Supreme Court bombshell: Britain is working once again

It was completely fitting that Hale was so calm and good-natured when she delivered the judgement. That is the manner in which the British constitution is supposed to operate – on the basis of trust, high standards and a respect for the rule of law. It is that quality which allows it to be unwritten, because of its maturity and deeply-held cultural commitment to its own values.

The Johnson government has tried to break that arrangement to pieces. It has acted, under the authorship of Dominic Cummings, in a fundamentally untrustworthy way, without honour or respect for the rule of law. It has led to the insane degenerate spectacle of a prime minister unable to confirm that he would even obey the law.

In the face of that behaviour, the other pillars of the constitution had to step up. Parliament did its part. Using extraordinary constitutional innovations, it passed legislation to stop the prime minister forcing through no-deal a few weeks ago. And now the judiciary has done the same.

Some people have claimed that the case showed the need for a written constitution. There may or may not be good arguments for that, but they were not provided by today’s events. The ruling showed that Britain’s constitution worked. It may be mercurial, but that has the advantage of making it nimble. When the moment came to prevent an executive from running out of control, it did so.

This is Britain working, even under extreme strain and chaos.

But it is also something even more profound than that. It is the deep, system-level functioning of liberal democracy. This works by splintering power up, by sharing it out between governments and parliaments and courts and international bodies.

Brexit is presented as some sort of triumph of popular will. But in actuality it has involved a relentless attempt to massively strengthen the executive and dismiss other forms of democratic legitimacy, to an extent not seen in this country since the days of absolute monarchy.

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