The vocabulary of British politics is oddly constant. All of human life is potentially up for debate, but over the centuries our politicians have tended to fall back on stock phrases. This is especially true when it comes to talking about the constitution. Some word-pairings are predictable – e.g. ‘constitutional reform’. Some are inevitable: ‘constitutional’ and ‘crisis’ meet in a hot clinch like the last horny drunks at a party. Yet what it means when these words hook up isn’t always obvious. Has Britain in 2019 been enduring one long ‘constitutional crisis’? Has it had several? What were they exactly? How serious have they been? And will there be another one any minute?
The new prominence of the constitution in political discourse seems to suggest that our system of government, even the rule of law, is in peril. However, one of the distinguishing features of an unwritten constitution is that it can be so easily overwritten: not just by fresh legislation but also by the meanings that are ascribed to it. This isn’t to imply that the constitution has no force or purchase, or that it doesn’t really exist. It is to point out that ‘the constitution’ has been and is a political and ideological (some might also say moral) construct as much as a legal one.
This isn’t such an easy distinction to uphold: political constructs, being frequently built on legislation, have legal effects, and vice versa. Still, I want to have a go. What I’m trying to say is that the constitution has been held to be in ‘crisis’ many times. In the Civil War; in 1688; in the 1790s, when the government was critiqued and plotted against by radicals inspired by the French Revolution, and responded by suspending habeas corpus; in the first three decades of the 19th century, as the Anglican state (predicated mainly on the exclusion of Catholics) was undermined and then overhauled; in 1832 and 1867 and 1884, when the franchise was progressively extended, in the face of varying degrees of opposition, to ever larger sections of the population; in the 1880s and 1890s, when the Liberals converted to the cause of Home Rule for Ireland, and tried to end the undivided authority of the imperial Parliament in Westminster; in 1910, when two elections were fought over the powers of the House of Lords; in 1914, when a Home Rule bill was passed; in 1918, when (some) women were given the vote; and in 1924, when the first Labour government took office.
In all these cases (there are many others), it was claimed that the British constitution was under threat, either from those who were seeking to reform it, or from those who, in seeking to defend and preserve it, would ossify and condemn it. The invocation of the constitution in the past, whatever the justice of each particular case, has usually been a sign that some significant political change is proposed, or is taking place. Indeed, it is possible to tell the story of British political history as a series of ‘constitutional crises’, when attempts were made to relegitimise the parliamentary system by promoting greater accountability and inclusiveness (bringing more people ‘within the pale of the constitution’, to use Gladstone’s telling phrase).[*] Most of these were successful; the struggle for Irish Home Rule was not, with lasting consequences. So, one mark of Britain’s relative political stability in the second half of the 20th century and beyond is the fact that for decades the constitution wasn’t much in the news.
Yet there has been, along the way, some ‘radical’ constitutional reform, including the removal of the vast majority of hereditary peers from the House of Lords, the coming into effect of the Good Friday Agreement and the establishment of devolved parliaments in Scotland and Wales (all in 1999), the setting up of a UK Supreme Court (2009) and the abolition of male primogeniture as applying to the royal succession (2015) – these in the main cheerfully accepted, when noticed at all. In the case of the Good Friday Agreement, the Scottish Parliament and the Supreme Court, the full significance of these constitutional innovations as constitutional innovations has become apparent only in recent years, or recent weeks (there seems to have been general surprise that the UK possesses a Supreme Court, and some healthy curiosity as to how it works). That is, their significance only became apparent when they came into collision with the hallowed authority of the Westminster Parliament: when the SNP took power in Edinburgh and determined to use it as a lever for breaking the Union; when the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement limited Britain’s Brexit options; and when the government’s decision to prorogue Parliament was taken to the courts.
It could be assumed, if you go by my previous criteria, that the Supreme Court’s decision to declare the prorogation illegal is a sign that politics is again on the move, that change is coming. (A very inexact parallel might be the non-guilty verdict returned for the seven bishops who had refused to read James II’s Declaration of Indulgence for Catholics and Protestant dissenters in 1687, a refutation of royal authority which paved the way for William of Orange’s invasion and the Glorious Revolution.) Yet I have become convinced that what is actually worrying about our present situation is not, as most people seem to think, a superfluity of politics (‘chaos’ and ‘madness’ are popular words these days), but its absence. If we are currently living through a ‘constitutional crisis’ it is a supremely legalistic, procedural one. It has so far involved multiple large-scale parliamentary defeats of a government no longer, as a result of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, obliged to resign; the announced prorogation of Parliament, and Parliament’s subsequent passage of legislation which members of the government suggested might be prevented from getting onto the statute book (in fact it wasn’t) and whose stipulations members of the government now suggest might be evaded or ignored; successive legal judgments on the prorogation by English, Scottish and Northern Irish courts, and most recently the verdict given by the Supreme Court. There is nothing insignificant about any of these matters: some of them are very serious indeed. But when our great popular complaint is that ‘Boris Johnson lied to the queen,’ it seems to me that what Brexit has done is evacuate politics from its proper place. For if politics is the art of the possible, Brexit as understood by Johnson, Farage and co. is a travesty of the possible. As a cultural project it may yet find a political vehicle (which could be Johnson’s Tory Party or Farage’s Brexit Party) but as a strictly political one it cannot be delivered in its pure form and cannot be agreed on: so it has created administrative, procedural, legal gridlock.
The gridlock – the grinding delay – has in turn focused our attention on those big, numinous choices: Remain or Leave. Politics has become a sterile negotiation between these fixed points. And political commentators look down on Westminster as at a chessboard. We keep an eye on the pawns; we consider the positions of the bishops and knights. (The Supreme Court verdict is a judgment on a manoeuvre; it is a marvellous chess move, but not a checkmate.) Meanwhile, the populace – both sides of it – seethes with frustration.
One of the most pernicious effects of the absence of politics is that it has produced an anti-politics movement. The first attempt to take advantage of this was the formation of the Independent Group, later known as Change UK, with their claim to represent the ‘centre ground’ or ‘common sense’, and their ambition to end ‘politics as usual’. As I wrote at the time (LRB, 7 March), all such claims, of ancient pedigree, are fundamentally and necessarily ideological and should be treated as such. I was hardly alone in predicting that the breakaway group wouldn’t last long, crammed as it was with nonentities, but my argument partly relied on holding up the example of the Liberal Democrats, then leagues behind in the polls, as a party that was already attempting to represent the ‘centre ground’ and failing conspicuously. Now, the Lib Dems, spurred on by a new leader, are the talk of the town (and have absorbed three of the Independent Group into their ranks). But my strictures still apply. The ‘centre ground’ does not exist: it is created. So is ‘common sense’. To ascribe non-political values to a political party, or to nod along with their appropriation by a political party, is to further Brexit’s deleterious effect on public life. It is not in itself a virtue to have a position on Brexit that some people share. It doesn’t make the Lib Dems uniquely sane beacons of responsibility that they identify themselves so definitely with Remain, not least because their policy – to revoke Article 50 in the impossible event they are returned with a majority, and otherwise to support another referendum – would have the same effect in practice as the Labour Party’s. No one is getting us anywhere. We are still trapped in the mould the referendum made for us.
What will break the mould, reactivating the blood flow of politics, is an election. And an election is coming. One thing I will make a wager on now: it will not be a ‘Brexit election’. Brexit is too amorphous a policy, too large and at the same time too small in its effects, to sustain four or five weeks of campaigning. This was apparent in the 2017 election, which many people now seem keen to dismiss as historically anomalous, for a host of reasons few foresaw even 24 hours before polling day. But the proof is also Johnson’s premiership so far, with its tight focus on domestic concerns: the NHS, policing, regional regeneration. Another lesson from 2017 is that when the Tories are forced to defend and/or advance their domestic agenda they are acutely vulnerable: because they no longer really have one; because the one they had – austerity – has been a disaster; and, new this year, because they are now in the strange position of advocating policies intended to restore services and standards they removed in the first place.
This means that Labour surely stands a very decent chance in any upcoming election. Corbyn and his party’s refusal to dig in on Brexit – their failure to produce a flag of allegiance to wave from behind their lines – has been greeted with indignation, and the rights and wrongs of that decision can be debated. It is worth noticing, though, that it is the Labour Party alone that has gone on outlining a vision for the country that goes beyond Brexit (and police staffing levels). At its recent conference in Brighton it committed to end carbon emissions by 2030, to effectively abolish private education, to fund free care for the elderly, and to institute a four-day week. (What do the Lib Dems stand for, beyond remaining in the EU? Why is it that they can so comfortably absorb so many Conservative MPs?) Some may think all this irrelevant, that Labour’s middling and muddling on Brexit is what will matter in the end. They may be right. Then again, they may be seriously underestimating the public’s desire for change, for movement. The desire, in other words, for politics.