The former Supreme Court judge says we are in a situation with no constitutional precedentby Alex Dean / September 10, 2019 / Leave a comment
Britain is in the middle of a political and constitutional crisis. Brexit is upending our system of governance. Boris Johnson has shut down parliament for five weeks to evade scrutiny, triggering legal challenges, and this is only the most egregious example. Convention has been discarded in the new constitutional arms race.
How did we get here? And what is the remedy? Jonathan Sumption, the former Supreme Court justice, has some firm opinions. Sometimes described as the “cleverest man in Britain,” he earned a formidable reputation—and handsome sums—as a barrister and in 2012 received an unprecedented promotion to the Supreme Court straight from the bar. He served full-time until 2018, and this year delivered the BBC Reith Lectures on the sometimes conflicting roles of parliament and the courts, now published in edited form as Trials of the State.
His opinions have sometimes drawn the ire of liberal commentators. Although he voted remain in the Brexit referendum, he is sceptical about the European Convention on Human Rights, and the encroachment of legal rights on our democratic system. But few dispute his intellectual heft. In his spare time, he has written four volumes on the Hundred Years’ War.
Speaking down the line from France, Sumption discussed the dangerous constitutional territory we find ourselves in. What did he make of the prime minister’s tactics?
Boris Johnson “is putting forward ideas which are essentially those of a fanatic,” Sumption said, requiring surprisingly little encouragement. “Whether he is a fanatic himself is a matter on which there has been much speculation. I have no more knowledge of that than the rest of the public. But he has certainly got plenty of fanatics around him. We are getting statements from Downing Street like ‘We intend to sabotage this extension,’ and such like. If Al Capone had been in the habit of issuing press statements, they would have looked something like that.” Sumption is a considered man, which made his damning assessment more alarming.
The prorogation of parliament means that “the government is claiming to use the immense powers derived from the royal prerogative, powers which are only tolerable in a modern democracy because ministers are answerable for their use to parliament. Yet over a critical five week period in our history, they wish to be answerable for their use to no one.” This is…