Brexit was meant to grab power from hated bureaucrats in Brussels and hand it back to a sovereign British parliament. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ LEON NEAL
Brexit was meant to grab power from hated bureaucrats in Brussels and hand it back to a sovereign British parliament. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ LEON NEAL

The term “mother of parliaments”, which was uttered in the 19th century in reference to England, has often been used to reinforce the UK’s idea of itself as a mother of democracy itself.

It’s a reputation that’s been centuries in the making and was reinforced in the last century as the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy was adopted by nations that were formerly part of the British Empire.

One can have a view about colonialism and its legacy but what can’t be denied is the uniqueness of the British constitutional arrangement. The idea of a constitutional order that endures for centuries without an actual written document is something to behold and unlikely to be seen in practice again.

It is governance that evolved over centuries, informed by a set of values and rules that aren’t contained in any particular code. Some of these are enshrined in law and others are purely a reflection of consensus within the society.

Central to this has been the idea that parliament is sovereign, which itself evolved over centuries reflecting struggles and conflicts that eventually settled the roles of key institutions from the monarchy to the church.

So the Financial Times was hardly exaggerating when it likened Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision this week to suspend parliament, in an apparent move to force a hard Brexit and thwart MPs who stand in his way, to detonating a bomb.

It’s a full-frontal attack on Britain’s representative democracy and at any other time before the Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump in the US it would have been unimaginable.

It’s a sign of the times that a prime minister, in pursuing a narrow political goal that he doesn’t have majority support for, is willing to risk going down in history as the one who attempted to dismantle a democratic system that took centuries and countless lives to to build.

How this will end is anyone’s guess, but what is clear is that it has the capacity to inflict enormous damage and entrench divisions and demons unleashed by that fateful 2016 referendum.

Less than 24 hours after the decision, by a prime minister who doesn’t have a parliamentary majority and has yet to lead his party to an election, the leader of Johnson’s Conservative Party  in Scotland resigned and at least 1.3-million people signed a petition against what speaker of the house John Bercow described as a “constitutional outrage”.

The dismay was evident in newspaper headlines on Thursday, which reflected the division spawned by a referendum that produced the decision to withdraw from a single market of half a billion people that Britain had been intertwined with for more than four decades. 

“Uproar” and “outrage” were prominent in the front pages of the Guardian and Financial Times, while newspapers that have  supported Brexit were more benign. Headlines in the latter perhaps showed their ambiguity, uneasy about the method though sympathetic towards the ultimate goal. So they went with terms such as “gloves are off” and “Johnson goes for broke”.  Not condemnation, but hardly a ringing endorsement.

One of the rallying cries of the Brexit debate was that it would take power back from unnamed and hated bureaucrats in Brussels and hand it back to a sovereign British parliament.

How ironic then that the government has decided that the best course of action is to close down that very parliament and shut the representatives of the people out of the debate as it seeks to push through a no-deal Brexit — the prospect of which has already made the UK poorer and weaker.

And markets are bracing for more chaos and are treating the pound as if it was an emerging-market currency. A measure of implied volatility for the next two months — taking us to a day before the October 31 Brexit deadline — signals that sterling will have the biggest price swings of any major currency except the rand.

How this “very British coup” pans out clearly has investors nervous.