The UK faces its biggest constitutional crisis since the Civil War, but whose head is on the block?

Tower of London chopping block
Tom Coburg

The UK may be facing its biggest constitutional crisis since the Civil War. This time though, it’s not the monarch who’s caused the crisis but Boris Johnson. And all because Johnson is determined to see his precious Brexit through without taking into account the wishes of three of the four legislative bodies that make up the UK.

Constitutional crisis?

There have been several constitutional crises in British history. But perhaps the most notable is the 1642-60 Civil War that saw supporters of the monarchy pitted against anti-monarchists led by Oliver Cromwell. It ended with King Charles I losing his head.

The current crisis also involves the monarch – Queen Elizabeth II – who gave her consent to the EU Withdrawal Act once it had been passed by a parliament dominated by the Conservative Party.

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Three legislatures object

After it was announced that royal assent had been granted, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford told the Commons:

We are faced with a situation which is completely unprecedented when the government in Edinburgh, Belfast and in Cardiff has not given consent to this act of parliament. That completely contravenes the devolution settlement that made it clear that the consent of the devolved administrations had to be given in bills of parliament that become acts of parliament that involve the devolved administrations.

Meanwhile, at the Welsh Assembly Plaid Cymru’s Delyth Jewell said her party rejected the act because it:

threatens Welsh powers, removes parliamentary oversight of the negotiations, takes away the rights of child refugees, workers and EU citizens and unnecessarily rules out an extension to the negotiating process, making a bad deal or even no deal at all the most likely outcome.

Stormont’s rejection of the Withdrawal Act was unanimous. And SDLP leaders Colum Eastwood commented:

we will be dragged out of the European Union against our will, against the will of people here and people in Scotland. That’s why it’s important that we’re here, that’s why it’s important that we’re rejecting it.

Off with his head

Johnson was warned of the pitfalls that Brexit presented by Tory grandee Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who made the comparison that Johnson risked (metaphorically) losing his head as Charles I did. Rifkind’s warning was in regard to the possibility that the UK could crash out of the EU with no deal and without the support of parliament or the people.

But that warning could still apply to the Johnson government’s determination to avoid any alignment with EU regulations. And even more pertinently with the devolved assemblies making it clear their specific objections to the act.

Had the Queen refused to grant royal assent to the act, she would have defied the instructions of parliament and it would have created a constitutional crisis. Nevertheless, by granting this legislation it has placed her in direct opposition to the express wishes of the devolved legislative bodies of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Whether or not that results in a full-blown constitutional crisis, it is clear that three of the four countries that currently make up the UK are on a trajectory diametrically opposed to the direction Johnson and his gang are determined to follow. Heads could still roll.

Featured image via Wikimedia

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    1. Johnson is going to go out in a whimper rather than a constitutional bang; however, grievances mentioned in the article set a backdrop for joy once Johnson is relegated to well deserved obscurity.

      I suggest, Johnson shall be ousted by his own backbenchers long before the next general election. Most likely, there shall be an accumulation of irritations and worries rather that just one major precipitating event. This will arise because Johnson by dint of — far less intelligence than claimed for him, lack of relevant experience in managing major change, inability adequately to feign empathy for people around him, resort to bombast in lieu of reason, propensity for mind and mouth to be disconnected, and overweening arrogance leading to hubris — has been set up for failure on the grand scale of Greek tragedy wherein after crisis has passed the people rejoice in demise of a despot.

      Johnson may have strutted onto stage as ‘Bullingdon boy’ [denizen of a council estate?] ‘made good’ but he will be carried off as political refuse.

      Accumulating woes besetting Conservative backbenchers shall arise from unintended consequences of Johnson’s hasty attempt to complete Brexit and from anticipated problems taking too long to resolve. To be borne in mind is that public response to avoidable tribulations is impatience and anger rather than measured consideration of long term benefits from enduring inconvenience. A host of potential problems was anticipated by May’s government. Little things like shortages of some foods, erratic supply of pharmaceuticals, increases in consumer prices, and inconveniences when arranging visits to the European mainland, none of which shall affect Johnson and his cabinet cronies, become throbbing sore thumbs for ordinary folk. Adding to these, many articulated worries within a wide sector of commerce and industry leads to considerable opposition; it will be inchoate but expressions of ‘dumb insolence’ retard progress in driving forward plans necessitating widespread assent and co-operation. Another ingredient in the mix is Johnson cannot count upon more than about 50% of the population, including officials upon whom he depends, showing enthusiasm for his half-cock plans.

      Johnson may have learned about the black arts of politics but has no experience of managing major projects, his being of immense magnitude. Writing opinion columns in newspapers is no preparation for his task. Doubtless, Johnson grasps that leadership is required; for him, it is a simple matter of giving orders, threatening laggards, and offering inducements to the implacably obdurate. It is the leadership of a jingoistic army lieutenant leading his unenthusiastic platoon into a hopeless engagement: a bullet in the back awaits.

      Johnson admires Churchill and presumably regards himself in the mould of the latter. He could not be further from the truth. Churchill was a gentleman of good breeding (despite half-American parentage), well educated – formally and by experience – for his class, and endured dangers as a young man: in fact, the complete opposite of an affected Bullingdon poltroon. Although Johnson’s tomcat behaviour bears comparison with notable figures in ancient Rome a more fitting comparison is Mussolini: he the ‘strong man’ upon which Fascism is predicated.

      The shots to Johnson’s back will come from among those he regards as backbench plebeians whose only purpose is to serve his wants. By that time, Johnson’s ersatz charisma, cocktail party wit, and bluster shall have worn too thinly even for Conservatives from the shires. They will perceive widespread malcontent and perhaps suffer from some of its reasons themselves. Most conservative MPs, together with their constituents, have no deep connection with neo-liberal doctrine which is the driving force behind our financialised economy and from further application of which Johnson and his cabinet hope to greatly enrich themselves through reward from their sponsors.

      Most Conservative MPs and their electors rely on the NHS for themselves and their families. Most rely on state education for their children. Being not whisked around in helicopters, they desire efficient rail and road services. Most certainly they do not wish to expose themselves to USA food products of dubious provenance, unknown exposure to Bayer/Monsanto chemicals, and meat products disinfected with chlorine rather brought into being through rather more expensive animal husbandry of European standards. No sensible Tory, nor anyone else, would wish to live within fifty miles of on-shore fracking.

      The proposed trade deal with the USA will be a concern for every Conservative backbencher capable of independent thought. Today, it is reported (BBC) that the USA is anxious to complete a deal within the next twelve months, negotiations running in parallel with similar negotiations between the UK and EU. Inevitably the US deal will be discussed in secret. Being rushed, the USA will have the upper hand because Johnson will be anxious to sign it off and claim success with Brexit.

      Conservatism (before Mrs Thatcher) used once to stand for more than just maintaining the status quo and self-enrichment; perhaps, in the shires alluded to above it was at its best; the concept of ‘society’ did not need spelling out: it was implicit.

      Brexit it some form or other is pretty much a certainty. However, the form remains contingent on many things with options being highly constrained with Johnson at the helm of discussions. Conservative MPs, through legitimate self-interest, that of their families, that of their constituents, and that of the nations of England, Scotland, and Wales, plus Northern Ireland, shall by ridding themselves of Johnson (and by implication his circle of cronies) grasp that haste they have been gulled into is that of lambs in line to meet the slaughterer.

      An interim Brexit giving time for all involved to take breath would be honourable political compromise. This could be an arrangement like that of the EU with Norway and Switzerland. The key elements would be retention of customs union and ease of movement of citizens within the EU. Nothing prevents further detachment from the EU at a later stage (after at least the next couple of UK general elections). Such interlude would be sensible given considerable uncertainties over the state of the global economy. Also, there may be pressure by EU nations for internal reform via relaxation of control by Brussels and other matters causing resentment.

      The future need not be gloomy. That is, if the Conservatives can get rid of the horrible fly in the ointment.

      —–

      Released under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 international license.

      1. Very well said but I wonder how is it Johnson has made it this far?
        It bears no relation to any rational thinking you’ve presented as reasons for his coming demise and is as
        tragic as Hamlet.
        The impossible situation you describe is coming without a doubt. It will be interesting to see what awakens his followers from their deranged state of mind.

      2. All true, and sadly, I suspect, irrelevant. The problem phrase here is “sensible Tory”.

        Boris Johnson won the election through bombast, deceit and banality. Tories won’t care how bombastic, deceitful or banal his policies are. Anything that goes wrong will be blamed on someone else, and too many of the electorate (and his own party) will continue to intone: “Good old Boris.”

        He is the Homer Simpson of politics, and, like the apologists for Homer, it doesn’t matter how incompetent Boris is – because he’s Boris, and that will be enough.

        I really do hope that I’m wrong, and that your optimism is well placed. Thinking realistically, however, it is fair, I think, to suspect that the electorate and the Conservative party contain enough fools for Boris to get away with it.

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