When Boris Johnson, channelling Steve Bannon in Trump speechwriter mode, said that the Prime Minister had “strapped a suicide belt around the British Constitution and handed the detonator to Brussels,” he was echoing the American President in more ways than one. When Trump lashes out at critics, he tends to accuse them of having his own worst attributes – “crooked” Hillary, “lying” media, “fake news”. Likewise, the British blond occupant of some of the highest positions in the land accuses others of his own worst tendencies.
For It is Johnson who has led the campaign that has in reality detonated high explosives in the vicinity of the British Constitution.
What is The British Constitution?
It’s not a document, amendable only with difficulty, and with widespread assent across the branches of government. Indeed, if it had been, it’s hard to see how the 2016 Referendum would ever have been permitted to happen, at least, on the terms upon which it was run. The British Constitution is, and this is something its admirers have long revered, both a set of statutes, and a vague and amorphous ‘culture’ formed from custom and practice, which adapts almost seamlessly to changing times, thus maintaining an orderly polity, malleable, pragmatic, yet steadfast in the face of revolution. Thus we are a democracy, with an hereditary Head of State, and an unelected second chamber; a secular and liberal country with a State religion; an extender of the franchise and the rights of citizens from above, rather than from below. A nation safe for a rich man in his castle, and a poor man at his gate. Very Tory.
Some of this still applies, of course. The Houses of Parliament, a crumbling, rat-ridden place (that’s actual rodents, not a metaphor), is still there, surrounded by scaffolding and under dust sheets, it’s true, but recognisable. The process of lawmaking has not changed. Elections are held according to rules which are overwhelmingly accepted, and to which almost everyone adheres. All is well.
Except it isn’t.
There’s is a good reason why the institutions of the British Constitution of old were pretty sniffy about plebiscites, until 1975. Unlike the subtle, malleable, conveniently fudgeable old Constitution, referendums are binary, and absolute. Some countries that make more use of such tools than Britain does traditionally, set high thresholds for change, in order to avoid any doubt about “the will of the people”, but even so, plebiscites are rightly viewed as a hazardous substance in the ecosystem of representative democracy.
The problem is, we’ve actually had a referendum. The rules were sloppy, the careless promises of the then PM were a hostage to fortune, the Opposition was in the midst of a Leadership contest when the referendum bill went through Parliament, but bad laws get passed all the time. Except that bad laws can be repealed. A democratic vote cannot be annulled.
The 2016 referendum was the high explosive. The detonator was in many hands, from the pathetic nonentity who murdered Jo Cox, to Nigel Farage, to Dominic Cummings, to Gisela Stuart, et al. But the man who above all has his fingerprints all over the device, is Boris Johnson.
Posing as a man of the people, with a flair for both Latin, and the demotic, Johnson knew what he was doing, just as much as Arron Banks, or Vlad, Lord of the Bots. It scarcely matters whether Johnson’s ‘game plan’ was to play an exciting game, but ‘lose’, whilst usefully cementing his place in the hearts of the elderly and dwindling ranks of the Conservative Party; or whether he actually did want to ‘win’ the prize of Brexit, the thing that remains as unknowable as ever, even as we enter the final countdown to it becoming a reality. Johnson can use words like ‘national sovereignty’ all he likes, but the fact is that he was prepared – and remains prepared – to blow up the constitution for perceived personal advantage.
By “blow up”, I mean this: people were offered a vote on something so legally complex, economically uncertain, and politically untested, that even its advocates in Parliament still can’t describe it, except in slogans. Honest people will accept that none of us really knew much about what the vote was about. But the vote happened.
Now we are in a situation where nearly all options are bad. To let Brexit happen, in some form or another, is a bad option. Parliament ‘taking back control’, and pausing or halting Brexit in a variety of ways, with a variety of pretexts available is constitutionally possible, and yet one can’t see MPs, most of whom seem to be terrified of their own voters, having the guts to do that, and even if they did, it would not ‘feel’ legitimate, given the 2016 vote, and the narrow victory for Leave. Then there is the People’s Vote option. It is the least worst way to move forwards, by giving voters a further vote on the final deal – including the option of hitting the restart button. But that we are here at all is a fatal fissure in the legitimacy of the political system. Oh that poor constitution! Can it survive this bloody mess?
Does it even deserve to survive?
A strong, stable political system with a clear basis in law would never have got to this point. What Johnson and company blew up was an edifice even more unfit for purpose than the Palace of Westminster.
When Brexit is ‘resolved’ enough to think about other things, we need to have a movement to create a new constitution fit for a modern democracy. One robust enough not to become a plaything for “loonies, fruitcakes, and closet racists”, as David Cameron, worst PM in history, once quipped. A constitution in which there is a clearly understood, robust social contract between people and the politicians they elect. One in which our rights and responsibilities as citizens and denizens are properly embedded and defended, with proper respect for minority rights. One which is constructed to recognise that the nation-state is a declining institution, and that regional and international cooperation has to be the norm to handle the problems of a world as networked and inter-connected as the one in which we now live. Borders? You can’t “take back control” of them. Borders are on the way out.
But above all, we have to start thinking, talking, and planning for these things with urgency.
Why? Because Boris blew up the constitution.