And to think that the UK constitution was once admired the world overby Paul Wallace / August 29, 2019 / Leave a comment
Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend parliament for over a month in the middle of the worst crisis Britain has faced since the second world war was met with plaudits among hardline Tory Brexiters, but brickbats from opposition figures. Within the Conservative Party, former PM John Major said that he had “no doubt that the prime minister’s motive in seeking prorogation is to bypass a sovereign parliament that opposes his policy on Brexit.” John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, described the move as a “constitutional outrage.”
More than ever, the rolling Brexit crisis is laying bare the inadequacies of the British constitution. In a recent column, Chris Patten asked whether Britain was becoming a failed state and concluded that the country’s institutions and constitution were indeed at risk. This was an extraordinary diagnosis from a former chairman of the Conservative Party. Now, after the move to suspend parliament for up to five weeks, it is apparent that if anything Patten understated the gravity of the crisis. Johnson’s readiness to trample shamelessly over parliamentary democracy is turning Britain into a prorogue state.
Hard though it might now seem to believe, the famously unwritten British constitution was once revered as a model for political governance. Its virtues were real even though (or arguably because) there was no underpinning legal document such as America’s constitution or Germany’s basic law. The lack of a formal written constitution made for flexibility, creating an ability for Britain’s governing arrangements to evolve both through precedent and statute. Combined with a first-past-the-post electoral system, anchored by strong and healthy parties, which generally delivered majorities in the House of Commons, the framework supported strong and effective government subject to parliamentary scrutiny.
But those virtues rested implicitly upon ministers abiding by conventions. Prorogation has been for example what the House of Commons Library describes as a “formality in the UK for more than a century.” The power to suspend parliament, nominally that of the Crown but in reality that of the prime minister, has long been used typically for a brief period every year. It is a means of clearing the decks for a new session of parliament, introduced by a Queen’s speech setting out the government’s agenda over the coming 12 months or so. Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons, claimed today that the prime minister’s use of prorogation conforms with that precedent, describing the procedure as “a completely…