Court Report

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Today something happened in the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. Something big. Something bigger even than Brexit - the shadow that has hovered over all our political dealings for three years and which has split and sundered the United Kingdom in ways we may take generations to deal with. Today the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was judged to have acted unlawfully in proroguing Parliament for five weeks. That, though, is only the start of it. Let’s take a closer look at the judgement.

First of all, let’s note that the judgement was unanimous. There are those who might want tio believe that this decision was simply a matter of ‘The Elite’ closing ranks to thwart ‘the will of the people’ over Brexit. I’m sorry, but anyone who believes that ‘The Elite’ aren’t people like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, the Barclay brothers, Rupert Murdoch and the disaster capitalists who will make a mint out of Brexit really don’t understand what ‘elite’ means. That aside, the notion that the eleven most senior legal professionals in the country - regardless of their backgrounds - came to the same view because their attitudes to Brexit is, simply, laughable.

Then there is the language of the judgement. Let me take one sentence. “The effect (of the prorogation) on the fundamentals of democracy was extreme”. Read that sentence back. Let it echo through your mind for a moment or two. The highest court in the country took the view that Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament had had an extreme effect on the very fabric of democracy in this country. There may be another word for that. ‘Totalitarian’, perhaps. ‘Autocratic’, maybe. How else, though could Johnson’s actions be described? At exactly the moment when the biggest decisions this country has had to make for generations are supposed to be being made, the Prime Minister chose to deprive the people elected by the people of this country to represent their interests of the ability to do that job. 

“The effect on the fundamentals of democracy was extreme”. A sentence like that ought to send a shudder down the spines of anyone who knows anything of the history of Europe in the mid-20th Century. We like to pride ourselves, in the UK, that we did not fall prey to the blandishments of authoritarianism in the 1930s, but we were closer to embracing it than we sometimes like to admit. We like to pride ourselves - rightly - that our forebears fought for freedom but we forget too easily that some of them marched with Mosely.

There is a terrible fascination in, I suppose, all cultures for the ‘strong man’ - the man or woman who will do - or at least says that he will do - anything and everything to ensure that he ‘gets the job done’. To ensure that he ‘makes his country great again’. It’s what has propelled Putin to power, along with Trump and Erdogan and others. They sell dreams of national superiority and there are marks enough to buy them. If a democracy does not limit the power of such people, when they come to power, then democracy tends to wither.

That is why today’s decision is so important. The third thing I want to highlight is that the Supreme Court did not simply rule that Johnson acted unlawfully: they undid his actions. They declared that Parliament had not actually been suspended: that MPs could go back into the House of Commons today and go about their business as if nothing had happened. They handed back power to the House of Commons - the people we actually elect.

Today Parliament is stronger because the Supreme Court has insisted that the powers of the Prime Minister are limited by law. Today Parliament is stronger because the Supreme Court has insisted that the Members of Parliament we elect cannot be silenced or neutered by a Prime Minister chosen by a few thousand people who donated to the Conservative Party. Today the Supreme Court rebalanced the scales of power in favour the people we elect.