Wednesday, 16 June 2021

The "Bad Chap" practice of government

 Way back in 2018 historian Peter Hennessey described Britain's uncodified constitution  as the '"Good Chap" theory of government,' and lamented its rapid erosion.

Some say the British don't have a constitution: " We just make it up as we go along." 

It is true that we do not have  a single  document in which the rules for government are set out. Instead  we have a mixture of historic documents (eg Magna Carta,) significant legislation (eg the Bill of Rights 1689, the Reform Acts,) Common Law, judicial decisions (declaring the prorogation of parliament in 2019 to be illegal) and precedents, parliamentary rules (Erskine May) and a whole host of customs and conventions.

None of these are "set in stone" and, as Hennessey pointed out, their smooth working relies on our governments to be composed of "good chaps (and,these days, lasses)" prepared to act decently and in accordance with the established norms.

I don't suppose the erosion of the system began with the Brexit vote, but it has certainly progressed rapidly since. Mrs May, for example, tried to  exclude parliament from any say in the implementation of Brexit, Mr Johnson tried to stifle criticism of its implementation by proroguing parliament, and now, after threatening to break international law,  blatantly proposes  to renege on a treaty (the Irish Protocol) which he himself signed not eighteen months ago.

"Good Chaps" seem to have faded from the scene.

 The latest deviation for accepted behaviour  may seem trivial but cold have serous consequences.

 The "Ministerial Code," which Johnson has signed, and to which he wrote a foreword, stipulates that "[T]he most important announcements of government policy should be made , in the first instance, in parliament."  Yet on Monday  Johnsen himself announced the postponement of the end of the lockdown restriction  by a month, not to parliament, but to the press at 6pm.

 The Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, has protested.  Can he do more?

The press can , of course ask  questions, but at a press conference the questioners are selected by whoever is giving the information  Reporters represent their probably biassed (if News GB certainly biassed) organisations  rather the public, and are all too easy to fob off.  

In parliament it is the Speaker who chooses the questioners, and they are , however imperfectly elected, representatives of us, the people.

At the moment I am reading a description by a Christabel Bielenberg, the Anglo Irish-born wife  of one of the plotters against Hitler, of life in Germany in the 1930s and 40s.  

Yes, I know, comparisons are far-fetched.  We are still a long way form storm troopers and whoever  needs to quote Hitler has usually lost the argument.

But there are parallels, and  this shameless government is dipping it toes in dangerous waters.

Come back the "good chap (and lasses.)"



  1. What we really need is for the opposition to do its job, and vote with the Conservative rebels against the extension of the draconian coronavirus powers.

    As long as Labour votes for the continuation of the legislation, there's nothing even a huge backbench rebellion can do.

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