Opinion: Brexit drama, British politics explained

Dennis Lennox
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue, or suspend, the sitting of Parliament for five weeks was supposed to put Brexit back on track.

Then, in a scene not unfamiliar to Americans, unelected judges blocked the move, declaring it “unlawful, void and of no effect.”

The ruling by the U.K. Supreme Court wasn’t just unprecedented. It was extraordinary, especially when the country’s highest court was only established in 2009.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. It looks increasingly difficult for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union on Oct. 31, despite Johnson’s assurances.

Brexit has fixated not only the British public, but also many Americans. We struggle to understand why it has been so difficult to implement the results of a referendum.

Brexit was supposed to have been signed, sealed and delivered by now. Except the former prime minister proved incompetent in reaching a divorce agreement with the European Union. Not only did Theresa May’s deal fail the smell test with most Brexiteers, but she couldn’t count on votes in Parliament, where Remainers have commanded enough votes to stymie the 52% of Britons who cast a vote for Brexit in the 2016 referendum.

Much of the drama over the past three years, which has resulted in the departure of two conservative prime ministers and the loss of the party’s own governing majority, originates with the referendum itself.

While we are used to ballot questions — most states allow initiatives or referenda — the whole concept of direct democracy is a relatively recent innovation in Britain, despite having representative democracy since medieval times. British referenda are only advisory. Unlike the U.S., in the U.K. the people are not sovereign. 

Thus, there have been countless opportunities for Remainers to obstruct and obfuscate, including at the Supreme Court.

Faced with an unmanageable Parliament, the prime minister had confounded Remainers by suspending the current sitting of Parliament. He did this through prorogation, a prerogative nominally exercised by Queen Elizabeth II upon the advice of her prime minister. Once prorogued, Parliament could only reconvene after the queen formally opened a new session with the equivalent of a state of the union speech.

Remainers, spanning the political spectrum, decried the move. Some called Johnson a tin-pot dictator; others compared his actions to the 17th century Stuart monarchs. Both comparisons are absurd, not least because prorogation is commonly used. The highly charged criticism was quite predictable. What nobody predicted was their success in getting the high court to strike down prorogation on the grounds that the advice to the queen was unlawful.

A person dressed as a caricature of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a prison uniform stands outside the Supreme Court in London, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019 after it made it's decision on the legality of Johnson's five-week suspension of Parliament. In a setback for Johnson, Britain's Supreme Court has ruled that the suspension of Parliament was illegal. The ruling Tuesday is a major blow to the prime minister who had suspended Parliament for five weeks, claiming it was a routine closure.

Nothing in either the country’s statutory law or its unwritten constitutional conventions allow judges to do what they did. While established here the whole concept of judicial review is entirely a foreign import and modern innovation in the United Kingdom.

The Supreme Court’s ruling only furthers a constitutional crisis that has engulfed the country since the Brexit referendum as the old rules governing political institutions and now the judiciary no longer apply.

It also highlighted a delicate matter.

The court didn’t say the queen acted illegally, not least because Her Majesty is the very fount of justice. As such, the judiciary is literally hers and she cannot be brought before the courts.

The judges walked a fine line and effectively ruled her action, taken upon Johnson’s advice, was unlawful. At the same time, the queen was constitutionally required to exercise her prerogative upon advice from the prime minister.

This naturally raises questions over Britain’s basic political arrangements, including the danger of unelected judges and even the very role of the monarch.

Dennis Lennox is a political commentator and public affairs consultant.