johnson, according to British news media reports, and each could plunge the country deeper into crisis, turning the fight over Brexit into a struggle over the future of Britain’s parliamentary democracy itself.

“He’s kind of testing the system to destruction,” Professor Russell said of Mr. Johnson. “Our constitution basically depends on very British sentiments of decency and fair play, and it assumes people who reach high office will respect conventions, precedents and unwritten rules. If you get a person in office who wants to tear all those up, you find the system is fragile.”

Parliament will not be entirely shut out of the tussle over Brexit. It will return briefly from summer recess in a few days before being sent home again by Mr. Johnson. It still has the power to stop a no-deal Brexit, either through legislation or, as a last resort, a vote of no confidence in the government, which could lead to a caretaker government and a general election.

Or not. It is only by custom that prime ministers resign after a vote of no confidence. There is no law requiring them to, and Mr. Johnson’s camp has suggested he might not.

Opposition lawmakers argue that Mr. Johnson’s strategy is tempting a disastrous and unpopular no-deal Brexit that could tear apart the United Kingdom, cripple some British industries and throw the economy into a recession, while setting off shortages of food and medicines.

ImageCreditMarkus Schreiber/Associated Press

Mr. Johnson, whose allies have dismissed such dire prophecies as “Project Fear,” tried to undercut rival lawmakers by asking the queen to suspend Parliament for five weeks, a sharp break with the traditional period of several days.

That unleashed a cacophony of criticism, laments for the fate of British democracy and, in some quarters, praise. But none of that could stop Mr. Johnson.

“There are very few formal constraints on politicians willing to ride roughshod over those conventions, except the reluctance of other members of Parliament to accept that,” said Robert Saunders, a historian at Queen Mary University of London. “This can only be stopped politically.”

The role of the courts in these matters will be tested in the coming weeks, with judges forced to adjudicate on matters they have never seen. An immediate challenge to the prime minister’s action has been filed in Scotland, where the judge declined to issue a temporary injunction but scheduled a hearing for Tuesday. A former Conservative prime minister, John Major, joined a prominent businesswoman and opposition leaders in another legal challenge that is expected to be heard later in the week.

But the court proceedings may be a sideshow to the main event of the week, when Parliament reconvenes and the opposition tries to rein in the combative new prime minister.

Without a directly elected president, the British system depends on Parliament for democratic legitimacy, entrusting the 650-member body to choose a government based on whichever party commands a majority or, as is currently the case, a majority coalition.

ImageCreditTom Jamieson for The New York Times

Not only does Mr. Johnson head a minority government, but he himself has never faced an election as Conservative leader. He was lifted into Downing Street by the roughly 90,000 dues-paying Conservative Party members who chose him to succeed Theresa May. Without strong support in Parliament, he has tried to draw his mandate instead from the referendum in 2016, when Britons voted 52 percent to 48 percent for Brexit.

And now Mr. Johnson has turned the screws on Parliament, giving it almost no time to mount a challenge. It could amount to a clash that the constitution may not be able to adjudicate.

“That’s a fundamental breach of the most basic principles of the constitution,” Dr. Saunders said of suspending Parliament, adding that making such a move a permanent tool of Downing Street could quickly turn disastrous.

“It’s trading short-term gain for significant long-term damage,” he said. “They might win this battle, but it sets precedents that future governments less to Boris’s taste will also follow.”

Scholars said they worried not only about the encouragement Mr. Johnson received from President Trump on Twitter after suspending Parliament, but also about how an antidemocratic move in the “mother of Parliaments,” as Britain’s body is known, might embolden right-wing leaders around the world.

“What message does that send to Matteo Salvini, to Viktor Orban?” Professor Russell said, referring to populist politicians in Italy and Hungary. “What message does it send to Donald Trump? This is really serious.”

ImageCreditAndrew Testa for The New York Times

But the risks to Britain’s unwritten constitution are not entirely Mr. Johnson’s doing. Scholars say it has been whittled away in recent decades by attacks on Britain’s parliamentary system and a series of blithe changes by a political class so enamored of its own reputation for smooth governing that it forgot what constitutional instability looked like.

In the name of democratization, the major political parties began giving more power to dues-paying activists for responsibilities like picking the party leader. That, Dr. Saunders said, has left both the Labour and Conservative leaders answering as much to each party’s base as to lawmakers, undermining Parliament’s authority.

“They treated their parties as if they were inward-facing organizations, like the local golf club, in which members elect a president and set the rules,” Dr. Saunders said. “But parties aren’t inward-facing organizations. They aspire to the government of the country.”

Still, some analysts say there are ways for a restive Parliament to regain control — namely by voting out Mr. Johnson’s government — if only it stopped dithering.

“The government governs,” said Vernon Bogdanor, a professor at King’s College London. “If Parliament doesn’t like it, it should get another one, which it can do at any time.”

Civil servants, the nonpartisan aides who help make the government run, may also find themselves pulled between their obligation to the constitution and their service to Mr. Johnson. A former head of the civil service warned that it should consider “putting its stewardship of the country” first.

Perhaps the biggest question is how Britons will react. People have been largely sanguine about leaving the European Union without a deal, but with the constitution on the line, some analysts wonder if Britons will be as forgiving of Mr. Johnson’s actions.

“We’re about to find out,” Dr. Saunders said. “Whether it will have that energizing effect on the wider population, we don’t know yet. But it’s going to be a powerful part of the success or failure of his strategy.”


Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.