Why those who care for the constitution should oppose the Conservatives at the general election

11th December 2019

If the Conservatives win the general election tomorrow, or continue to govern without an overall majority, then there should be genuine concerns for all who care for the constitution of the United Kingdom.

It was not always like this: for many years the Conservatives were the party of quiet, practical constitutionalism.

The party inspired by Edmund Burke (although himself a Whig); the party of Lord Salisbury and Lord Hailsham and Norman St John Stevas; the party responsible for life peerages, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (in everyday terms the most important civil liberties legislation ever passed in the United Kingdom), the select committee system.

It is even the Conservative party of all parties that can take the most credit for the European Convention on Human Rights (through David Maxwell-Fyfe) and the Single Market (Lord Cockfield).

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But then something changed.

The change predated the leadership of Boris Johnson and even that of Theresa May.

Under David Cameron and his immediate predecessors, the Conservatives shifted to explicit but hostile ideological positions on constitutional issues complemented by casual disdain.

Cameron, for example, insisted that the United Kingdom should repeal the Human Rights Act as a matter of principle.

When Cameron was faced with a defeat in the House of Lords in respect of a welfare proposal that was then dropped, he threatened to “reform” the upper house.

And when faced with a Speaker of the House of Commons who was not sufficiently obliging to the Conservatives, Cameron and his colleagues sought to get the Speaker replaced.

A pattern began to emerge: strident and populist statements in public and cynical manoeuvring in practice.

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Under Cameron, May and Johnson the Conservatives were not the party any more of Burke, where wise heads would avoid pushing the constitution too far, in case the ship of state capsized.

The combination of Brexit (where the Conservatives persist in pretending that complex problems have easy solutions), the notion that a referendum result trumps parliamentary supremacy, and minority government for all but two years since 2010 have accelerated this anti- constitutionalist trend.

Just to take some examples:

  • Secretaries of State repeatedly misled the House and its committees over the extent and existence of Brexit sector analyses reports;
  • the Conservatives prolonged a parliamentary session over two years, so that there would not be a Queen’s Speech;
  • the Conservatives packed committees with majorities, even though it was a hung parliament, by procedural sleight of hand;
  • the Conservatives repeatedly ignored and did not even participate in votes on opposition motions, and then disregarded the motions passed;
  • the Conservatives sought to make the Article 50 notification without any parliamentary approval whatsoever, and forced litigation to go all the way to the Supreme Court so that parliament could have that approval;
  • the Conservative government became the first administration in parliamentary history to be held to be in contempt of parliament;
  • the Conservatives deliberately broke the pairing convention, in respect of an MP on maternity leave, so that the government could win a vote;
  • the Conservatives government gave serious consideration to blocking a duly passed Bill from obtaining Royal Assent.

There are many more examples one could list.

And all these examples in addition to being the government that sought to impose an unlawful five-week prorogation.

And all that in addition to the current manifesto commitments to limit any checks and balances on the government if elected – the now infamous “page 48“.

So distant has the Conservative party travelled from its Burkean heritage, and so radicalised by Brexit and its experience of minority government, that the party’s approach to constitutionalist issues is indistinguishable from that of any populist nationalist authoritarian party (for more on this see here).

This observation should not be understood to be a partisan point – as set out above the Conservatives had a rich constitutionalist background that can be applauded or at least respected – but the current party are now strangers to that tradition.

The best instance in showing this alienation was the decision of every single Conservative MP to vote for a programme motion providing that the complicated and hugely consequential Brexit withdrawal legislation would have had only a few days to be considered before enactment.

Former Conservative MPs sitting as independents or for other parties voted against it.

But the Conservatives all voted for this complete abdication of their parliamentary responsibilities.

One can point to that vote as the sad moment that showed that the constitutionalist tradition in the Conservative party came to an end.

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If elected to power, the Conservatives will be emboldened by Page 48 and will continue the trash the conventions and practices of the constitution.

And that is why if the Conservatives win the general election tomorrow, or continue to govern without an overall majority, then there should be genuine concerns for all who care for the constitution of the United Kingdom.

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25 thoughts on “Why those who care for the constitution should oppose the Conservatives at the general election”

  1. From a long and well-argued analysis of the Conservatives’ position and history relating to constitutional issues, I would like to highlight one phrase:
    “The Conservatives persist in pretending that complex problems have easy solutions”

    There has been much discussion over the last three years about populism, what it is, whether it is a characteristic only of extreme parties and so on. I believe that the best definition is precisely ‘Populism is the approach to gaining power by asserting that complex problems have simple solutions.’

    Whether those solutions involve ‘eliminating’ an ethnic group, or taking control of all economic activity, or simply ‘getting Brexit done’ the common feature is that a simple phrase actually hides extremely difficult and perhaps downright evil actions. The purpose of a ‘democratic’ campaign on populist lines is to achieve a mandate for taking these actions in the name of the simple slogan.

    If the Conservatives win their majority tomorrow, we will see many damaging actions – damaging to the economy, to our society and to the constitution – all in the name of “Getting Brexit Done”. We have been warned.

    1. Excellent comment David.

      I’ve stolen a snippet to paste on my feed. I hope you don’t mind. I will credit (none will read it) to you and cite this page as the source.

  2. The problem as you have mentioned previously is that the referendum drove a coach and horses through much of the existing parliamentary and constitutional framework, and the political establishment now have a problem that if they use the constitution to overturn the referendum result then they are clearly not using the constitution for the purpose it was intended but instead have captured it to promote the cause that lost a public vote. If you care about the constitution, then you should be appalled by the antics of Remain MP’s and judges attempting to prevent the biggest vote in UK history being enacted.

    1. Given that the ERG and Boris Johnson voted against Theresa May’s agreements, it’s a bit rich to blame Remain MPs. If they hadn’t thwarted her the UK would have left at the end of March.

      If you care about the Constitution Dipper, you should be appalled that a Government led by Leavers illegally prorogues Parliament.

  3. Congratulations DAG. A pithy and cogent summary of where British exceptionalism, populism and dissembling with impunity have led our country and once tolerant broad church internationalist great Conservative party to.

  4. To which I would add that anyone with an ounce of empathy would not vote Conservative in this election. All candidates are signed up even the few remaining sensible ones.

  5. Thank you very much for a superb piece. Whatever the influence of other factors, such as the subordination of good policy outcomes to favourable instant media responses, I think that there has been a genuine decay in standards of decency and honour. The solution is not obvious. Something has gone wrong in our politics and it’s hard to see the current generation of politicians having the ability or will to tackle it.

  6. Disraeli’s paternalistic One Nation Conservatism lost out against neo-liberalism (as amplified by the Chicago school). The welfare state and the post-WW2 Keynesian consensus crumbled in the face of corporate and individual greed, and policy thereafter was designed to accommodate this. (And those designing tax and regulatory policy navigated the ‘revolving door’ between government and industry.)

    A Tory ‘victory’ tomorrow will see a complete rupture with the EU; that is something that cannot be reversed. And the UK will, they hope, turn into a ‘Singapore-on-Thames’, from which they will do financially nicely, even as the UK disintegrates.

    1. Johnson and cronies won’t care if it literally disintegrates and Ireland unites, followed by Scottish Independence.

      1. I’m in NI; on the political sites here, the question of reunification of Ireland has moved from the theoretical to the practical; the mechanics of how to reintegrate two polities which have significantly diverged over a century.

        The UK exchequer subsides NI significantly, about £9-10 billion a year, more than the UK sends to the EU. At least with the EU, there is a return, an entry into the single market etc. GB gets nothing from subsidising NI, other than some noisy DUP MPs. Johnson and cronies would be happy to put that subsidy on a bus, and to wave goodbye to NI.

      2. Oh, I think they will care, Margaret, although, rather like the Conservative’s dire warnings about the risk to the rating of the country’s sovereign credit under a Labour government, such issues will remain of cardinal importance only until serial failure renders them embarrassing and they must be consigned to the memory hole. “The UK had always been clear that Northern Ireland could become part of a united republic.”

        The problem is that personal advancement, and then the narrow interests of the party machine and its sponsors, are simply a vastly higher priority. Their absolutely overriding objective is to gain power at all costs; what to do with it is of somewhat secondary importance. The consequences of the means they use to snatch and retain that power are considered irrelevant if they are examined at all, even when they are inimical to anything which could be described as conservative principles.

        I imagine that our host might not agree, but I have seen such a tendency for at least 40 years now, albeit often on nothing remotely like the current scale. There has been no General Election in my adult lifetime where the Tories have not sought to stir up and exploit fear and resentment of immigrants: they know this is fertile and easily worked terrain where the Labour party —perceived as sympathetic to the interests of minorities and sponsor of all four of the UK’s ‘Race Relations Acts’ and the successor ‘Equality Act’ of 2010— will never pose a credible challenge. The public face of the strategy dates from a TV interview of Margaret Thatcher in January 1978:

        One might certainly argue that through much of this period this xenophobia has not been so extreme —just as much as ‘necessary’ to offer an electoral boost— but that this was a pragmatic calculation rather than a moral position was laid bare by the alacrity with which Cameron —allegedly a ‘moderniser’— leapt to reclaim the territory, with “tough” policies to impose limits on immigration and even asylum, as soon as UKIP began to gain public attention outflanking him to the right. Of course, in doing so he achieved more than most in helping to normalise UKIP’s extremes, but Cameron was never one to miss setting a facile course for short-term comfort, even one with the direst of longer-term consequences.

        1. Re: the Tories and the fear of immigrants.

          To be quite blunt, the Tories are using the theories of eugenics and scientific racism in such arguments. Both of these are totally discredited pseudosciences. The ideal of a ‘pure English race’ does not exist.

          Consider the ancestry of Tories such as Johnson, Raab and Gove; rather curious, isn’t it?

  7. There is one more, perhaps even more depressing aspect to the behaviour of the executive in the 21st century. Governments feel emboldened by the behaviour of their predecessors to behave the same way. Indeed, they may even feel obliged to “follow precedent”, even when that precedent is misguided. Cameron ignored his personal obligations of office when he followed Blair’s lead and held a vote on military action in Libya. (The argument that prerogative powers confer obligations is complex but, I think, compelling.) Like previous posters, I suspect that our best hope of parliament properly asserting its place in the constitution lies with a hung parliament; the prospect of any party having an overall majority is deeply uninspiring.

  8. Thanks for this.

    I think, although I could be wrong, that Britain is now entering a kind of political autumn or political winter, in which people will have to carve out little private islands of sanity. The challenge will be to conserve what can be conserved, through duly skilful deployment of such tools as public-service blogging. It will be a matter of so-to-speak getting the beetroot into the safety of the cellar, even as the night frosts become progressively harder.

    We have been through similar difficulties in this corner of Europe. Bad though things may get in Britain, they cannot equal the nastiness of the Sovvos around here, who in the end did get turfed out.

    What will the eventual British spring look like, a decade from now? Maybe the Tory Party will resurrect itself under adequate leadership; maybe other parties will take up the slack.

    Much will now depend on the ability of young people (the cohort under 50) to read and think, and on the ability of analysts like Mr Green to supply them with factual background.

    Tom = Toomas,
    in Nõo Rural Municipality, Estonia,
    writing from a desk in a former Soviet Estonian post office

  9. “If elected to power, the Conservatives will be emboldened by Page 48 and will continue the trash the conventions and practices of the constitution.”

    Indeed, and this is a most dangerous prospect.

    ‘Page 48’ immediately struck me as a cynically calibrated attempt to include a vague signal which will later be claimed as a concrete manifesto commitment in order to subdue opposition in the Lords (and will be used to assert that anything proposed is the explicit “Will of the People”), while eliding all specifics or concrete detail which might “frighten the horses.”

    Much as I deplore hyperbole, I repeatedly find myself thinking that in 1934 the German people were at least informed outright that they were voting for an effective dictatorship. That referendum, of course, was later used to justify the assumption by the Nazi Party of the role of unique interpreters of the “Will of the People,” and to introduce such ugly legal principles as ‘Gesundes Volksempfinden’ as a shortcut to the supremacy of executive will over the established legal and constitutional order.

    Such abuse of the outcome of large-scale democratic events, their subsequent exploitation to ‘justify’ claims to be the (unique) representatives of the “will of the people,” and this in turn to justify the exercise of executive power bypassing the normal political mechanisms has, literally, marked the very darkest turning points in the history of many nations over the last century (and, as you pointed out the other day, Italy in fact offers far closer parallels). While it’s important not to exaggerate, to leap to over-dramatic conclusions, to my mind ‘Page 48’ stands as yet another grim signpost pointing to a future direction which every nation should fear to take; it certainly has no place in the plans of a modern democratic nation preparing to confront the challenges of the 21st Century.

  10. You are clearly not interested in anyone who disagrees with you, but you are on the verge of making Jeremy Corbyn PM. If you think he is a better person to have in Downing Street than Boris Johnson you have completely lost you moral compass. He is a friend to terrorists, a friend to anti-semites, he has publicly targeted UK citizens as people he will persecute when in power. Shame on you. Shame on you.

    1. You say that Jeremy Corbyn is a “friend to anti-semites”.

      While some will quibble, a “semite” is one who speaks a semitic language; this includes Jews and Arabs.

      Meanwhile, the current prime minister is “Islamophobic” (and homophobic).

      Not much to chose between them.

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