The Prospect editorial: Balances and checkmates

The government now has power to swipe away inconvenient safeguards. Vigilance is required
January 30, 2020

Over three extraordinary years in the governance of Britain, the unthinkable has repeatedly become fact. Time-honoured understandings went out the window, conventions were trampled on, and it often felt as if the fundamentals of the constitution were being remade. MPs would never seize control of the parliamentary timetable from ministers, until they did. A modern speaker would never prevent a government from staging a vote it hoped to win, until John Bercow did. Of course, it was inconceivable for a 21st-century prime minister to shut parliament down at a critical moment, until Boris Johnson pulled that trick. And it was unimaginable for Britain’s proudly apolitical judges to march into the heart of an almighty power struggle, until the moment they struck down that prime ministerial decision as “unlawful, void and of no effect.”

As each arm of the state provoked others to do things they’d not done before, it was easy to imagine the underlying power balance was shifting radically. Easy, but wrong. Beneath the frenzy, a Newtonian equilibrium was maintained: every breathtaking action ran into an equal and opposite reaction. A cold new light dawned after Johnson got the election result he craved before Christmas. What is now apparent is not how much, but rather how little, has changed about our constitution. The basic ground-rule is still that a British government in possession of a serious majority can do as it pleases.

The most immediate effect is that Brexit is happening, and on the prime minister’s terms. We will live with the consequences for trade, diplomacy and Britain’s place in the world. But just as important, if not quite as obvious, is the potential power the new government now has to swipe away all of those pesky checks and balances which have created the drama. There can be little doubt that the appetite for untrammelled power is there. Johnson, after all, purged his own party with unprecedented brutality in September, withdrawing the whip from some of its biggest beasts; and, while the election was raging, No 10 issued barely coded threats against both the BBC and Channel 4. (The colliding worldviews of politicians and broadcasters is evident in this issue, where Theresa May’s former press chief, Robbie Gibb, draws swords with former BBC man, Roger Mosey, on the utility of fact-checking.) Meanwhile, Johnson’s top aide, Dominic Cummings, is openly agitating for a fight with the impartial civil service (see Jill Rutter). Backbench MPs would be well-advised to watch like hawks for any cunning plans to alter how parliament works.

But the countervailing power in the land that has the most to fear is, perhaps inevitably, the one that so recently and abjectly humiliated the PM—namely the judges. Drawing on conversations with several of our most senior jurists, Alex Dean and I review the slow march of Britain’s judges to a more political place in the constitution, and highlight how exposed they suddenly look, with incremental politicisation of the appointments process being only one of several dangers. Whatever fate may have in store for them, David Allen Green dares to hope that posterity will eventually thank them for having used the Brexit crisis to reaffirm the principle that—when push comes to shove—it is parliament as a whole, and not just the ministers in it, that is in charge. Even if that is right, this distinction will not make itself felt until things get more competitive in the Commons. Steve Richards argues that the first precondition for that is Labour picking a leader with a talent for teaching.

Wherever the opposition gets to this spring, Prospect will keep an unflinching eye on the big problems, which have no respect for the borders of individual parties—or even countries. Anne Case and Angus Deaton, one of two Nobel Prize-winning economists in this issue (see also Paul Krugman), warn that capitalism has killed many Americans and may be starting to kill vulnerable Britons too. And yet a maddeningly narrow debate about inequality misses the real damage being done, because it is so bewitched by a single and frequently misleading statistic—the Gini coefficient. Krugman, meanwhile, becomes the latest big brain to name climate change as the pre-eminent problem facing humanity. Andrew Dickson dives into the world of architecture, and finds flickers of hope that an industry that’s done more than most to contribute to the crisis could begin to solve it. It might sound unthinkable, but as we Britons now understand, that’s no bar to it coming to pass.