The British have assumed our democratic traditions would restrain brute prime ministerial power. That complacency could now be tested like never beforeby Tom Clark / December 12, 2019 / Leave a comment
As the electoral college votes for Donald Trump began to clock up back in 2016, David Remnick of the New Yorker set down to tap out a howl of anguish on behalf of his liberal compatriots, pronouncing “a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution.” After three years of race-baiting, bench-packing and journalist-bullying, it is not hard to understand why.
And yet, within a very few months of his election, Trump was finding he could not do just as he pleased—the “Muslim ban” was soon grinding through the courts and being rewritten; funds to build the infamous border wall could not be summoned by whim; and, the clock was ticking down to an election which would see Trump’s opponents take charge of the House of Representatives, from where they have now set about impeaching him.
Boris Johnson may not quite be Donald Trump, but nor is the formless British constitution something which can endure a “tragedy” as easily as its codified American cousin. The traditional reading of the British constitution is summed up in the phrase “the Crown in parliament is law,” which means that a government with a chunky majority, a pliant party and few scruples can do whatever it pleases.
We have already seen enough of Johnson during his 141 days in No 10 to know that scruples are unlikely to be an obstacle to him playing fast and loose with the ground rules of our politics. Even though he had no majority, he was uninhibited, and instead moved to shut parliament down. As Rafael Behr has just written for us, he “rummaged around in the dressing-up box of the British constitution, plucked out the ceremonial sword of prorogation and used it for partisan aggression.” The Supreme Court unanimously ruled it unlawful and parliament was recalled, but he just shrugged and argued that the judges had got it wrong. The American social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, was visiting Prospect at the height of the saga, and confessed to being amazed—he thought the US had it bad, he said to me, but “the closing down parliament bit, Trump couldn’t do that.”
Nor is there any longer much of a check on Johnson likely to come from party; his stunning purge of the moderates—such as Ken Clarke, Rory…