When we think of ungovernable countries, there are a handful of names that usually spring to mind. Obvious candidates include post-invasion Iraq, war-ravaged Syria, and the arms-bazar that is present-day Libya. What these countries have in common is the existence of warring factions that exhibit no respect for democratic processes, and which will even actively undermine them if it advances their cause. They are rare, and powerful, reminders of the necessity of strict constitutional governance and the paramount importance of justice and impartiality.
On June 8, Britain – the birthplace of parliamentary democracy – itself became ungovernable, albeit in a different way to the aforementioned failed-states. Upon going to the country a little under a year after taking office, Prime Minister Theresa May failed to secure a personal mandate and lost the hard-fought Commons majority secured by David Cameron a little over two years ago. The parliamentary arithmetic dictated that the incumbent was the only party leader capable of commanding the confidence of the house – and even then it was close. Without missing a beat, Theresa May and her cabal of confidants proceeded to strike a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party, and shortly thereafter a new government was formed. But, of course, you already know all this, so let me get to the point.
The title of this piece referrs to Britain, and not the United Kingdom – and this was intentional. The siloed parties of Northern Ireland cannot, and should not, play a meaningful role in government-formation in the United Kingdom. One reason for this is that they are external to the politics of the mainland by design. The contours and fault-lines of the North’s political culture are alien to voters in Britain, and as long as sectarianism remains a feature of Ulster, they always will be. England, Scotland, and Wales are, for the most part, secular societies that recognise a de facto separation of church and state. Moreover, the nations of mainland Britain have strong historical ties to the UK’s major parties, and to the politics of the Palace of Westminster.
But more importantly, the parties of Northern Ireland ought to refrain from involvement in government-formation primarily because the government ought not to get involved in the partisanship of the Northern Ireland. Like the government of the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom has a sworn obligation to remain neutral (to a point) in the internal, and constitutional, affairs of the North. The constitutional settlement in Northern Ireland is simply to fragile to bare the weight of Westminster’s divisions.
With this in mind, the current Conservative-DUP arrangement violates the Good Friday Agreement if not in law then in spirit. The Conservative Party simply cannot hope to function as a neutral arbiter in a negotiation involving a party to which it owes its very sovereignty. In no other walk of life would such an arrangement be considered remotely just. If we accept this premise, then the Conservative Party has no option but to forego government. In other words, the unwritten constitution does not allow for a Conservative government on this occasion – and thus, Britain is, at least for now, strictly speaking ungovernable.
As bad, however, as current arrangement might be, the alternative on June 9 was far, far worse. Should Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing firebrand Labour leader, have found himself entering high office, he would have been there on the back of the support of the Scottish National Party, and the acquiescence of Sinn Fein – the former political wing of the IRA. Let’s state it plainly and say it out-loud: the leader of the United Kingdom government would have owed his position to two parties who wish to see the United Kingdom eradicated. Replace “United Kingdom” with “Iraq”, and that sentence declares the existence of a failed state.
So, with neither main party able to form anything remotely close to a just and constitutional government, what is next for Britain? The answer is simple: Conservative moderates must ensure that a new leader is elected at the earliest convenience before holding a general election in August. The events of June 8/9 will have concentrated the minds of the British public, and we can hope that they will deliver a decisive verdict.
But before I sign off for some much needed sleep, it might be worth mentioning a little known figure named Benjamin Constant. After witnessing the horrors and chaos of the French Revolution, Constant – a Swiss political theorist – reasoned that every constitutional system needed a “neutral power” – a constitutional body, devoid of political responsibility, which would actively intervene in the event of a constitutional crisis like one currently facing Britain. After years of study, Constant determined that the best-placed figure to perform this function was the monarch.
Perhaps then it is time we professionalised ours. Perhaps if the monarch were given a more active role in mediating between warring parties, Britain would not be quite so ungovernable today.
More on this to follow, but for now – and to quote George Osborne – Good Night.
Update: June 10, 9:55am
Some readers have been perplexed by my comment about granting the monarch a more active role in constitutional crises, so allow me to elaborate. In the “Constant neutral power model”, an active neutral power would have done the following yesterday:
- Liaised with EU negotiators to seek a four month delay in the Article 50 process (even if there was a low probability of success, it would have been a salutary first step);
- Liaised with senior Labour and Conservative figures to form a temporary caretaker government to get the country through the summer;
- Made clear to Theresa May that Parliament would be dissolved in September (with or without her consent), ensuring that she would resign and implement the process to select a new Conservative party.
This would have been an entirely democratic undertaking for the simple reason that the entire process would have been followed by a General Election.