At 5.30am on Tuesday morning in New York, Boris Johnson awoke to find the Supreme Court’s damning verdict that he had encouraged the Queen to act in an unlawful manner and prorogue (otherwise known as to suspend or shut down) parliament. Over the course of the next fifteen minutes Lady Hale proceeded in a damning verdict, stating that the Prime Minister’s attempts to shut down parliament were ‘unlawful, thus null, and of no effect’. Parliament had never been prorogued.
The verdict of the Supreme Court was highly anticipated, but few thought the 11 judges would take quite the gigantic constitutional leap that they did. To be clear, prorogation is a standard part of our parliamentary democracy. After one year a parliament comes to an end, at which point the executive will prorogue parliament, usually for a matter of days, before putting forward a new Queen’s Speech (the government’s legislative agenda for the upcoming year), and a new parliament swiftly commences. However, this was no ordinary prorogation. Its length of five weeks was incomparable to that of any other prorogation in modern times, and the government, in the words of Lady Hale, provided no reason ‘let alone a good reason’ for the length of this prorogation. The duration of this prorogation was completely unnecessary and was clearly an attempt to stop parliament from expressing its will.
Surely proroguing parliament for five weeks is directly contrary to what Brexit was all about
In our parliamentary democracy, parliament is sovereign, and the executive are accountable to it, so even as someone who supports our exit from the European Union, I thought it was a curious decision for the government to prorogue in this way. Surely proroguing parliament for five weeks is directly contrary to what Brexit was all about – allowing our own democratically elected parliament to have their say on the laws that govern us, and having our laws interpreted in our courts, as the Supreme Court rightly did so this week? Our parliament was what we fought for on the beaches all those years ago, and no government should ever seek to stop it from having its say, especially at such a crucial time in our public life.
That is not to say however, that the government’s decision to prorogue parliament is the biggest threat to our democracy. I would also lie the blame for the crisis we now find ourselves in at the doorsteps of parliamentarians. The way in which many MPs have tried to frustrate the result of the 2016 referendum is quite frankly shameful, as is the way they recently seized control of the parliamentary agenda, breaking a centuries old precedent, and forcing through a shoddy piece of legislation to force the PM to extend the Brexit process. No matter how wrong prorogation was, I don’t think certain members of parliament are in any position to lecture us on the threat of Boris Johnson to our democracy, when they have spent the last three and a half years trying to overturn the votes of 17.4 million people.
So, what then does the Supreme Court ruling mean for the future? In any ordinary times it would have resulted in the automatic resignation of the PM, but as we well know, these are no ordinary times. The ruling by the Supreme Court, was in terms of its scope, unprecedented, and it could put us on a path to a much more active judiciary, similar to an American-style system. Appointments to the Supreme Court in the future will be highly politicised. The government is also now privately floating the idea of a written constitution, something Britain does not have, as a way of stopping judges from playing such an active role in political affairs.
The Brexit debate is not and never should be a battle of ideological pluralities
In political times as fraught as they are in 2019, it is easy to write an article coming down firmly on one side of the debate or the other. But the Brexit debate is not and never should be a battle of ideological pluralities. It is a complex situation, and it requires complex answers. However, the verdict this week was damning, and it begs the question: if the government doesn’t think it should abide by the law, then why should any of us?
Last modified: 27th September 2019