Westminster and Whitehall have a laissez-faire approach, not to the economy but to the polity.

31st July 2021

Another Saturday.

Today’s Financial Times revealed how some are paying for access to ministers and policy-makers.

Tomorrow’s Sunday newspapers will reveal more problems in respect of the government – and more about those paying for access to ministers and policy-makers.

(This, of course, follows the extraordinary and extravagant decisions by ministers and officials in respect of procurements, including in respect of the pandemic.)

And as this thread on Twitter shows, the supreme court – which will be followed by other courts – appears to be making it more difficult for policy to be subject to judicial review.

All this in the context of what this blog avers is an ‘accountability gap’ in Westminster and Whitehall in respect of the formulation and administration of policy.

It is almost like watching a landscape painting being done in reverse, with an ever greater empty space in the middle of a canvass.

The space where accountability should be.

We have an increasingly unregulated State – a laissezfaire approach, not to the economy but to the polity.

Anything goes – whatever minister and officials in each department can get away with.

Anything goes – with only the lightest supervision by the judiciary and the legislature, and with many supervisory bodies rendered impotent.

And when anything goes, all sorts of things will go on.

**

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Politics v law and policy – a response to Dominic Cummings

26th July 2021

Late last night, Dominic Cummings posted this tweet, with a screengrab of a tweet from me from March 2019:

As a change from my usual daily blogpost, here is my thread in response:

Happy to deal with any comments below.

**

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The ejection of a Member of Parliament for pointing out the lies of the Prime Minister is a practical example of the function-failure of the UK constitution

The suspension of the member of parliament Dawn Butler from the house of commons is a significant example of the function-failure of the constitution of the United Kingdom.

Butler’s suspension was because she called the prime minister a liar on the floor of the house of commons.

But as the current prime minister casually and freely lies in the house of commons (and elsewhere) this suspension creates a constitutional mismatch.

In essence: there is no real sanction for a prime minister (or other member of parliament) for lying to the house of commons, while there is a real sanction for those members of parliament who point it out.

It is an extraordinary – and counter-intuitive – constitutional predicament.

There is something very wrong here.

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How did we get into this mess?

First, it must be understood and accepted that there is a problem with prime ministerial dishonesty.

Perhaps there always has been – and our current prime minister is no worse than his predecessors – but even if this shruggy view is accepted, there is no doubt the current prime minister lies and lies.

That Hamlet’s father and Jacob Marley were both dead to begin with, and that Boris Johnson  lies, are fundaments in English culture.

One source for the prime minister’s ongoing dishonesty is this particularised, non-sensational list put forward by leaders of six parties in the house of commons to the speaker:

There are similar examples in almost every session of prime minister’s questions.

A more sensational compendium is in this widely viewed video from Peter Stefanovic:

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The reason to emphasise the prime minister’s actual dishonesty as a real concern is that the supposedly pragmatic constitution of the United Kingdom is supposedly good at practical (if inelegant) solutions to actual problems.

This, we are told by constitutional fogeys, is why our constitution is cuts above the formal codified constitutions of foreigners with their ‘rigid’ rules.

Well.

Here is an actual constitutional problem in need of a practical ‘flexible’ solution – and we ain’t got one.

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The second aspect of the problem is that the rules of parliament (which are distinct from the law of the land) in effect prohibit members of parliament from accusing other members of parliament of dishonesty – regardless of whether there is any dishonesty.

It would even be against parliamentary rules to say of a member of parliament that they are a liar even if the lies have been admitted.

The formal guide to the rules of parliament is known as Erskine May, and the relevant passage about accusations of dishonesty is:

‘Expressions when used in respect of other Members which are regarded with particular seriousness, generally leading to prompt intervention from the Chair and often a requirement on the Member to withdraw the words, include the imputation of false or unavowed motives; the misrepresentation of the language of another and the accusation of misrepresentation; and charges of uttering a deliberate falsehood.’

This is not an absolute bar to making accusations of dishonesty against other members of parliament – there is a formal but ineffective way:

‘If a Member wishes to pursue accusations of a kind not permitted because of these principles, the proper course is to table a distinct motion about the conduct of the other Member.’

The issue with such a motion is that – even if passed: so what?

Erskine May also does have a section on misleading the house, which provides:

‘The Commons may treat the making of a deliberately misleading statement as a contempt.’

To which the issue again is: so what?

One may as well cast a line into the Thames, catch an improbable and unpolluted fish, and slap that unfortunate fish on the dispatch box.

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The wider predicament is that the constitution of the United Kingdom is premised on what the historian Peter Hennessy has long characterised as the ‘good chap’ theory of government.

Here is Hennessy’s phrase being used back in the innocent days of 2005 where the concern was merely memoirs by former officials.

More recently, in 2019, here is Hennessy and another author explaining in detail the failures of the ‘good chap’ theory – a report which should be read by anyone with an interest in constitutional affairs.

In essence: the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom work as an honour-based system based on those with power exercising self-restraint.

All it takes is a knave to disrupt and undermine the system – and there is nothing within the system to check and balance such knavery.

This complacency is why there are more ready sanctions against those who accuse ministers of dishonesty than there is against the dishonesty of ministers – for the latter, according to constitutional fiction would not (or should not) happen.

*

There is merit in having a general rule against lightly making serious accusations in the houses of parliament.

But the counterpoint to such a rule is that there should be a practical means of addressing the problem of ministerial dishonesty.

Otherwise we have the current situation: wonky, lop-sided and discrediting.

That Butler should face a serious a sanction while Johnson does not defies common sense and it should should defy our constitutional arrangements too.

Some may say all this shows that there is a need for a ‘written’ (or codified) constitution.

But the solution to this problem does even not need such a drastic (and unlikely) change – and the problem of executive dishonesty happens in states with written constitutions too.

The solution would be for constitutionalism to (again) be taken seriously by politicians generally.

Constitutionalism (a theme of this blog) is the notion that there are political rules and principle that are above partisanship.

The reason why the prime minister can get away with such dishonesty is that a majority of the house of commons let him.

If a majority of the house averred that such conduct was unacceptable, regardless of party or faction, then the speaker would have the powers to address the issue.

As it stands, the speaker is given the powers to deal with accusations of dishonesty, but not the dishonesty itself.

It would not need a written constitution to solve this problem.

It would instead take resolution – and, literally, resolutions.

It would need members of parliament to take constitutionalism seriously.

And until members of parliament take constitutionalism seriously again, we are going to have the now-familiar sight of our dishonest prime minister sitting safely at the dispatch box, dismissively shaking his head – while those who point out his lies are ejected.

And that is because the constitution is dismissively shaking its head too.

**

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Explaining the attack on judicial activism that never happened – three theories

22nd July 2021

The great theatre critic Kenneth Tynan said somewhere that any good theatre critic can describe what the the theatre of their day was doing – the challenge was to explain what the theatre of their day was not doing but could be doing, and why.

This is the same challenge for all commentators, including those of us who seek to explain what is happening – and not happening – with law and policy.

And, as this blog described yesterday, there one thing that is not happening is the government not making a full frontal attack on judicial review in the new courts  bill published yesterday.

(On this, see also Helen Mountfield QC at Prospect today.)

It is always weird when nothing happens when something is expected to happen.

*

“Without venturing for Scrooge quite as hardily as this, I don’t mind calling on you to believe that he was ready for a good broad field of strange appearances, and that nothing between a baby and rhinoceros would have astonished him very much.

‘Now, being prepared for almost anything, he was not by any means prepared for nothing; and, consequently, when the Bell struck One, and no shape appeared, he was taken with a violent fit of trembling.’

– from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

*

Law and policy commentators were yesterday expectant of a rhinoceros, if not a baby.

So what was finally published – a mild piece of legislation – has given us a fit of trembling.

What have we missed?

And what can explain what happened?

*

So far there are three broad theories.

The first is that this is a political false flag.

That the government has an illiberal plan – but for some reason is misdirecting us with this bill.

And indeed, as the eminent admiralty law jurist Gial Ackbar once averred, some things can be a trap.

*

*

Could the ministry of justice really be planning to introduce a raft of amendments late in the passage of the bill, so as to force illiberal measures through?

One would hope not – and one expects ministry of justice officials and lawyers to have more dignity than their home office counterparts.

And – in general terms – bills often start off more contentious than they end, so it would be unusual for such a game of constitutional bait and switch.

That said, one should not let one’s laser field down: this government will seek to be illiberal if it can get away with it.

*

If it is not a trap, there are two other possible broad explanations.

One is that put forward by this blog yesterday – which I will call the DAG theory, if only to distinguish me from Ackbar.

This theory is government-facing – and goes to the notion that there is (or was) actually a problem of judicial activism being a myth.

I first put this argument forward in my Prospect column last year, where I set out why there was a discrepancy between the (supposed) fears of the government (and its political and media supporters) and the reality of mundane administrative law decisions.

It would thereby not be a surprise that when the government came to actually legislate – rather than speechify – there was no real problem to solve with primary legislation.

The government had walked up a stair and passed a problem that was not there, and the problem was not there either yesterday, and indeed it had gone away.

If so, this is a similar to previous situations, where the government has sought to ‘reform’ the human rights act or to deal with ‘compensation culture’.

It is always difficult to make laws against turnip-ghosts.

*

But there is a third theory, which you may find more plausible than either Ackbar’s or my own.

And that was put forward on Twitter by Alexander Horne.

Instead of my government-facing explanation, Horne argues that it is the policy of the courts that has changed.

And that because there is now no problem of judicial activism, it follows there is no need for a solution.

Horne makes good points.

There is certainly a shift in the supreme court under the new president Lord Reed – and Reed is, as this blog set out in a previous post, a judge who can write that judges should give the assessments of the home secretary more respect with a straight face.

*

Where Horne and I agree is that there is currently no problem of judicial activism that needs solving – the difference between us is that I aver it was a turnip-ghost all along.

Whichever theory is correct – Ackbar, DAG or Horne – there will be some commentators and campaigners who will contend that even the two proposed reforms are too much, and that they must be opposed loudly and brashly, and deploying the language of constitutional conflict.

But a good advocate knows that one should choose one’s battles.

The government’s proposals should still have the benefit of anxious scrutiny – just in case Ackbar is correct.

But one should be wary that the language of fundamental opposition to the government be devalued, for if is wasted here then it will have less purchase when it is needed.

*

A final word to the Judicial Power Project – a group with the strange view that the primary problem in the United Kingdom constitutional is judicial power and not the lack of checks and balances on either the executive or the legislature.

It would appear that the Judicial Power Project are underwhelmed with the reforms they have so long campaigned for.

You would need a heart of stone not to laugh.

**

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What has happened to the government’s fundamental attack on judicial review?

21st July 2021

I was going to use today’s post to criticise the United Kingdom government’s assault on judicial review in the Judicial Review and Courts Bill published today.

But I cannot, because they have not.

At least not in the bill as originally published.

The bill only seems to have two provisions in respect of judicial review – neither of which are exceptional nor objectionable.

One deals with a particular issue in respect of immigration judicial reviews, the other in making an additional remedy available to judges.

The latter has the strange quality in a government proposal of actually being a good idea.

*

For a sense check I looked at the comments of other legal commentators (I always try to form my own view on legal instruments and judgments before seeing what else others have said).

But they too saw the proposals as mild and uncontroversial.

Lord Anderson QC, an independent peer:

Lord Pannick QC, via my near namesake the president of the law society:

And via Joshua Rozenburg:

*

We can be quite sure that the (laughably) named Judicial Power Project – a group with the strange view that the primary problem in the constitution of the United Kingdom is unchecked judicial rather than unchecked executive or legislative power – will be disappointed.

And there is a serious question to be asked about whether the government will seek to introduce amendments during the passage of the bill – though the usual trajectory is for bills to start off illiberal and to become less so during their legislative passage.

There is also the detail about fettering judges’ discretion in respect of the new quashing orders.

But all this said: this is a significant (and welcome) law and policy anti-climax.

This government went from boasting and blustering about fundamental judicial review reform – with a wide-ranging consultation – to, well, this.

Front covers of right-wing magazines carried caricatures of stern out-of-touch judges, while the tabloids called them ‘enemies of the people’.

But as this blog previously described, the government did not get the consultation response it was looking for.

Perhaps there was never really any problem to begin with – other than in the extreme political imaginations of the government’s political and media supporters.

**

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From 1984 to Miss Minutes: the surveillance state is watching you, and there is little or nothing at law you can do about it

19th July 2021

One of the many pities about Nineteen Eighty-Four being too familiar a book is that one can overlook the care with the author of the story constructs the world of an intrusive surveillance state.

The author, a former police officer, does this briskly and subtly.

First he takes the central character through a hallway where a poster has face that is – metaphorically – ‘watching you’.

Then you are told:

‘In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a bluebottle, and darted away again with a curving flight. It was the police patrol, snooping into people’s windows.’

So you are being watched – not metaphorically – from the outside.

And when the character enters his flat:

‘The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard.’

You are also thereby being watched – and again not metaphorically – from the inside.

We are still fewer than 700 words into the novel, but the author has already depicted the claustrophobic predicament of living in a surveillance state.

*

Today’s Guardian has set out in a number of articles the extent to which such a surveillance regime is now translated from a literary text into social and policy reality.

None of this is surprising.

And none of this is new: the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four easily imagined such things in the 1940s.

What has not changed is the want of those with political control to have such power.

All that has changed is that those with political power now have access to the technology that enables them to have that power.

But perhaps unlike the state in Nineteen Eighty-Four, those with power do not proclaim from posters – in hallways or otherwise – that we are being watched.

And instead of it being on a big screen on your wall, you willingly and casually carry the means of this intrusion around with you.

Indeed, you are probably looking at that very device this very moment.

*

*

From a constitutional and legal perspective, the obvious issues are the extent to which – if at all – there is any accountability for the use of these powers and the extent to which – if at all – there is any regard for human rights and civil liberties.

And as this blog has previously averred, there is very little accountability and transparency for those with political power even for things which are in the open and without the daggerful cloak of ‘national security’.

Indeed, even cabinet ministers have realised recently that they are under surveillance in their own offices with no control over that surveillance and the uses to which it will be put.

*

The one welcome, fairly recent development is that this surveillance state is now (nominally) on a lawful basis.

Each power and exercise of power by the state has to be within the law.

But.

Two things.

First: such is the lack of real accountability and transparency, it makes no difference to the surveillance state whether it is within the law or not.

Even when there is something that is known-about and contestable, the deference of our judges when ‘national security’ is asserted is considerable.

Our judges may not use gavels – that is a myth – but they may as well use rubber-stamps.

And second: public law, well, only covers directly the actions and inactions of public bodies.

But as today’s Guardian revelations show, the software and technology comes from the private sector and there is little or nothing that can effectively regulate what private entities can do with the same means of surveillance.

Public law bites – to the extent that there are teeth attached to a jaw capable of biting – only once the technology and data are in the hands of public bodies.

It is a depressing situation – and not one which can be easily addressed, if at all.

*

This blog has been criticised that it does not provide solutions to the problems that it describes and discusses.

But sometimes predicaments do not have ‘solutions’.

It is a tidy human habit of mind to conceptualise matters of concern as ‘problems’ – for that often implies there must be solutions.

Once you say a thing is a problem you usually are half-way to suggesting that there must be some solution.

But the predicament of those with power having greater and greater control by means of technology may not have any natural limit.

Each update and upgrade just making it easer for those with public and private power to intrude and invade.

Imagine reboots, stamping out your data – forever.

**

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The excuse of ‘the king’s evil counsellors’ – Part II

18th July 2021

Over three months ago, his blog had a brief post about ‘the king’s evil counsellors’.

Here it is:

And: he still is – or at least he seems to be.

But: is he?

*

Here is a tweet today from a news journalist about the latest of many rudderless u-turns:

Yet again: the kings evil counsellors.

The plausible deniability of the ‘kings evil counsellors’ is, of course, a thing as old as kingship.

But with the current prime minister, however, perhaps there is a certain plausibility to this plausible deniability.

It is plain that there is little or no central direction – the only driving force from the prime minister is that he wants to get away with things and he is happy for his ministers to get away with things too.

In a strange and curious way, we now have something like the (supposed) classic model of cabinet government in the United Kingdom: the ‘government of departments’.

Each minster seems to be doing exactly what they want.

And, similarly, each Number 10 adviser seems also to be doing what they want.

*

The premise of the old notion of the ‘kings evil counsellors’ is that the ruler would be horrified to know what was being done in their name.

The reality, of course, would be that the king knew full well – the counsellors were just being set up to take the blame.

The current prime minister seems to go one step further: he just does not seem to care.

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The best of questions and the worst of speeches – a practical example of the accountability gap in UK policy-making

15th July 2021

When the question came, it was superb.

Take a moment to listen to this question to the prime minister from the Sky political editor Beth Rigby – and hold on to hear her follow-up.

As a question from a political journalist to a prime minister, the question could not be bettered – in form, content, or delivery.

Superb – but not exceptional.

The fact is that there are some outstanding journalists – in the United Kingdom and the United States – capable of asking excellent questions.

In the United States even before the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, many of his material and manifest lies, faults and failures were already in the public domain – thanks in part to diligent investigative journalism.

But it did not matter.

A sufficient number of voters clapped and cheered for Trump anyway for him to win the electoral college, if not the popular vote.

Similarly, sufficient number of voters clapped and cheered for Boris Johnson and his governing party to win the general election in 2019, if not the popular vote.

And Johnson’s material and manifest lies, faults and failures were also in the public domain.

It did not matter.

It is a public good – that is a good that does not need any further justification – that journalists as brilliant as Rigby and others ask these questions.

But it is not enough.

*

How do politicians get away with it?

Here we must turn to the speech that the prime minister gave before the press conference.

The speech was a policy speech – not a political speech to a party conference or a rally.

The speech was also a formal speech as prime minister, with the text formally published on the government’s official website.

And it was perhaps the worst formal policy speech ever given by a prime minister.

Look at the state of this:

Here is just one sentence:

There are prisoners in Belmarsh with shorter sentences.

The speech is gibberish, for sentence-after-sentence and paragraph-after-paragraph.

And even if you want to give the benefit of the doubt – as not even lawyers and legal commentators speak as precisely as they write – this is not an unofficial transcript but the version approved for formal publication on the official government website.

And regardless of form, there is not a single concrete policy proposal in the speech.

Just words, words, words.

How does he get away with it?

*

We have a juxtaposition, a tension – if not a contradiction – in our political and media affairs, and it has implications for all policy-making and law-making.

We may well have first-rate media questions – but we also have low-level political accountability.

Why?

Because politicians with executive power – at least in the United Kingdom – rarely have to be publicly accountable when it can really matter.

A prime minister can brush off a journalist’s question.

A prime minister can brush off the leader of the opposition.

A prime minister with a majority, and ministers generally, are not publicly accountable to anything in any meaningful way for their policy-making and law-making.

Even general elections are not a real check or a balance – as the government reneging on manifesto commitments show.

There is, of course, political accountability to their own back-benchers – but that is rarely in respect of specific policies or laws, and that accountability is informal and often hidden in private meetings and communications.

That is not public accountability.

And so we have the concurrent spectacle of the best of questions and the worst of speeches, and there is little or nothing anybody can do to make the situation any different.

**

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Why the government did not ‘override’ an Act of Parliament over overseas aid – the concerning thing is that the government acted in accordance with the law

14th July 2021

Yesterday there was this stunning tweet from Lord Falconer, the experienced QC and a former lord chancellor – and now a Labour spokesperson.

There are many things to be said about the government’s decision on this – for example there is what former prime minister John Major said:

There is nothing positive to say about this illiberal and misconceived decision, and it should be opposed by every sensible person.

But what Falconer said appears incorrect – either in the head tweet or taking the thread as a whole.

*

The correct position, as has been previously set out on this blog, is that the obligation under the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015 is not an absolute obligation.

The act provides for a statutory target of 0.7% of gross national income is sent on overseas aid – but this has no legal force and is certainly not absolute.

Section 1(1) provides:

“It is the duty of the Secretary of State to ensure that the target for official development assistance (referred to in this Act as “ODA”) to amount to 0.7% of gross national income (in this Act referred to as “the 0.7% target”) is met by the United Kingdom in the year 2015 and each subsequent calendar year.”

Section 1(1) is subject to wide wide exceptions in section 2(3):

“(a) economic circumstances and, in particular, any substantial change in gross national income;

(b) fiscal circumstances and, in particular, the likely impact of meeting the target on taxation, public spending and public borrowing;

(c) circumstances arising outside the United Kingdom.”

In view of these exceptions, the section 1 cannot be called ‘absolute’.

*

To take advantage of an exception, the government has to lay a statement before parliament.

This is set out in section 2 of the act, which – of course – as much a part of the legislation as section 1.

And that is what the government did yesterday – the statement is here, and it states:

‘The government will continue to act compatibly with the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015, under which accountability is to Parliament. The Secretary of State will lay a statement in Parliament in accordance with section 2 of the Act in relation to each calendar year in which the government does not spend 0.7% GNI on ODA.’

*

The legal problem with the international aid cut is not directly with what the government did – for they have complied with the act.

The problem is with the sloppy drafting of the legislation, which makes the target obligation nothing more than a nice-to-have.

The public understanding of law is a valuable but fragile thing and such misleading comments undermine the public understanding of law.

The correct response to sloppy legislation is not sloppy commentary.

*

As a post script, even the section 2 exceptions do not really matter as section 3 explicitly robs the entire duty of any legal usefulness whatsoever:

“(1) The only means of securing accountability in relation to the duty in section 1 is that established by the provision in section 2 for the laying of a statement before Parliament.

(2) Accordingly, the fact that the duty in section 1 has not been, or will or may not be, complied with does not affect the lawfulness of anything done, or omitted to be done, by any person.”

What a useless piece of legislation.

**

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When culture war combines with constitutional impotence: a warning from history

12th July 2021

The first time I heard about Otto von Bismarck was when I started my history A-level – until then I knew the name ‘Bismarck’ only as a name of a sunk battleship from world war two.

The first thing we learned about Bismarck the politician was that he launched a culture war – a Kulturkampf.

And the first things we learned about this Kulturkampf was that it created needless social divisions, that it was counter-productive and was quickly abandoned, and that Bismarck did not really have a sincere belief in any of it anyway.

Of course, what one gets to know from any A-level history course is often more simplistic than a more nuanced understanding that you can get from further reading and thought.

But this understanding of Bismarck and his Kulturkampf is more useful in understanding the policy of our current government than knowing the names of second world war battleships.

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At the time of my A-levels in the late 1980s, there was the political attack on the ‘loony left’ and then a decade or so later ‘political correctness’ was the target – ‘gone mad’ or otherwise – and now it is ‘deep woke’ or whatever.

And although from time to time this politics of nasty name-calling was translated into policy and law – for example, section 28 – it never seemed (at least to me, in my privileged state) the very essence of government policy until the current government.

Now there are a number of ministers who freely indulge in culture wars – playing like infants with matches.

A report published by the Fabian society today – of which I have only had a preliminary scan – offers a detailed analysis of the current culture wars and those who promote them:

These four summary bullet-points are especially plausible.

And the current configurations of media and politics seem to give each of these ‘peddlers’ more power than they may had before.

The decline in mainstream political parties as broad coalitions, moderating the extremes, means the grievance-mongers can rise quickly to political power – and that illiberal politicians can mobilise their illiberal bases directly and unashamedly.

(The political figures I remember from the late-1980s being the rent-a-quote members of parliament for ‘loony left’ hit-pieces – Beaumont-Dark, Dicks, Dickens – were all safely on the backbenches – now the quotes would come directly from the cabinet.)

The decline in traditional media as gatekeepers on who gets access to broadcasting and publication also mean that the perpetually outraged and the trolls have immediate and effectively limitless reach.

The grievance-mongers, the perpetually outraged and the trolls all existed (if with different labels) before the rise of the internet, but they did not perhaps have the easy access to media and political power.

A recent post on this blog averred that this political culture war has, in turn, constitutional – and constitutionalist – implications.

There is a reckless political belief that there are no constitutional rules or norms which are beyond being gamed for political advantage.

And when culture war combines with constitutional impotence then we have the politics of another German chancellor – you know, that one whose name you still do not need to have studied history to have heard of.

There is a worrying alignment of culture war and constitutional weakness, and unless one or both of these are addressed, it will not be difficult for knaves or fools to exploit their grim opportunity.

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This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

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