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Britain’s Constitutional Guardians Strike Back

The UK Parliament and Supreme Court should be seen as the vanguard of resistance to populism. Rather than yielding to some concocted “will of the people,” these institutions have emphasized that some principles are beyond majoritarian whims.

LONDON – The US constitution is not “a suicide pact,” US Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson famously wrote. For British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, however, the United Kingdom’s uncodified constitution may yet prove to be one – at least for his political career. Following a unanimous decision by Britain’s Supreme Court that Johnson had acted unlawfully in proroguing (suspending) Parliament earlier this month, Johnson’s tenure as Britain’s leader is in grave peril.

The ruling came at a moment when the entire Western world is riven with constitutional upheaval triggered by populist leaders who have stoked a conflict between the rule of law and rule by “the people,” their will defined by the populist leader. Populist governments on both sides of the Atlantic have broken with constitutional tradition and convention, abandoning precedent in order to seize any possible advantage, as Johnson sought to do in proroguing Parliament.

The matter of Parliament sitting has rarely been controversial. In normal times, the government controls a clear majority in the House of Commons and can push through its legislative agenda. But in seeking to suspend Parliament for five weeks, rather than the typical 4-5 days, it was embarrassingly apparent that Johnson’s was no normal prorogation. Johnson, a prime minister who is barely on nodding terms with the truth, ineptly tried to claim that the five-week period was linked to Parliament’s usual September recess, when the main political parties hold their conferences. But Johnson was obviously concerned with minimizing Parliament’s ability to prevent his pursuit of a no-deal withdrawal from the European Union.

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