The 'Mother of Parliaments' and the 'Lords of Misrule'

The 'Mother of Parliaments' and the 'Lords of Misrule'
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In ancient Rome, according to anthropologist James Frazer, each year, a mock king was chosen by lot to preside over the feast of Saturn — the origin of our modern term “saturnalia.” A similar ritual was instituted in medieval England, where a “Lord of Misrule” was chosen to direct  Christmas entertainments. The “lord” presided over these affairs with a mock court and received comic homage from the revelers. Norms of deference were challenged, and sometimes spread into uncontrolled revels which led to the ending of the practice in 1553, a century before a real king — James II — was deposed and William and Mary of Orange came to England in a “Glorious Revolution.”  Since — arguably — we are facing our own “Lord of Misrule” in the United States, it is worth looking at what is happening in the United Kingdom today.

When James was forced to flee from London and William and Mary of Orange were invited to take his place on the throne, it marked the beginning of parliamentary sovereignty in England. That “Glorious Revolution” established a Bill of Rights, abolished the crown’s power to suspend laws, and declared a standing army to be illegal in time of peace.  From then on, although kings and queens would reign, the “mother of parliaments” ruled. With a very limited suffrage, this was no democracy, but through a continual process of tidying up the borders in a very British manner, the suffrage increased, and parliamentary sovereignty was established.

Today, Parliament continues to claim sovereignty. But the rise of centralized political parties has left it vulnerable to powerful prime ministers. Indeed, in a system in which the leader of the majority party automatically becomes PM, parliamentary rule has steadily diminished. PMs like Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher governed by force of personality. But even in the hands of minor figures, like the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, parliamentary sovereignty has been on the run. That is, perhaps, until now.

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Since the 2016 referendum on Europe, the Brexit controversy has divided British society like none other since the conflicts of the 1930s over the abdication and preparing for war. A former journalist and conservative ex-mayor of London, seeing in the referendum a chance for political advancement, Johnson deserted Prime Minister David Cameron, who had called it, joining a heterodox “leave” movement  headed by the odious Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-European UKIP party. But Johnson outdid even Farage in mendacity, with  his racist claim that Turkey was about to enter the EU and that if the UK didn’t leave Europe, the country would be swamped with dangerous Muslims. In his recent memoir, Cameron characterized his former colleague as “a liar who only backed the Leave campaign to help his career.”

Johnson couldn’t have cared less what Cameron thought, but his unpredictable and mendacious behavior angered a growing proportion of the members of Parliament. In August, after Johnson replaced the unfortunate Theresa MayTheresa Mary MayThe US needs a Secretary of Loneliness EU pushes Brexit deadline back to Jan. 31 Hold the Brexit Champagne MORE as PM, these conflicts came to a head. Amid widespread fears that  he would take the UK out of the European Union without a deal, endangering British industry and consumers, MPs across the House of Commons rebelled.

In response, Johnson, who was never known for the niceties of political behavior, asked the Queen to “prorogue” Parliament for five weeks, making it impossible for MPs to either debate Brexit or question the PM on his plans. The Queen dutifully complied with the prorogation, but in early September the opposition — joined by 21 defectors from the Tory party, voted strongly against a no-deal exit. Never sensitive to warning signals, Johnson promptly “denied the whip” to the 21, many of whom were former ministers, driving them into the arms of the opposition.

With a reckless and unpredictable Prime Minister and a parliamentary opposition that was determined to stop his Brexit plans, the country seemed at an impasse.

But as the deadline to leave the EU approaches, an institution of the British system that usually remains outside of politics — the UK Supreme Court — intervened. Unlike our system, British courts seldom enter conflicts between the executive and legislative branches. (Indeed, the High Court of England had refused to do so in a decision to turn down a claim against Johnson’s policies.) But in less than a week after the prorogation of Parliament, the Court, in a unanimous verdict, reversed the decision of the High Court, affirmed a decision of the Court of Sessions of Scotland, and declared that the Johnson Government had illegally prorogued Parliament. 

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Often the weightiest British decisions are enunciated in the accents of polite society. Speaking in measured tones which belied the gravity of the Court’s decision, its President, the Right Honorable Lady  Hale, declared that “The Court is bound to conclude… that the decision to advise Her Majesty to prorogue Parliament was unlawful because it had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification.”

A bombshell,  coming from a petite lady of a certain age wearing a butterfly brooch on her neat black dress. Citing the Bill of Rights, the Court decided that, Johnson’s move ignored both parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law, and that “the effects on the fundamentals of our democracy were extreme.”

The Brexit crisis is far from finished, but the UK has overcome a critical constitutional moment whose conclusion on Sept. 24 reestablished the much-reduced supremacy of Parliament and put a halter on the ravings of an extreme and unpredictable Prime Minister.

By late afternoon on the day of the decision, the Court had garnered 515 million hits on Google.  Numerous leaders of the opposition called for Johnson’s resignation, and the Prime Minister, sitting in the shadow of his most important ally — Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Warren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes MORE — at the U.N. General Assembly could only sputter “We’re not counting our chickens and we’re full of respect” for the Court.

What has happened to the Britain of Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher? With his unruly mop of blond hair, his jerky gestures, his lies and his unpredictability, Johnson seem like one of the “Lords of Misrule” whose antics were banned in the 16th century. As Raphael Behr wrote for The Guardian in the wake of the decision, “If Boris Johnson does nothing more, his name in history is already inscribed as the man who lied so hard he nearly broke the constitution.”  Not only that: The Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, distinguished himself in the lead-up to the vote by reclining on the green benches of the House, in a sign of disrespect that led the New York Times to pun that he was “taking Brexit Lying Down.” And following the Court’s decision, the Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, called Parliament a “disgrace” that has “no moral right to sit.”

Johnson is not the only “lord of misrule” on the world’s scene today. And at least he had the British Parliament and the Court system to constrain his ambitions. We will see how that other “lord of misrule,” Donald Trump, with his coterie of enablers in the Senate and the Department of Justice, fares as he faces an impeachment process and a difficult election in 2020 — should he survive that long in office.

Sidney Tarrow is the Maxwell Upson Emeritus Professor of Government at Cornell University. He is author of Power in Movement (2011) and the co-editor (with David S. Meyer) of "The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement."