The United Kingdom is in the midst of a deep political crisis. It all began when in 2016 the British people narrowly voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. This has led to the term ‘Brexit’ being such a significant word in contemporary political lexicon. The unwritten Constitution of the UK operates on a system based on understanding among its ruling political class. This is a group that supposedly comprises rational minds. An analyst, Lord Peter Hennessy, has called it ‘best chaps model’ (the closest American equivalence of ‘best chaps’ is ‘good guys, but a tad classier!).The theory is that they would bring to bear a combination of honesty, dedication, commitment, good will and self-restraint, delivering a quality of governance superior to most other polities. This is called ‘the rule of Law’, conceptually in vogue since the age of the classical Greek philosopher Aristotle, but given clear articulation in the modern context by the British jurist, Albert Dicey, in the nineteenth century.
In his tome “The English Constitution’, Walter Bagehot, perhaps the most renowned Editor of the Economist, writing in 1867, gave this process a most interesting explanation. To him this unwritten Constitution had two parts; a ‘dignified part’ meant ‘to excite and preserve the reverence of the populations’ (such as the Monarchy, the House of Lords et al), and the ‘efficient part’, which comprised elements ‘by which (the government) in fact, works and rules’. Not for him the ‘separation of powers’ of the Frenchman Montesquieu- he described it as ‘erroneous’- whose theory influenced the crafting of the American Constitution, for better or for worse! Bagehot had no patience for the views of the masses, who, to him were ‘narrow-minded, unintelligent and incurious’. Indeed, he expressed great apprehensions about their future political influence: “I am exceedingly afraid of the ignorant multitude of the new constituencies”, he worried. He would have perhaps viewed the 2016 referendum as his worst fears coming home to roost!
While this unwritten Constitution has worked well enough to date, its efficacy in the face of today’s dichotomized British nation could perhaps be called into question. The British today are divided between those who want to leave, or exit, the European Union -the “Brexiters’, and those who do not -the ‘remainers’. The Referendum, in which the Brexiters scored a narrow win, left the Parliament to work out the details of the ‘divorce’. Therein lay the rub. Despite the best efforts of former Prime Minister Theresa May, no consensus could be forged in the Commons on a deal she had reached with the European Union. Consequently, she quit, and the ruling Conservatives (Tories) selected Boris Johnson to be her successor.
Johnson had nailed his colours to the mast of Brexit. Changing his predecessor’s tact, he chose a cabinet which rather than being inclusive comprised exclusively of Brexiters. He announced that by the given date, 31st October , the UK would leave the EU , “do or die” , even without a deal. This, unless the EU renegotiated the earlier agreement with May, including the clauses on the “Irish Backstop”, which would keep the intra-Irish borders soft and open, thereby in effect leaving the UK in a Customs Union with Britain even after Brexit (the Republic of Ireland is a member of the EU, whereas the Northern Ireland is a part of the UK).
Where the ‘good chap model’ collapses is that by his determination to have his way, Johnson appears to be riding roughshod over any and every impediment that reflects a position diverse from him. He has now prorogued the Parliament for a period much longer than usual, leaving very little time to the opposition to debate the ‘divorce’. The wargaming of the Labour Opposition led by Jeremy Corbyn appears to have two options. One is passing a ‘no-confidence’ motion against Johnson, whose majority is so slim that he may be vulnerable if there are some Tory defections which is likely as many of them oppose a ‘no-deal-Brexit’. The other is to pass a law seeking extension of negotiating time with the EU.
The first may not work as Tory members supporting a ‘no-confidence’ against Johnson, may not accept Jeremy Corbyn, with his pronounced far- left views, as the Caretaker Prime Minister (also, Johnson and Tory Whips might come down heavily on any rebels). In that case, Johnson may by default continue to be Prime Minister, even though in a Caretaking capacity, till 31st October, long enough for him to have his way. The attempt to pass a law seeking extension beyond 31st October, even if adopted in the Commons, would be likely to counter a kind of filibuster at the Lords, till the drawing of stumps, or the prorogation. In the House of Lords, ‘cross-bench opposition’ would have a champion in Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, an erudite orator, who chairs a group called ‘Best for Britain’, something of an all-party movement with burgeoning popularity. But, sadly for them, time might not be on their side. In any case, an EU consent to renegotiate would also be key. Johnson gambles that the inevitability of a ‘no-deal Brexit’ position of the UK, might pressurize the EU, who also will have much to lose thereby, into negotiation. On the other hand, the EU, also exasperated by the idiosyncrasies of British politics, might conclude ‘enough is enough’, and decide to ‘relax and enjoy’ the consequences of a hard no-deal Brexit.
So the month ahead will be crucial, not just for Britain’s future but also for the fate of the concept of the ‘Unwritten Constitutions’, which still has champions to swear by it. Many questions with regard to the continued survival of the union of the UK might also arise. How would a ‘hard no deal Brexit’ impact on the union with Britain of Scotland which voted against Brexit? Or how would Irish politics react to a quick elimination of ‘backstop’ provisions which would run counter to the Good Friday Agreement that had ended the Irish ‘Troubles’? Or how would the public in England itself view the cost of Brexit, literally reflected in price-points of essential commodities? We do not know many of the answers as yet. But, nevertheless, it is perhaps a fact that the legion admirers of the Westminster system of democracy, that has captured the imagination of many millions through ages, still fervently hope that the British could still perform , what they have always been good at , that remarkable art of ‘muddling through’!