The UK is often referred to as an elective dictatorship, where the elected government is handed wide-ranging powers for the duration of their term in office with minimal checks on this power. In the absence of an American-style written constitution, the relatively few checks and balances on governmental power has the potential to be exploited to a dangerous extent. However, despite the constitution being put under strain in the over the past few weeks, it has proven that it is still fit for purpose.
Unlike in the USA, the UK Supreme Court tends to stay out of political matters. Nonetheless, it was forced to intervene to find that the government acted illegally by proroguing parliament, leading to the House of Commons being able to sit again.
While some sources in the Conservative government have implied that the Court acted beyond its powers and have been whispering that the decision was politically motivated to try and discredit the justices, public opinion seems to be largely in support of the judiciary. Geoffrey Cox, the attorney general, suggested that political confirmation hearings may be necessary in the future, in which case the Supreme Court would become fully politicised (The Times).
However, these criticisms have almost exclusively come from ardent Brexiteers which suggests that they object to the decision rather than the Court’s impartiality. In fact, the Supreme Court justices’ neutrality has been celebrated by many, with the President of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale, even attracting a significant following. For example, 2,000 spider t-shirts have been sold in honour of the spider pin she wore when announcing the outcome (BBC).
Not only has the Supreme Court proved that it is capable of holding the government to account, but it has also got the support of the public in doing so. With the prospect of an inquiry being set up into the wider political culture in the UK after a rise in violent language and threats towards MPs, the Court allows us to have some confidence that independent bodies can succeed in detoxifying British politics where politicians themselves have failed.
The argument from some that this was a politicised decision by the Remain elite at large to frustrate Brexit is also weakened by the fact that the National Crime Agency has dropped its investigation into the Brexit Campaign breaking electoral law in 2016 (Bloomberg). Critics must accept that, whether or not they agree with the Court’s decision, its integrity cannot be questioned.
Given that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had so little luck at manipulating parliament, it was only a matter of time before he tested the bounds of the constitution in an attempt to navigate his way through Brexit. And we must be thankful that our constitution seems to have passed this test.
The UK’s unwritten constitution lives to fight another day and, for better or worse, Brexit must be resolved through the proper means.