Government by ‘Good Chaps’ unlikely to survive much longer
Britain’s unwritten constitution badly exposed by cultural civil war
Boris Johnson on a visit to a farm near Aberdeen on Friday: Brexit and the prime minister’s coming to power have pushed the British constitution to its limits. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/Getty Images
Viewed from Ireland, perhaps from most places, it seems careless at best to have a constitution and neglect to write it down somewhere. Yet Britain has clung to its uncodified constitution – a ramshackle collection of laws, documents, traditions and conventions dating back to Magna Carta – not merely as a source of pride but as one of the chief components of British identity.
But just as the very idea of a British identity has steadily fallen away, so too should faith in the invisible constitution that has held the multinational state together.
That faith was grounded in the constitution’s claim to marry stability and flexibility. Its slowly accreted doctrines provided a solid foundation, while the absence of a single, unchanging text meant the institutions could more easily adapt to a changing world.
Whereas Bunreacht na hÉireann belonged in a very real sense to the people, who alone could change it, its British equivalent was under the control of politicians
But Brexit has exposed the limits of those assumptions. Where once it looked robust, now the unwritten constitution seems threadbare. Where once it promoted unity, now it amplifies division. And where once it was assumed to hold the union together, now it threatens to bring it down.
The British constitutional order was fraying before the 2016 referendum. Underpinning it has always been what the historian Peter Hennessy called the “Good Chap” theory of government.
The bargain went like this: the ruling class intuitively understood where the boundaries of proper constitutional behaviour lay and agreed to remain within them, while the public tacitly agreed to defer to that ruling class in coming to those judgments. (Whereas Bunreacht na hÉireann belonged in a very real sense to the people, who alone could change it, its British equivalent was under the control of politicians.)
But as the two-party duopoly has given way to a more fragmented political system less tightly bound by old codes of behaviour, and as the public has grown steadily more hostile towards the political elite, that bargain has been gradually undermined.
The real test of a constitution is how it deals with shocks. The most obvious fear, particularly in a system that relies on government by Good Chaps, is the coming to power of a despot
Now two things – Brexit and Boris Johnson’s coming to power – have pushed the constitution to its limits. Because, unlike Ireland (Bunreacht na hÉireann is having a good Brexit, isn’t it?), the UK does not have codified laws and procedures for referendums, the government of the day was able to call one on such a vital question as EU membership without any preparation or even much serious thought (the idea is reported to have come to David Cameron over a burger in an airport departure lounge).
A campaign driven by English nationalism delivered a result that was open to multiple interpretations. MPs were opposed to that result and could not agree on how to implement it. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain in the EU, but despite two decades of (admittedly fudgy) constitutional changes that had conceded to both the right to decide over issues that concerned them, they were now told that their Remain votes did not matter one bit.
Back in London, meanwhile, a hung parliament – a regular, low-drama occurrence in most European countries – was causing chaos, throwing up questions about the balance of power between the executive and parliament, questions on which the constitution was characteristically silent.
All of this raised difficult questions about the UK’s constitutional architecture. But recent weeks have left its limitations badly exposed. Johnson’s decision to suspend the parliament in order to act in a way that he knew a majority of the house opposed showed the dangers of a system that gives such wide-ranging discretionary powers to the executive.
Now, thanks to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, Labour’s temporary tactical rejection of a general election has left the country with a zombie government, in office but out of power.
The real test of a constitution is how it deals with shocks. The most obvious fear, particularly in a system that relies on government by Good Chaps, is the coming to power of a despot. The British constitution is struggling to contain even Boris Johnson.
Britain will muddle through the current debacle, as it has for three years. But, in the long-term, it’s difficult to see how major constitutional reform can be avoided. Trying to draft a constitution – which is, after all, a declaration of common values – will not be easy in an era as fraught as this, with Britain in the grip of a cultural civil war.
But the rise of English nationalism, the increasing likelihood of Scottish secession (another topic on which the constitution is silent), the possibility of Irish reunification and the continuing fragmentation of the political system will make it hard to duck the question for much longer.
“The British constitution has always been puzzling and always will be,” Queen Elizabeth was once overheard saying. She assumed it would live on in perpetuity. At this rate, don’t bet on it surviving another decade.