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Professor Explains Britain's Unwritten Constitution


So I spent some time this morning tackling a pile of papers on my desk here. They were all the Brexit timelines I had printed this past week, predicting what will happen next in the U.K. And I have now ripped them all up, as they have been completely overtaken by events. No one seems to know what will happen next, perhaps including Prime Minister Boris Johnson. One of his recent moves to unilaterally suspend Parliament set off cries of constitutional crisis. The Financial Times wrote, quote, "Boris Johnson has detonated a bomb under the constitutional apparatus of the United Kingdom." But here's the thing - the U.K. has no written constitution; it never has.

So let's bring in an expert on Britain's unwritten constitution, Lord Norton of Louth. He's a professor of government at the University of Hull in England.

Lord Norton, welcome.

LORD PHILIP NORTON: Thank you very much. Glad to be with you.

KELLY: What does constrain Boris Johnson or any other political leader in Britain with no written constitution?

NORTON: Well, a lot of it is actually written; it's just not codified. It's not drawn together in any single form. But like any other nation, we have a lot of statutes; that is, acts of Parliament that bind. And we go along with quite a number of conventions as well that constrain, that people comply with. They have no legal force, but they are complied with because they're morally correct. They're necessary in order to make the system work. And these normally provide, if you like, the oil in our constitution machinery. They relate the formality to the political realities. So it actually facilitates, rather than hinders, the political system.

KELLY: So if I'm hearing you correctly, the unwritten constitution amounts to laws that are written down and then all kinds of conventions and practices that are just understood and generally respected.

NORTON: Yes, and quite powerful. I mean, it's a convention of the constitution. For example, the queen signs any bill that's been passed by both houses of Parliament. Legally, she could refuse to give her assent to a bill, but the last time a monarch refused her assent was in March 1708, when Queen Anne vetoed the 1707 Scottish Militia Bill. So it's so well established that there's not going to be any deviation from it.

KELLY: Would you disagree that the prime minister, that Boris Johnson has been upending established precedent, customs, the unwritten constitution, since he came to office?

NORTON: It's not that he's using extant powers but in a novel way. Say, for example, prorogation - that is, getting the queen to prorogue Parliament - that is, stop it until this new session. It's not that that use of prorogation is unusual; it is the fact the length of time that he seeks the period to prorogue Parliament, which is the longest in 90 years. So we are seeing things that are unusual and unprecedented, but that power's within the extant system.

KELLY: From this side of the Atlantic, it looks as though every day the U.K. is sailing further into uncharted waters. So let me just put this basic question to you - concerns being raised about the future of British democracy. Do you share those concerns, or do you believe that the system will right itself and is functioning as it was designed to?

NORTON: Yes. It's not so much that they're uncharted waters; it's rather they're extraordinary choppy waters. So we may reach a period of calmness because of two consequences. When one resolves the issue of Brexit - hopefully, eventually, we will get there - and that, some say, to then a general election, where, if you like, the political system rights itself, and there's a clear majority for one party in the government, then the water stops being that choppy, and in essence, we know where we are.

KELLY: And are you optimistic that that will happen, that these waters will calm?

NORTON: I think they will. It's a matter of time for when they achieve that. The danger is there are countervailing pressures of people saying, well, oh, dear. This is dreadful. We must change the system. And therefore, you're getting calls for all sorts of things, like a codified constitution, changes to Parliament and the second chamber. And the danger is some of those might actually create even more problems than we've got at the moment. So we've got to be careful we don't rush into them and actually make the situation far worse than otherwise it would be.

KELLY: I have to say, compared to a lot of people that I've interviewed in the U.K. in recent days and months, you don't sound particularly worried.

NORTON: Oh, I'm worried. I'm concerned. But it's, still, standing back, making sense of it and trying to think through, how is this going to be resolved? And actually analyzing what the problems are before rushing round, as some do, presenting the solutions without actually thinking about how to resolve present problems.

KELLY: Well, thank you very much.

NORTON: You're very welcome.

KELLY: That's Phillip Norton. He's a professor of government at the University of Hull in England. Lord Norton, thanks again.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "RED EYE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.