Les institutions politiques britanniques sont très complexes car elles sont un empilage de lois et de traditions. Il n'y a pas à proprement parler de constitution. Même s'il arrive aux Anglais d'employer ce mot. Il n'a pas le même sens qu'en France ou aux Etats-Unis.
Cela leur donne une grande souplesse : par exemple, le référendum (consultatif) style Brexit est une innovation.
Cette souplesse, dans mon esprit de Français, je la comprends : pas de constitution écrite égale souplesse, c'est facile à piger.
En revanche, j'ai plus de mal à comprendre la solidité de ces institutions. Pour moi, c'est un fait d'expérience, il me suffit de comparer l'histoire de la France et l'histoire de la Grande-Bretagne, mais je n'en discerne pas vraiment les causes (si vous avez des suggestions ...).
J'ai en tête ce passage du film L'armée des ombres où Paul Meurisse et Lino Ventura, débarquant à Londres de France occupée comme des extraterrestres.
Parliament has no right to plot a Brexit coup
The Victorians created the fairy story that our ancient liberties reside in Westminster, and Remainers are exploiting it.
Speaker Bercow tells the Edinburgh Fringe that “the House of Commons must have its way”. The Remainer MP Stephen Doughty proclaims that parliament has been “the crucible of our democracy . . . for thousands [sic] of years’” Sir John Major and Sir Malcolm Rifkind fulminate about the sovereignty of parliament and allude darkly to the Stuarts and civil war. The ghost of Charles I is resurrected in Boris Johnson, it would seem, with Dominic Cummings his Earl of Strafford.
When I hear such nonsense — inflammatory nonsense, at that — I put much of the blame on another opinionated MP, Thomas Babington Macaulay. His History of England (1848-55) was a bestseller, aimed at a vast public. In his own words, it would “supersede the last fashionable novel on the tables of young ladies”. He established the Victorian myth that parliament was the centre of our history and the fount of our liberties — the myth embodied in that vast and crumbling pile of pseudo-historical stonework on the banks of the Thames.
Macaulay wanted people to believe that his Whig Party and those he identified as its ancestors had shaped the nation by an unremitting struggle against monarchy: “a great party” over the centuries had “steadily asserted the privileges of the people and wrested prerogative after prerogative from the Crown”. He made the parliamentary struggle against the Stuarts from the 1640s to the 1680s the climax and centrepiece of British history. The previous centuries he found uninteresting — the idea of ancient English liberties he thought too populist a notion.
Macaulay’s narrative provided the emotive underpinning of the Victorian invention of parliamentary sovereignty, elaborated by lawyers such as AV Dicey and journalists such as Walter Bagehot. Parliament, they argued, could pass any law that was not physically impossible. This notion of parliamentary sovereignty is an elitist, pre-democratic vision dating back to the time when only a few wealthy men had the vote, and long before the era of inalienable human rights. But it has now been resuscitated in even more extreme form by Messrs Bercow and acolytes. They seem to believe that parliament, or the House of Commons alone, or even an improvised and temporary majority within it, can exercise sovereignty and govern in opposition both to the Crown and to the electorate.
This would indeed be sovereignty, absolute sovereignty. It has little or no legal, political or historical legitimacy. It is important to note that even Dicey, in the Victorian heyday of parliament, considered its power to be that of making laws, “neither more nor less”. It did not have the power to govern. The Crown — the government, the executive — has its own legitimate functions, and direct responsibility to the nation, as in every democratic system. The role of parliament is to hold government to account, not to be the government. To go beyond this is a flagrant usurpation of power.
Only once before has the Commons, in fact a small but determined minority, seized power on its own, abolishing the monarchy and the Lords, proclaiming itself sovereign and its Speaker head of state, and threatening with death any who denied its claims. This was in the 1640s, the period Macaulay and his present-day followers seem to find inspiring. It created perhaps the most unpopular, bigoted and repressive government we have ever suffered.
Parliament has certainly been an important and distinctive part of our history. It is one of the pillars of the state. When it functions properly, it is a vehicle for popular representation and a defender of rights. But the idea that parliament is and has always been the centre of our national life and the source of our freedom and democracy is a caricature of history. Our most basic and cherished freedoms have nothing to do with parliament, which they pre-date. The right to justice is defined in Magna Carta (1215). So is judgment by our peers.
The end of torture is due to the common law refusal to accept statements made under duress. Trial by jury came about because the church put a stop to trials by ordeal. Defence against arbitrary arrest goes back to the ancient common law writ of habeas corpus. These liberties were elaborated by Crown judges. It is simply untrue that the Crown has been in our history the source of oppression or that the people, through parliament, have been in continual struggle with it.
Parliament’s role, once it came into regular existence in the 13th century, and more crucially after 1688, was chequered. Even the publication of its debates had to be forced from it, and its response to democracy — gradually widening the franchise to tenants, to householders, to workers, to women — was a whole century of foot-dragging from the 1820s to the 1920s. On several occasions it was the use of the royal prerogative that forced parliament’s hand.
Those plotting some sort of parliamentary coup against a government trying to carry out a policy approved by the electorate (and previously voted for by parliament) should not get away with justifying their actions by invoking historical fairy tales. Parliament, far from being the “crucible of democracy”, was for most of its history the preserve of the powerful and the privileged. We must not allow today’s MPs to put the clock back and do untold damage to the institution they claim to defend.
Robert Tombs is author of The English and Their History.