Appearing on Radio 4's Broadcasting House
a little over a week ago, the crossbench peer, Peter Hennessy, remarked that the United Kingdom is now facing the 'most severe constitutional crisis involving a Prime Minister' in living memory.
With a narcissistic bungler occupying the highest office in the land, an acquiescent Conservative majority in parliament who are content to indulge the Prime Minister's incompetence, the greatest fall in living standards in three decades and the possibility that over a million people will fall into absolute poverty by 2023, the UK is looking in a particularly bad way a quarter of the way through 2022.
Generations of historians have striven to overcome our discipline's overriding focus on 'great men' – which stemmed from the notion pioneered by Thomas Carlyle that the genius or initiative of an individual could shape history. It is remarkable how the Prime Minister's imperfections and not institutional failings or incapable crown servants, as he so often claims, are at the root of today's crisis of governance.
When reading from a 'volcanic' diary entry written on Tuesday 12 April 2022 (the day that Boris Johnson appeared before Vicki Young at Chequers to announce 'in a spirit of openness and humility' that he had received a Fixed Penalty Notice from the Metropolitan Police), Hennessy told listeners of his concern for the constitution, warning that the 'decencies and probities and conventions of public life are not enough to constrain the ego that is currently filling Number 10'.
It would be easy (and habit) for Conservative MPs to decry Peter Hennessy's warning as the sour grapes of an 'unelected peer and stalwart member of the Establishment'. However, Hennessy is one of Britain's most sage and respected academics and has been strictly non-partisan for the half-a-century that he has been involved in Britain's public life. He is also one of a dwindling band of staunch defenders of the political process who likes politicians as a breed and often finds himself, like Peter Riddell, defending our elected representatives in spite of themselves. As a fellow (although far more prolific) Twitterer wrote on Easter Sunday, 'when Peter Hennessy becomes a rebel, the world is turning'.
For those who know him well, what was most shocking about Peter's intervention was the force with which it was delivered. Something of a schmoozer, he once remarked that one of his greatest pleasures after being appointed to the House of Lords was being able to 'have lunch with my exhibits'. Hennessy is not given to hyperbole or character assassination and frequently laments that we now have a national tendency to find ways to fall out, rather than to fall in with one another.
The focus of both myself and most academic and journalistic scribes interested in how the 'hidden wiring' operates has been on the man whom Hennessy calls 'the great debaser'. However, David Wolfson (the QC and former Justice Minister who resigned from the government 10 days ago) rightly argues that there is a greater constitutional principle at stake here. He notes that, while justice 'may often be a matter of courts and procedure', it should also be a guiding ethos which ensures that 'everyone in a state, and indeed the state itself, is subject to the law'.
As I put pen to paper, with Hennessy's palpable exasperation with both the Prime Minister himself and his transformation of a 300-year-old office into 'an adventure playground for one man's narcissistic vanity' ringing in my ears, Mandy Rhodes (editor of Holyrood Magazine
) has also unleashed a potent broadside against the wrong 'un-in-chief. With devastating clarity – which will still most likely bounce off its conscienceless target – Rhodes notes that 'deflection, dishonesty, and disregard for any semblance of integrity' have become the hallmarks of this administration, with the Prime Minister himself occupying a world where 'everybody's behaviour has consequences, apart from his own, and he can't even contain a smile as a mealy-mouthed apology slips reluctantly from his slips'.
What is equally frustrating is that – as Jacob Rees-Mogg's deeply patronising 'Sorry I missed you…' note to civil servants working from home demonstrated – this government also has an intense disregard for the highly dedicated and strictly impartial civil servants who are keeping the show on the road during this debacle. Although I should declare an interest with my better half being one of those working all hours in the service of the Crown, there is a clear disregard for those who have busted a gut to keep the country going since March 2020, with senior Cabinet ministers publicly doubting the diligence of those who give their utmost to the alluvial process of implementing the government's agenda.
Despite the cathartic sensation provided by venting one's spleen, it is blatantly obvious that my rantings – and those of any of us who can easily be painted as stooges of the Left, the Establishment, the Church or whatever straw man the Prime Minister has set up this week – will not compel him to resign and we must find other methods to restore accountability and decency to our public life. Hennessy proposes an 'oath' to parliament to oblige future occupants of the premiership to defend the constitution and the rule of law, although the experience of Donald Trump's four years in the White House suggests that a serial disregard for the norms and decency of our system can overcome a verbal commitment to proper behaviour.
Until there is a tidal wave of public outrage at this administration, delivered through the ballot box this May or in a national outpouring of 'enough is enough' at the next General Election, we will no longer be able to rely on what William Gladstone once called the 'good sense and good faith' of those who govern in our name.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh. He is currently writing a history of the 1979 referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly