Pondering the implications of the UK Supreme Court’s unanimous judgment this morning that Boris Johnson’s advice to the Queen to prorogue Parliament was unlawful, it was interesting to see the resurgence of the question of whether Johnson would obey the law — surely the first time that question has been asked seriously in recent British history. (The same question also reoccurs regularly in relation to Trump.) A conversation this morning with the philosopher Tom Simpson led me to read an article of his in which he critiques the political philosopher Philip Petit’s view on republican freedom. In the article, Simpson quotes a passage from Volume 1 of Quentin Skinner’s Foundations of Modern Political Thought in which he identifies two main approaches to virtue and corruption in political thought since the Renaissance:
”One stresses that government is effective whenever its institutions are strong, and corrupt whenever its machinery fails to function adequately. (The greatest exponent of this outlook is Hume.) The other approach suggests by contrast that if the men who control the institutions of government are corrupt, the best possible institutions cannot be expected to shape or constrain them, whereas if the men are virtuous, the health of the institutions will be a matter of secondary importance. This is the tradition (of which Machiavelli and Montesquieu are the greatest representatives) which stresses that it is not so much the machinery of government as the proper spirit of the rulers, the people and the laws which needs above all to be sustained.”
That passage — “if the men who control the institutions of government are corrupt, the best possible institutions cannot be expected to shape or constrain them, whereas if the men are virtuous, the health of the institutions will be a matter of secondary importance” — seems to me to be the key to our current crisis. We have seen that some of the institutions of American democracy (Congress, the Courts) are having trouble controlling Trump, who is clearly corrupt. The question for today is whether the UK Supreme Court and the conventions of the UK’s unwritten patchwork-quilt of a ‘constitution’ will be able to control the equally meretricious Johnson (and his equally unscrupulous Svengali, Dominic Cummings).
Watch this space, because at the moment nobody knows.