Over the Atlantic, the constitutional crisis provoked by Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend the British parliament led to confusion, intrigue, and a certain amount of gloating.
In the US, it was argued, this couldn’t happen because the founding fathers, in all their wisdom, sat down in 1787 and wrote everything down. The US Constitution and the Bill of Rights have been the basis of American politics ever since.
Britain, by contrast, is one of only a handful of nations that has an uncodified constitution. While it is often described as unwritten, that is not strictly true: the UK is governed by statutes, laws and precedents that date back hundreds of years. They’re just not all in the same place.
Despite Britain being a parliamentary democracy, laws still have to receive royal assent by the Queen – and while, theoretically, she could say no, in reality, no monarch has declined to sign a bill since 1708.
And while a British prime minister who loses a vote of no confidence should stand down — and always has stood down — he or she doesn’t have to stand down. It is precedent, convention — the done thing — none of which, of course, are worth the paper that they are not written on.
But, nonetheless, many see the criticism as a valid one. Boris Johnson’s critics accused the prime minister of orchestrating a coup last week when he decided to prorogue — or suspend — parliament for around five weeks until mid-October, ahead of the Brexit deadline on October 31.
Johnson — rightly, as it happens — pointed out that as a new prime minister he is perfectly entitled to request a Queen’s speech on October 14, and that it is entirely normal for parliament to be prorogued for between two and five weeks prior to that speech being given.
A legal appeal — one of three — to be filed against the decision was on Friday rejected by the High Court and will now be taken to the Supreme Court. Britain’s constitution has been written in the courts — and it is being written in the courts right now.
Now the opposition — with the backing of 21 Conservative rebels — have voted through legislation (pending royal assent) that would require Johnson to ask the EU for an extension of the Brexit deadline. He has said he will refuse. Does he have to? And if he doesn’t — what then?
So the problem with an uncodified constitution is that it relies on the parties involved to continue to respect it. If they don’t, a constitutional crisis ensues. If there is a vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson and he refuses to resign, the UK is in uncharted territory, without a map.
The question, of course, is how the UK even begins to put a new constitution together.
When James Madison led the drafting of the US constitution in 1787, America was a country of four million people — the UK today is closer to 70 million.
But more importantly than that, how does a country as divided as the UK, a parliament that for three years has been unable to agree on a path forward, even an opposition with huge ideological differences, sit down and hash out a document that could govern the nation for decades, centuries, millennia?