There is no widely agreed upon definition of a ‘constitutional crisis’. But that isn’t enough to stop the term cropping up with alarming regularity – the US seems to have experienced about a half dozen since the election of President Trump if newspaper headlines are to be believed. And following Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament and this week’s votes in the Commons, the term is seeping back into UK discussion.
In reality a constitutional crisis is best defined in the same way that a US Supreme Court Justice once defined hardcore pornography: “you know it when you see it”. For the moment, the stand-off between a government that wants either to be allowed to keep the option of a no-deal Brexit on the table or an immediate election and an opposition which is prepared to give it neither, remains just that; a political stand-off rather than an actual constitutional crisis. A real crisis of the constitution would require a fundamental conflict between equally valid laws, the perceived breakdown of the rule of law or a situation where the government found itself unable to fulfil its basic functions.
The UK constitution is a strange beast. Rather than being written down by some gathering of the great and good at one moment in time, it has evolved over the last seven hundred years or so. Instead taking the form of a single document that one can conveniently find via Google it exists across multiple acts of parliament, legal rulings and previous precedents and conventions.
But the fact that the UK constitution is uncodified doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist and the basic principle that parliament is sovereign. That, so far at least, has not be brought into question in the current dispute. Boris Johnson lacking a majority for the course he wants to pursue does not make for a crisis. Only if the prime minister refuses to follow an explicit mandate from parliament to request an extension will we really be entering ‘crisis’ territory.
The UK has experienced these sorts of conflicts before. Most previous episodes that have later been dubbed a constitutional crisis have featured a clash between the elected Commons and the unelected Lords. From the late nineteenth century all the way to the Blair years, the Lords had an effective Tory majority causing potential problems for any elected Liberal or later Labour governments.
The classic example is to be found in the years between 1909 and 1911. The Liberals won a landslide general election victory in 1906 and embarked on a programme of social reform. In 1909 they introduced the so-called ‘People’s Budget’ which sought to fund their programme by charging a supertax on higher incomes and the introduction of new levies on land. The Lords, mainly made up of landowners and those liable to pay the new supertax, refused.
It took two general elections in 1910 – both of which ended in a hung parliament – and the eventual, and reluctant, threat by King George V to flood the Lords with newly ennobled Liberals to give them a majority there, before the Lords eventually backed down. The end result was the Parliament Act which limited the powers of the Lords to veto decisions approved by the Commons. Hung parliaments and the monarch being dragged into politics nowadays feel eerily familiar.
A much more serious crisis came almost straight afterwards when the Liberals, now reliant on the votes of Irish Nationalist MPs for their majority, took up the question of Home Rule in Ireland. Reaction in Ulster to the notion of rule by the Catholic majority saw the formation of an armed force, the Ulster Volunteers, to oppose Home Rule.
In response the Irish Volunteers were formed by the nationalist community. With Ireland tottering on the edge of civil war, the Conservative opposition offered the Ulster Volunteers strong rhetorical support and, in March 1914, sixty British army officers serving in Ireland declared that they would resign their posts rather than take action against anti-Home Rulers.
When the official opposition appears to be supporting military mutiny and armed groups disobeying the law, you have a real crisis. In the current standoff no one has yet to ask “what does the army think about all this?”
Duncan Weldon is a writer and broadcaster. Follow him on Twitter at @DuncanWeldon