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Jolly Olde English Politics, Part IV

One last set of questions about British politics, with responses from G.S. in Basingstoke, England, UK; A.B. in Lichfield, England, UK; and S.T. in Worcestershire, England, UK (and one response from us):

E.N.A. in Olalla, WA, asks: The one thing I've never understood about the British legal/political system deals with their Constitution. My understanding is that it's just part of regularly passed law and subject to change. But what is needed to change it? Changes to the U.S. Constitution generally require a supermajority of both the Houses of Congress and the individual states. An onerous task requiring broad consensus. But what in Britain prevents the ruling party from simply voting to "change" the law, for instance, so that a new election isn't required for the next 40 years? Or "change" the way legislative districts are determined?

A.B. answers: E.N.A. has put their finger on one of the core problems of the Boris Johnson premiership. The British Constitution is comprised of a combination of acts of the historical and current parliaments of the U.K., and written and unwritten conventions. There are some core laws that are recognized as clearly forming part of that constitution, even if not all (or in some cases very few) of their provisions remain in place; a partial list of examples might include Magna Carta, the 1689 Bill of Rights, the 1689 Claim of Right Act (which is an example of a pre-Union Scottish act that impacts both Scottish and broader British constitutional law), and the 1707 Acts of Union between England and Scotland.

It's up to our Supreme Court to ultimately decide whether or not a process is lawful or unlawful—such as when Boris Johnson advised the Queen to prorogue Parliament in 2019 (i.e., end the current sitting of Parliament) to try and enhance his chances of pushing through his Brexit legislative agenda. While the Queen had no choice but to follow the advice of her Prime Minister, the Supreme Court subsequently found that the prorogation had been unlawful under both Scottish law and English/Welsh law (Scotland having a different legal system than England and Wales—an entertaining constitutional digression we won't get into here).

Nonetheless, under the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty, no Parliament can be bound by its predecessor; so yes, in theory any Parliament can repeal any past act of Parliament. This means that a good dose of what governs acceptable behavior by governments is based on convention and informal rules—and a willingness to follow the latter. And yes, that becomes a real problem under a Prime Minister like Boris Johnson, who has spent most of his life believing that rules are for little people, and that truth is malleable.

S.T. answers: The whole point about the British Constitution is that there is none—at least not a document in writing. This is, according to one's viewpoint, admirably flexible or downright dangerous! What the U.K. has is an amalgam of law and precedents which it is assumed will be followed.

The U.K. historian/constitutional expert Peter Hennessy has described this as the "good chaps" approach to government, meaning there is a underlying assumption that whoever is in charge will follow the existing law and precedent; it is no coincidence that this description was made during Boris Johnson's premiership.

Back in the 1970s, the Conservative veteran Lord Hailsham, partly in response to the activities of the then-Labour government, referred to the U.K. as an "Elective dictatorship" (though note he was quite happy to join the 1979 Conservative government without any change to the system!).

So basically, a U.K. Prime Minister can change anything and everything as long they have the support to carry it in the House of Commons (although the House of Lords might delay the process for a year in extreme case). It's a long way from the U.S. system or that in most other major countries. Still, at least we are spared the U.K. equivalent of Supreme Judge Alito reinterpreting 200+ year old documents to suit his politically driven opinion.

G.S. answers: I loved this question: it took me straight back to my first year of law school and the first essay question in constitutional law: "Does the U.K. have a constitution?" The answer the professors were looking for, of course, was "yes and no" followed by a further 1,997 words of justification.

As my fellow Britons have observed, our "constitution," such as it is, is an amalgam of stuff that is written down, and stuff that isn't. Certain written provisions are extremely ancient—for example, the Magna Carta (1215) still assures the liberties of the English Church, privileges of the City of London and the right to trial by jury. The right to judicial review, so far as I was taught, isn't written down anywhere—it has simply developed over time, so anyone can apply to challenge the decisions of a public authority on certain grounds. Certain questions that pop up semi-regularly and are immediately answerable on (can judges be dismissed, and if so, how?) require twenty minutes or so of research here, and even after that I'm not absolutely certain of the answer in the U.K. One critical point taught was that no Parliament can bind another—so, for example, Tony Blair's assertion that "we will not introduce top up (tuition) fees and will legislate to prevent them" was absolutely meaningless. With that in mind, and my fellow Britons may disagree: I don't think there is anything that would prevent a majority party from at least attempting to legislate to delay (or, if Boris was still in, maybe abolish?) general elections. Traditionally, they are held every 5 years, but they have been called earlier when politically expedient. Here, you would hope the one ultimate guarantor of our democracy would also be the thing that is the least democratic: Charles III would simply refuse the royal assent needed and the bill would not become law. This refusal to give assent has not happened since 1708.

H.F. in Pittsburgh, PA, asks: Why does the front door of the Prime Minister's residence/office at 10 Downing Street have a mail slot, knocker and doorbell? They're no longer used, if they ever were. I doubt Buckingham Palace has them. The White House doesn't have them. Are they simply architectural decorations? Is there a zoning regulation that every door in the neighborhood must have them? Perhaps it's a symbolic statement that the location is just like any other in the country, although with more turnover of late.

A.B. answers: As far as I can tell—and this is one of those murky tradition things for which there doesn't seem to be a clear answer, and which I'm happily prepared to be very, very wrong over—these are simply old-fashioned leftovers from when Downing Street was much more accessible, Prime Ministers didn't necessarily live in the house, and security for Prime Ministers was much less tight. It's worth stressing here that while Number 10 was gifted to the First Lord of the Treasury in the 1730s (the First Lord title is now invariably held by the Prime Minister, but this has not always been the case), it's only been the permanent default residence of the Prime Minister since 1902. Prior to that, many Prime Ministers preferred to live in their often more-spacious and more-luxurious London homes. As late as the 1970s, Harold Wilson continued to live in his existing Westminster family home in his second term in office rather than move back to Number 10 (though he worked from the latter). Up until the 1980s, the street itself (though not the house) was accessible to the public; security measures were increased under Thatcher, and then the entire street closed off to the public in 1991 following an IRA mortar attack. So for much of the building's history, these features would likely have been more functional.

S.T. answers: Downing Street was built in the 1680s by Sir George Downing as speculative housing (apparently to not very high standards!) in a hopefully up and coming area in Westminster. At various points it appears to have been purchased by the government, with most of the original houses having been replaced by government buildings. What you see today is the facade of numbers 10-12 behind which is a vast numbers of offices (many pretty down at heel), state rooms and at least two flats, usually occupied by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor (Finance Minister). They are all supposed to join together to form one vast block (think of the Beatles' house in the film Help).

Probably the facades are subject to some degree of conservation, though the much-remodeled interior might not be, save certain of the state rooms. One interesting fact about the front door is it can only be opened from the inside (useful if you want to stop the police from investigating lockdown parties). As for the "door furniture," I cannot really provide any information apart from noting that it's about time they put in a cat flap for the benefit of Larry the Cat, Downing Street's resident mouser, who has just welcomed his fifth prime minister to the property:

A gray and white cat 
with a Union Jack-patterned bow tied around his neck

G.S. answers: I have no idea, and am amused at the answers of my countrymen which are basically "we don't, either"!

F.H. in Pacific Grove, CA, asks: I'm enjoying reading the British readers' takes on the latest excitement from across the pond, but exactly how is it that they seem to not only be able to refer to their co-correspondents, they even seem to know the relative positions of each other in the final publication?

A.B. answers: This sounds like wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff. I'm British and I have a PhD—and am therefore a doctor; obviously we're using a Type 40 Tardis with a broken chameleon circuit.

V & Z answer: A.B. offers up one possibility. The other is this: So as to avoid repetition, and to make the answers as complementary as possible, we arranged something of a collaborative setup, such that each individual knew what had already been written, if anything had.

Readers can decide for themselves which option they prefer.

And that's a wrap! Our thanks to G.S., A.B., and S.T., who have obviously given very generously of their time. And have a good weekend, everyone. (V & Z)

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