The chat in Westminster is all about crisis, yet the mood is strangely frivolous. As the final hours ticked down to the supposedly sacred date of Brexit it was postponed, not with a bang but a whimper. Things that had, only a matter of days ago, been held up as of fundamental and solemn importance were casually shoved out of mind. (Can you recall the gist of the attorney general’s supposedly fateful advice on the backstop? Don’t worry, nor can anyone else.) Boris Johnson, who had started the last week in March with the Biblical cry of “Let my people go” got wind that there was a vacancy for Pharaoh coming up, and had second thoughts about leading an exodus into the political desert.
It might seem futile and hopelessly earnest to distil any meaningful lessons from this fast-moving pantomime, and yet one has to try. Most immediately, the health of our economy is at stake, and so too is the world’s trust in Britain. The UK’s standing as a country that others can do diplomatic business with could be trashed if our shambling institutions fail to pull us back from the cliff-edge Brexit that virtually everybody says they want to avoid. But it’s important, too, to reflect on what the UK’s chaotic public life since the referendum has revealed about the way we are run, which is what I dig into here.
David Cameron was a nonchalant sort, disinclined to plan for defeat, and there was nothing in our political ground-rules to jolt him out of that complacency. As a result, the referendum left huge unanswered questions about what would happen next. The best way to answer these in a country split down the middle would have been through open discussion and deliberation. But the British constitution left the government with a free hand to narrow down the debate in parliament, at least until we were into injury time.
Time and again through the Brexit process our system has responded to pressure by attempting to busk its way through. At moments, we have seen dedicated parliamentarians—Dominic Grieve, Yvette Cooper and arguably speaker John Bercow—innovate in ways that justify the faith and the fondness Adam Tomkins still has for our elastic constitution. But other improvised responses to the crisis, especially from No 10, have worked against the accountability and the individual rights on which everyone ought to agree. Sparring with Tomkins, Sionaidh Douglas-Scott insists it is high time to enshrine these ideals in a new codified constitution.
Some may imagine that, once the emergency passes, the constitutional cauldron can be safely shunted to the backburner, where it normally sits in Britain. But I doubt that will be possible because of the way that the old parties, which used to lend the system some stability, are coming unstuck. Elsewhere in the magazine, there is plenty of evidence of that. Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, has denied that his “Future Britain” group is the embryo of a new party, but in talking to Kevin Maguire, he will not rule out serving in a government of national unity. Meanwhile, Mark Wallace provides a dispatch from inside the Tory tribe, and discerns signs of the same tension between the voluntary and parliamentary parties that has been dogging the opposition for years.
Many readers will by now, like many of the players directly involved, be wearying of this frenzy. So this issue offers one refuge in history, with Simon Jenkins’s 2,000-year long view of the eight previous times we have quit the continent before being drawn back in, and another on the other side of the world, in New Zealand. Max Rashbrooke reports on the government of Jacinda Ardern, which was recently thrust into the global spotlight by a terrorist attack but at home has been striving—with, he says, some success—to turn kindness into a governing ethos.
Looking round the planet will need to become a habit if we’re to fashion a new constitution fit for our times. Britain will need to beg, borrow and steal from rules and arrangements that work well elsewhere, a few of which we set out. No country gets everything right, and nor does the UK get everything wrong. But, for my money at least, any illusions that we could rely on our venerable quirks—Magna Carta, royal prerogatives, hereditary peers—to guide us towards tranquillity has been dispelled by the last few months. An overdue conversation about rationalising the way the country is run has become urgent, and I hope Prospect can help to kick that off. It will take much debate and some time to forge a consensus about a new framework, so we won’t be shy about returning to these themes in our pages and our events. Let’s not let this great crisis go to waste, but instead reorder our governance so that Britain is in better shape to deal with whatever hits it next.