The ‘good chap’ theory of government

From the Christmas edition of The Economist:

Britain’s ramshackle constitution allows plenty of scope for such shenanigans. [Deciding not to hold an important Parliamentary vote that you are certain to lose.] Whereas every other Western democracy has codified its system of government, Britain’s constitution is a mish-mash of laws and conventions, customs and courtesies. Britain sees no need for the legalistic or (worse) European idea of writing down its constitution in one place. Instead it relies on the notion that its politicians know where the unwritten lines of the constitution lie, and do not cross them. “The British constitution is a state of mind,” says Peter Hennessy, a historian who calls this the “good chap” theory of government. “It requires a sense of restraint all round to make it work.” Yet amid Britain’s current crisis, such restraint has been lacking.

In 2018 the good-chap principle has taken a battering. Gaming the rules has become the only way for the Conservative government, which lacks an effective majority in the Commons, to cling on. Brexit has strained the hardware of Britain’s constitution, such as the civil service and the courts. But the software—the norms that govern day-to-day politics—has been infected with a virus, too. The chaps in government are less inclined to be good…