Thursday, 29 August 2019

The arcane and the bizarre

Responding to the move to prorogue parliament yesterday, the Speaker denounced it as a “constitutional outrage”.  The Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg responded on BBC Breakfast this morning by saying that, “It is not constitutional for the speaker to express his opinion without direction of the house”.  It’s like a game of constitutional trumps.  They’re both right – and they’re both wrong.  Both are highlighting instances of actions which are, in one way or another, outside the norms of UK parliamentary process, but in a country whose constitution is unwritten and depends totally on precedent, nothing can ever, in strict terms, be ‘unconstitutional’.
The idea of ‘precedent’ assumes that little can ever change, and that the action to be taken in any given set of circumstances must be exactly the same as taken the last time those circumstances arose.  If the circumstances are unique (as, in reality, they always are), then the action to be taken must mirror as closely as possible the action taken in the most closely similar circumstances in the past.  It’s a recipe for superficial ossification, and in the absence of any real objective basis for deciding which is the closest historical parallel, for making things up as we go along.  And I’m really not sure which is worse – the de jure constitutional position that we always do whatever we did in the past, or the de facto constitutional position that we simply make up the rules as we go.  Neither seems compatible with a modern ‘democracy’, let alone one which its fans consider to be a model for the rest of the world to follow.
It’s not the only thing which is incompatible with a modern democracy, and if Brexit has served any purpose at all, it has been in exposing the inadequacies (or lunacies, more like) of the current system.  We’ve had two other examples this week alone.
The first was the suggestion that the solution to a situation where the PM of the day disagrees with majority opinion in a parliamentary chamber which is already hopelessly over-populated with unelected appointees, hereditaries and bishops is to simply find a lot more people who agree with him and appoint them as additional parliamentarians so that he can get his way.  Is there any other country in the world, with serious aspirations to call itself a democracy, in which the membership of one of its two chambers of parliament is completely unelected and where the government of the day can ‘adjust’ the membership so as to give itself a majority?
The second was yesterday’s news that the Privy Council had met with the monarch and advised her to prorogue parliament, advice which she then accepted.  It’s true that 3 members of the Privy Council flew up to Balmoral to impart their advice, and that, under the unwritten constitution of the UK, that amounts to a ‘meeting of the Privy Council’.  There are, though, around 700 members of the Privy Council, and we can safely assume that at least 650 of those didn’t even know that there was going to be a meeting yesterday.  And under the rules under which the Council operates, they didn’t need to know.  A ‘meeting’ of the Council need not consist of more than a few members, hand-picked by the PM of the day, sent to convey his views to the monarch.  It’s a complete anachronism, like so much else about the UK’s system of ‘democracy’.
The more Brexit teaches us about the UK’s definition of ‘democracy’, the more I find myself wondering whether the UK has ever really complied with the spirit of the EU’s charter on the rule of law, which is supposedly a fundamental requirement of membership (and which may now be used against the UK).  I’d like to think that current events might provoke more people into recognising that we need a proper written constitution which lays down processes and procedures to be followed, but I’m not going to hold my breath.  Regularising the arcane and bizarre is, though, a clear advantage to Welsh independence.  It is inconceivable that a new Welsh state would be so stupid as to follow the processes of the so-called ‘mother of parliaments’, isn’t it?

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