Not worth the paper it isn’t written on

by Elias Blum

In the words of one of my friends, in relation to the bombing of Syria: “We are dragged into a war by a weak prime minister, without a majority, without evidence, without debate and without a clear end-game.”

Of course the same could be said for Brexit – and for much else besides: decisions made without knowledge, without proper debate and scrutiny, without being forced to think through the consequences.

We are dealing here with a failure of institutions – and ultimately of constitutionalism. At its core, democratic constitutionalism is simply a matter of ensuring that decision-making processes are legitimate, inclusive, deliberative and accountable. A good constitution does not prescribe policy outcomes, but it should ensure – through its rules, procedures and institutional balance of powers – that decisions are made with a mandate, with a majority, with evidence, with debate, and with clear overall objectives. 

The unwritten British system, which hides absolutism beneath a pile of absurdities and anachronisms, fails to achieve that. It fails in matters of domestic policy like the grotesque mishandling of Universal Credit and benefits sanctions, which affect the everyday lives of the poorest citizens. It also fails in matters of defence and foreign policy, where the overall standing and reputation of the state is at risk.

Those who defend the unwritten (some would say ‘non-existent’) constitution, on the grounds that ‘it works in practice’ are on ever-shakier ground.