The obscenity of the prime minister’s behaviour neither begins nor ends in the lawby Jonathan Lis / September 20, 2019 / Leave a comment
The Supreme Court has this week provided the scene for constitutional drama not witnessed in over 300 years. A former Conservative prime minister has, in the nation’s highest court, accused the current Conservative prime minister of lying and behaving unlawfully. Judges have heard the numerous ways in which our convention-based constitution could succumb to tyranny. Leading barristers have outlined the now fundamental conflict between the executive and parliament. This, in particular, looks set to be one of the great battles of our age.
The legal arguments have proven chilling. Submissions proposed that, if any prorogation is solely a matter of political judgment or prime ministerial discretion, the PM’s power is almost unlimited. He could prorogue just as parliament was legislating to stop prorogation. He could prorogue to prevent a vote of no-confidence. He could, astonishingly, prorogue prior to renewal of legislation on the Army, thus effectively disbanding it. It is wholly extraordinary that we might have operated for so many decades with so few safeguards.
And yet the legal focus has also been a distraction. The justiciability and lawfulness of parliament’s prorogation is incredibly important—yet it is not the most important element. Even if the judges determine they can make a legal ruling on Boris Johnson’s actions and find them to be lawful, those actions remain neither politically nor morally acceptable. The judicial wrangling this week has not merely illuminated the potential deficiencies and loopholes in our constitution, but in our entire democratic culture.
In the short term, we find the acme of this problem in Johnson’s next decisions. The government has not committed to reinstate the parliamentary session early if the court rules against it. Astonishingly, it has not even pledged not to prorogue parliament once again, on the basis that the court cannot judge something unlawful before it has actually happened. This crisis could quickly and easily become more acute.
In the long term we must confront still greater dangers. Our constitution is, put simply, not worth the paper it is not even written on.
We now live in the age of charlatans. We can no longer depend on the people ruling us to do so with any good faith. We cannot trust them to defend our rules, norms or rights. It is not so much that the government will not protect democracy, it is that democracy must be…