In times of crisis, Britain’s arcane constitution seems absurd—often because it is absurd. Questions emerge to which no one ever seems entirely sure of the answer. What if, for example, Boris Johnson had not resigned last week but instead sought to cling to power by asking the Queen to dissolve Parliament to hold new elections? At this point, somebody is sure to cite some old but meaningful convention, only for somebody else to discover that the source of this apparently sacred but largely forgotten rule is in fact an anonymous letter written to a newspaper. This all actually happened.
So whenever Britain emerges from one of its political upheavals, calls emerge for the country to codify its constitution in a single, intelligible document like the United States’. Britain may have escaped this time, the argument goes, but it is still far too reliant on the “good chap” theory of politics—that in the end, good chaps in power do the right thing.
Over and over, Britain finds itself in this mess. Even today, Britain’s constitution seems entirely absent when it comes to the matter of who will replace Johnson as prime minister. Over the summer, 160,000 or so Conservative Party members will choose their next leader, and therefore the country’s prime minister, based on rules drawn up by something called the 1922 Committee, a Conservative grouping in Parliament that has no constitutional basis at all.
But here’s the thing: Britain does not escape its various political crises despite its constitution. Britain escapes these crises because of it.
Britain did not need a set of written instructions to get rid of Johnson. Even though he won the biggest Conservative majority since 1987, he lost power within three years because a majority in Parliament decided he was no longer fit for office. America’s written constitution failed to get rid of Donald Trump despite the fact that he tried to blackmail Ukraine and then incited an attempted insurrection to steal an election. In France, a written constitution did not stop Charles de Gaulle from essentially taking power in a coup in 1958.
When Scottish voters chose a party committed to independence from the United Kingdom, the British government did not try to imprison the Scottish first minister à la Spain when Catalonia did the same, but granted a referendum that would have dissolved the U.K. and pledged to honor the result. When David Cameron called—and lost—a second revolutionary referendum two years later, this time on Britain’s membership of the European Union, he resigned and was quickly replaced by Theresa May, who committed to delivering that result. When she proved incapable, she was replaced by someone who was, Johnson. But once that job was complete and Johnson proved incapable of doing anything else, he was replaced. Now a debate is occurring over what kind of country Britain wants to be after Brexit.
This is a system that is working, albeit in stops and starts, and lots of pained wailing from all concerned, responding to the changing demands of its electorate without the need for mass social unrest, violence, or revolutionary upheaval.
The carapace of the British constitution is certainly hilariously arcane and out of date. The head of state claims her position for life, citing God and her birthright as the reason (Dieu et mon droit is literally emblazoned on her coat of arms). In doing so, she is venerated by a large proportion of the public, who turned out en masse this year to celebrate the fact that only one person has been monarch for 70 years. To many, this might seem absurd. But which system has actually shown itself to be more adaptable: the British or the American? Today, the U.S. Constitution is worshipped almost as a sacral text, as if people have forgotten it was a messy and at times deeply immoral political compromise between a bunch of 18th-century British radicals, slave holders, and secessionists. It took a civil war to introduce the Thirteenth Amendment, banning slavery. And today, despite yet another wave of violent gun attacks, the Second Amendment appears unreformable. Over this same period, the British monarchy has essentially lost all its power.
The biggest problems in recent British political history have been caused not by sticking to the basic tenets of the British constitution but by injecting practices that mimic those of the United States. Take two examples to illustrate the point: the Fixed-term Parliament Act introduced by Cameron after being elected in 2010, and primaries to elect party leaders. Both have hampered the good functioning of Britain’s constitution.
The Fixed-term Parliament Act tried to impose order on Britain’s system, which traditionally awards the government of the day the power to call new elections at any time to seek a mandate from the country for whatever policy it decided was existentially important. This power meant that members of Parliament had to be careful when voting down a government’s most important policies, because they risked that government bypassing them and triggering an election. The idea behind Cameron’s legislation was to empower Parliament by restricting the government’s ability to call snap votes and setting U.S.-style “fixed” terms instead.
When it came to Brexit, however, this proved disastrous. May could not get her negotiated Brexit deal through Parliament, nor could she make the issue a confidence vote in her government and take it to the public instead, because the Fixed-term Parliament Act made this almost impossible. And so Britain limped on until Johnson took such radical (and unlawful) measures that Parliament essentially blinked and granted him an election, which he won, allowing him to pass a much harder version of Brexit than May had negotiated, and eventually scrap the Fixed-term Parliament Act.
The second import that has proved catastrophic for the governance of the country is the primary. Britain’s entire system runs on the premise that Parliament is sovereign. A government must command a majority in the House of Commons, whose members are chosen by the people. If the House of Commons withdraws its support for the government, the government falls and either a new government is formed or new elections take place. Simple.
For this reason, the leader of a political party was always chosen by parliamentarians from that political party. It did not matter whether a party leader was popular with members outside Parliament—he or she was not a tribune—but within Parliament. Whether they became prime minister was then dependent on whether the party they led could win a majority of seats in a general election. This all changed when both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party began to hand this decision to their members, in a direct lift from the U.S. The result, though, is not more accountability, but less. Jeremy Corbyn was directly elected by Labour’s members but could not be removed when he lost the support of his parliamentary party. A risk remains that something like this could now happen to the Conservative Party when it elects its next leader, chosen not by MPs but by party members. Whomever they select might not command the respect or support of Conservative members of Parliament, whose backing the new leader will need in order to be able to govern effectively.
The use of referenda, too, is an import that has, to some, undermined British democracy. There is much truth to this, in that such votes create competing mandates—public and parliamentary, setting up a battle for supremacy between the two. They have become, however, a legitimate tool to change the basic constitution of the U.K., whether that means breaking it up, or joining or leaving the EU’s jurisdiction. Referenda are far from ideal, but the fact remains that the parliamentary system has on each occasion eventually adapted to the reality of the public’s decision in a referendum.
That is the point: Britain’s system adapts. The country’s constitution is a permanently evolving creature, worming its way through time, surviving by changing. Nothing is sacred, except the one rule that no Parliament can bind the next. A democracy can change its mind, and so must the constitution change.
The British constitution is far from perfect—none are. And plenty of written constitutions function well. The British constitution was not flexible enough to stop the country from breaking apart in 1922 when the Republic of Ireland seceded. It may not be adaptable enough—or restrictive enough—to keep either Scotland or Northern Ireland in the Union either. Its electoral system might create a strong government from time to time, but it also creates problems of representation. More recently, the constitution has produced a string of governments that have not been very successful.
But let’s not pretend that the lack of written rules governing every foreseeable eventuality is the source of the country’s problems today. Over the past 10 years, the British constitution has done its job. It’s the political class that has failed.