The Labour Party conference immediately understood the significance of the Supreme Court judgment against Boris Johnson writes Andy Stowe. It greeted the humiliation of the arch-Brexiteer with rapturous cheering and the euphoria fired up Jeremy Corbyn to give the speech of his life.
The court said that his advice to Elizabeth Windsor, the unelected head of the British state, “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.” If the verdict had gone the other way any future government would be free to suspend parliament whenever it wanted. The anti-democratic consequences of that are obvious.
To those who argue that the eleven judges had cobbled together a politically expedient decision in the interests of the pro-Remain élite, the Financial Times observed that courts “have for centuries exercised supervisory jurisdiction over whether government actions are lawful. In 1611, a court held that the King — who was then the government — “hath no prerogative but that which the law of the land allows him”.
Three decades later a British parliament chopped the head off a king who hadn’t quite grasped the legal niceties of that verdict.
A central theme of Brexiteer agitation has been that the British parliament is the only body which should have authority in the British state. The English nationalists behind the project refer to it as “taking back control”. The Supreme Court has given them exactly what they want and they are not happy with it. To quote corporal Jones from Dad’s Army, the 1970s TV comedy and Brexiteer favourite which evokes their mythic England standing alone against the world, “they don’t like it up ‘em”. Their preference is for Johnson and his cabinet to push through a no deal Brexit without any meaningful parliamentary scrutiny.
Supreme Court judges are the collective memory of the ruling class. We know that the courts will be no friends of a future Labour government. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. However, what they did on 24 September was to assert a democratic principle that governments should be subject to oversight. That is something socialists must support.
Johnson has two lines of attack against the verdict.
The first is that he respects the judges’ verdict but they are wrong to say he acted unlawfully.
That’s the “yes, I robbed the bank but I didn’t break the law” defence.
Election campaign will be ugly
The second is more sinister. It is an appeal to the hard right, increasingly authoritarian strand of the Brexit movement. Johnson’s fanzine The Daily Telegraph has been developing this position in recent weeks. For them the verdict is a victory for “lawyers, vested interests and professional lobbies” and it is now time for the people to rise up against these metropolitan, globalist élites. That is how the Tories will frame the election campaign. They will appeal to racists, nationalists, small business people and the most disenfranchised, demoralised sections of the working class. It will be ugly. Jacob Rees-Mogg has already begun depicting the verdict as a “coup”.
Corbyn anticipated this argument in his conference speech pointing out that: “Johnson and his wealthy friends are not only on the side of the establishment, they are the establishment. They will never be on the side of the people when supporting the people might hit them and their super-rich sponsors where it hurts – in their wallets and offshore bank accounts.”
Johnson is 45 seats short of a parliamentary majority. The man who said that his suspension of parliament had nothing to do with Brexit is now fuming that it has been frustrated by the verdict. By working with the other pro-Remain parties in Westminster the Corbyn leadership has inflicted an unprecedented series of defeats on the Tory hard right. The Supreme Court verdict unified the Labour Party after a fractious conference. It also restored much of the prestige and combativity that Corbyn had lost due to his Brexit vacillation. The door to a second referendum and stopping Brexit has been pushed ajar. Labour can it force open.
Tactically Labour is right to insist that a No Deal exit from the European Union is taken off the table before an election. This approach makes Johnson vulnerable to losing significant numbers of votes to the Brexit Party as well as preventing the disastrous consequences of such a rupture.
Labour’s policy platform on which it will fight the election is radical and attractive. These range from free prescriptions, a commitment to a second referendum, a state-run manufacturer of drugs which will channel money from big pharma to the NHS, a green industrial revolution and a national care service. The radical nature of the policies spelled out at the conference will make a big impact in a general election. A Corbyn-led government for the many not the few is within reach.