Our political and constitutional order is ripe for a reckoningby Tom Clark / March 7, 2019 / Leave a comment
Barrels of ink have been spilled on what Brexit could mean for the UK economy, and Britain’s place in the world. Less thought, however, has been given to the equally profound way in which it is already transforming the way we conduct our politics at home. By that I don’t mean the well-trodden ground about whether the latest delay has bought Theresa May another fortnight, or the latest obfuscation done Jeremy Corbyn more harm than good. What I mean instead is the way in which the institutions that define the terms of political trade, and hold the ring on public life, are being strained and potentially reshaped by an extraordinary and multi-layered crisis.
Unravelling half a century of diplomatic, commercial and regulatory policy in a couple of years was always going to be traumatic, particularly when most parliamentarians and officials believe the unravelling is bad for the country, and so it has proved to be. The conventional ground-rules for running the country are having to be rewritten. To take just one example, in a world where senior ministers can write newspaper columns spelling out to the prime minister the circumstances in which they would resign, the extremely unusual and supposedly tightly time-limited suspension of cabinet collective responsibility for the duration of the referendum campaign is becoming the new normal.
Not all changes to the “way things have always been done” are necessarily bad. In an age where a premium is placed on authenticity, having politicians talking candidly about the compromises and concessions they have had to make is a smarter way to restore trust than requiring them to mouth “lines to take.” But liberal democracy rests upon norms, including the rule of law and the possibility of a “loyal opposition,” which can fiercely and radically contest every government policy, but accepts the over-arching rules about who gets to be the government and how the law gets made, because it has faith that this framework will give it a fair chance to dislodge the government in due course. And these norms require institutions to uphold them, including independent courts, an impartially refereed legislature, a non-partisan civil service and journalism with at least some capacity for impartial reporting.
None of these institutions will ever quite live up to the neutral ideal—they’re staffed by people, after all,…