The United Kingdom of Absurdistan

Lovely Irish Times column by Fintan O’Toole:

One thing that still unites the warring factions in England is the belief that Westminster is “the mother of all parliaments” and the envy of the democratic world. Well, it sure looks like the mother of all something right now, but it’s not parliamentary democracy. Consider what has happened. Boris Johnson was elected leader of the Tory party by 92,153 people. He was then appointed prime minister by a hereditary monarch with no parliamentary involvement whatsoever. Since July 24th, when he became prime minister, he has appeared just once in the House of Commons to answer questions. And he has now used those monarchical powers to prorogue parliament and make himself even more unaccountable to it. The one virtue of Johnson’s brazenness is that he has surely made obvious to his compatriots what outsiders can see – that the system in which all of this is possible is a democracy built around a solid core of feudalism.

To grasp the absurdity of this spectacle, we might turn to one of England’s great minds, Jonathan Sumption. He is simultaneously one of his country’s most distinguished lawyers, recently retired from the UK’s supreme court, and one of its leading historians, whose superb ongoing multivolume history of the Hundred Years War is much better than Game of Thrones. Last week, the London Times asked him to pronounce on the legality of Johnson’s prorogation of parliament. “I don’t think what the prime minister has said he is going to do is unlawful,” he said. But he added: “It might be considered unconstitutional in as much as it might be argued to be contrary to a longstanding convention of the constitution.”

So what Johnson is doing is probably unconstitutional but probably not unlawful. I don’t think most people in England have any idea how utterly nonsensical this seems to all the rest of us. It’s like saying that a man is almost certainly dead but nonetheless in quite good health. In any other democracy, if it’s unconstitutional, it’s unlawful. Only in the United Kingdom of Absurdistan can it possibly be otherwise. And the heart of the absurdity is that great tautology, the “unwritten constitution”.