Sarah Olney MP: Why we need a written constitution to protect UK Parliamentary democracy


The extent to which this Government has acted with exceptionalism is simply beyond limits.


As one of the few democracies in the world without a written constitution, the flexible qualities of the UK’s constitution have often been praised for allowing easy evolutionary adaptation. Despite this, the current government’s manipulation of constitutional norms has led to a complete disregard of established precedent and has diminished the authority of powers designed to provide checks on the executive.

It is now crucial to enshrine fundamental constitutional laws and principles to protect our democracy.

Without a written and codified document to refer to, throughout the course of Johnson’s government there have been instances where constitutional legislature has become open to interpretation. Not only has this allowed the government routinely to assert a notion of exceptionalism towards constitutional precedent, but also now to lead a ‘zombie’ government with a complete disregard for the continued authority it possesses until 5th September.

An uncodified constitution is reliant on the self-restraint of what Peter Hennessy famously referred to as ‘good chaps’ (/chapesses). This is the idea that the constitution is open for interpretation because there is an unwritten belief that those interpreting it will do so with care and consideration.

In a mockery of the intended calibre of ‘good’ politician referred to above, Boris Johnson’s government has instead tested the limits of the constitution in a drive for self-preservation. As a result, the flexibility of the constitution has been exposed as a vulnerability, rather than an asset.

For example, Johnson has guided his government under the assertion of a vast personal mandate from the 2019 general election. He has spoken repeatedly of his party’s 80-seat majority, which has granted him a “mandate from the people”, including in his resignation speech. What Johnson has managed to imply here is that he has been elected, much like a President, as a leader with a personal majority. In fact, the majority is made up of every single MP who has acquired a personal mandate from their constituents, not solely for the leader themselves.

The flexibility of the unwritten constitution has allowed this government to interpret the 2019 election result for the sole political advantage of a singular premier, Johnson. The unwritten and evolutionary nature of the constitution has made interpretation of constitutional norms such as this far easier.

As a result of this “personal mandate”, there has been a sway towards personality politics in government. This has created space for Johnson to assert an aura of exceptionalism and to make small yet regular changes to established precedent, with the result of becoming a government increasingly exempt from constitutional checks.

We need not look too hard to find extensive examples of this from this government. Not only have there been instances where the Prime Minister himself has not been held to account under the correct legislative checks and balances, such as in the concluding fines for the Party Gate scandal, but we have seen that those who work within Johnson’s government are likewise above the checks of legislation. Chris Pincher’s employment within the party for 12 years and promotion to Deputy Chief Whip despite Johnson admitting that he had been aware of previous allegations made against Pincher offers a prime example of this.

A tone of reckless exceptionalism has clearly been set from the very top of government.

Indeed, this has been evident since 2019, when Johnson’s government decided to prorogue Parliament for an unprecedented five weeks, which was subsequently granted by the Queen. Johnson’s government defended this decision by calling it part of “proceedings in Parliament”, arguing that as stated in the 1688 Bill of Rights, it could not be questioned by any court. Despite this, the Speaker referred to the decision as “an act of Executive Fiat”, and the prorogation was later deemed unlawful by the UK Supreme Court. The Court also ruled against Johnson’s conviction that the prorogation served as a “proceeding in Parliament”, concluding it not part of the “core or essential business of Parliament”, rather asserting that it “brings that core of essential business of Parliament to an end”.

This is a prime example of Johnson’s government acting with disregard for constitutional norms and makes the vulnerabilities of an unwritten constitution painfully clear. It likewise leaves behind the worrying precedent of a Prime Minister possessing the ability to misguide the Queen in Parliamentary matters. It should not be forgotten that the Crown remains an integral part of the institution of Parliament and the UK constitution. The lack of codified circumstances under which prorogation can take place enabled Johnson’s government to undermine the UK’s constitutional democracy, and above all, to prevent any other party to carry out their constitutional right in the House of Commons for the longest period since the English Civil War.

There are likewise numerous occasions during which the government has since believed itself able to implement policy without challenge. The policy to send migrants from the UK to Rwanda for example is not only one of the most radical policies passed through government in recent history, but it is also not consistent with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). For reference, the only country previously to break with the ECHR is Russia. The Rwanda policy encompasses an unparalleled disagreement with common European Human Rights law and places the UK with company it should most certainly not be keeping.

Johnson’s so-called personal mandate has been used to justify the need for constitutional norms to be cast aside.

Surely the most scathing exposure of this is the resignation of Lord Christopher Geidt, Johnson’s former Ethics Advisor, over his finding that the government acted in a way which risked a ‘deliberate and purposeful break to the Ministerial Code’. There could not be a more eloquent evaluation of the government’s disregard for constitutional checks and balances than this.

The flaws of an unwritten constitution have become equally clear throughout the long resignation of Johnson’s government. Following Johnson’s resignation speech, on 12th July, Sir Keir Starmer asked to table a vote of no confidence in the government. Instead of Parliament finding time to accommodate this request from the Leader of the Opposition, it refused to allocate time in the Parliamentary timetable. Instead, the government proposed its own vote of confidence in the Prime Minister. The lack of written constitutional rulings meant this decision could not be overturned.

Denying the Leader of the Opposition the facility to carry out this vote, designed to provide the most significant of checks and balances on the executive, has set the dangerous precedent for a government to cast aside such crucial checks on its authority under its own ruling.

The extent to which this Government has acted with exceptionalism is simply beyond limits.

As we look towards the election of a new Prime Minister, there must be a strong incentive to reinforce the institutions and norms which give credibility to Parliamentary democracy. However, with the current Conservative leadership candidates offering no real assertion to break with the methods of the Johnson government, the time to invoke a written constitution and rely less on simply ‘good chaps’ (/chappesses) is now.

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