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Indian Polity

© 2019 The Indian Express Ltd.
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Last month, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sought to circumvent the first principles of deliberative democracy through a procedural technicality.

The PM, by “advising” the titular head of state, Queen Elizabeth, to prorogue (suspend) parliament for five weeks, would have escaped a in-depth debate around the modalities of the Brexit deal Johnson is seeking to put in place before the October 31 deadline. There was also a very real possibility of a disastrous “no deal Brexit”.

On Tuesday, the highest court in the United Kingdom ruled unanimously to enforce the supremacy of parliament, and, in doing so, established the resilience of the institutions that form the pillars of democracy during a political crisis that has vitiated the public discourse.

In a sharp and unambiguous 24-page judgment, the 11-member bench highlighted the higher judiciary’s responsibility in defining the limits to the powers of the executive. To do so, it rightly concluded, is not judicial over-reach but rather the essential task of the higher courts in a democracy, which values checks and balances to power.

The court also established, rightly, that the legal precedent and conventions that form the bedrock of the UK’s constitutional morality cannot be discarded for the exigencies of partisan politics. By trying to avoid a debate on a contentious and important issue, Johnson undermined the core principle of parliamentary accountability, according to the court.

It said: “The Court is bound to conclude, therefore, that the decision to advise Her Majesty 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.”

Accountability to parliament, as the judgment notes, “lies at the heart of Westminster democracy”. Since the people of Britain voted by a slender majority to leave the European Union, the country has been mired in a political crisis, with the threat of economic uncertainty looming.

Added to that, the prospect of the executive riding rough-shod over the legislature, claiming the backing of the will of the people, would be a challenge to the very idea of parliamentary democracy.

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom has made it clear that it is parliament, collectively, that represents the will of the people, not merely those few members who lead the government. And that the institutions that make democracy a legal and moral endeavour can stand against populism. It is a lesson that has resonance beyond the British Isles.

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