The Briefing

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Part

The Financial Times

Does the United Kingdom need a “written constitution”?, by David Allen Green

Part

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Thursday, September 5, 2019

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Transcript

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated

It's Thursday, September 5, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part

Political Turmoil in the United Kingdom as Parliament Delays Brexit: The Uncertainty Caused by an Unwritten Constitution

A civil war couldn't do it, two different world wars couldn't do it, a Great Depression couldn't do it, but now Britain is facing a constitutional crisis, a legitimate constitutional crisis, a crisis that is made particularly acute because no one can actually hold or read the British constitution. That's because it is an unwritten constitution.

Britain is one of the oldest democratic traditions on earth. Democratic, not in the sense of direct democracy, but rather in the sense that the government gains its legitimacy from popular sovereignty. But Britain never has had a written constitution. It's been proud of that fact. It has a constitutional understanding and it has an ever-evolving common law, but it doesn't have a written constitution. Britain has been a little arrogant about that at times, bragging that its unwritten constitution is susceptible to far less manipulation than in the United States with a written constitution.

But the reality is that Britain's unwritten constitution has depended upon century after century of accumulated custom, and we are seeing the limitations of constitution by custom. This isn't to say that Britain is without documents — the Magna Carta of course, the most famous of all going back to the year 1215, the Bill of Rights to 1689, the Act of Settlement, 1701, the Act of Union, 1707, the Great Reform Act of 1832. But that's not a constitution, it is a succession of documents, none of those documents holding central authority nor even ordering how the government is to operate.

Britain is often referred to as a parliamentary system of government. It has its own system of the supposed separation of powers. But again, this is largely a matter of custom and etiquette and accumulated traditions. Many people would explain that British system of the separation of powers by pointing to the courts but also to parliament and then to the monarchy.

But actually, the British constitution, in so far as it has been traditionally understood, does not fully separate the queen from parliament. Rather, it is a system of the queen or the monarch in parliament. The government is expressed in terms of the sovereign's interest and the sovereign's personality. It is the queen's government. This individual is the queen's minister.

The reigning monarch in Britain actually, according to their own constitutional tradition, has the right to contravene any Act of Parliament. But, at least for the past several centuries, no British monarch has dared to do so. Benjamin Mueller reporting for the New York Times gets it right when he says, "Britain has never had a proper written constitution, a matter of some pride to Britons. While Americans haggle over their rules, British politics runs on an evolving array of laws and practices refereed by the so-called good chaps in government with their impeccable sense of fair play."

But as he points out and I continue reading, "Popular faith in that approach was severely shaken this past week when Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided unilaterally to suspend parliament at the height of a political crisis set off by his determination to achieve Brexit by an October 31 deadline with or without a deal from the European Union.”

Now any grammarian would criticize that sentence as an infamous run on sentence, but he actually does get it right. That is exactly what has happened in Britain. It is facing a constitutional crisis without the benefit of a written constitution. Going back, for instance, to the 18th century and into the 19th century, you had British figures such as Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservative theory, and Walter Bagehot who was another very influential figure. He wrote a book entitled The English Constitution. And even though you can't read the English constitution, you can read his book, The English Constitution, which is what many English constitutionalists do.

Both Bagehot and Burke bragged that having an unwritten constitution was superior to the American system of a written constitution because after all, you could make changes without national trauma. But that's the point. Right now, Britain is experiencing an extreme national trauma and it has no written constitution to offer guidance.

Back in 2013 in the pages of the financial times, David Allen Green asked the question, "Does the United Kingdom need a written constitution?" That was about six years ago and it was written with this kind of impasse in view. In a brilliant paragraph later in that article from 2013, Green wrote that much of the British constitution “is based not on law but on unenforceable convention. It is not without reason that the labor member of parliament, Austin Mitchell, has said that the British constitution is whatever the government can get away with.”

Another extremely important point made by David Allen Green is the reality that a constitution is not written and it is not necessary when things are going well. It becomes particularly necessary when things are not going well. And that describes Britain and its political system in extremist today.

The fuse on this explosion was Britain's Brexit vote early in 2016. The British government at the time headed by conservative Prime Minister David Cameron decided to turn to the British people on the essential question as to whether or not Britain would remain in the European Union. Rather than staking his own government's reputation on a position one way or the other, he decided to punt, effectively, and he turned back to the British people who surprised virtually everyone, especially in the media and political elites, by voting for Brexit, voting for an exit from the European Union. That's what the word “Brexit means.” It is the British exit, “Brexit.”

But the Brexit hasn't happened. The deadline is the last of October of the year 2019 which is now looming before the British government. The government of David Cameron fell because it lost political credibility when he obviously did not believe that the referendum he called for could lead to the British people voting for the exit which they did. He was followed by another conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, who staked her reputation on being able to negotiate with the European Union for an orderly exit. She failed. Parliament repeatedly turned down every one of her proposals, including increasingly members of her own party.

But then her government fell and May was succeeded by another conservative Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. He's the Prime Minister right now. But he's only been Prime Minister for a number of days and his days might quite literally be numbered. He may go down in history as one of the briefest serving British Prime Ministers in history. Boris Johnson is a former mayor of London. He became very famous around the world, particularly during the London Olympics. But he is also an extremely flamboyant character, a major proponent of Brexit. His credibility right now is that he was for Brexit. His major credibility right now is that he has demanded that the British leave the European Union by the deadline. He said he would not negotiate with the European Union, that had failed already. He said he would not ask for an extension. He said that was useless. But then his own party revolted against him because the idea of a Brexit without an agreement is so absolutely petrifying to the British political class that he faced an insurgency not only from the opposing Labor Party, but also from members of his own party, including the grandson of Winston Churchill, Nicholas Soames.

Watching what's going on in Britain got a lot more interesting when the queen got involved because the Prime Minister went to her and asked for a prorogue, that is, a delay of the opening of parliament that would effectively have removed almost all the time that parliament could have acted against the Prime Minister leaving the Prime Minister with virtual executive authority. But parliament rebelled and then Boris Johnson yesterday decided that he would call for an election. But calling for an election, which is generally uncontested in Britain, was contested yesterday, and Boris Johnson actually failed to deliver the necessary two thirds vote. That means that in the last few days he became Prime Minister, lost his parliamentary majority, called for an election, the election was then turned down by parliament, and now you have a situation in which parliament is not going to meet, but Boris Johnson is not going to be able to act.

But even that's not clear because Boris Johnson may eventually act without having explicit constitutional authority because, and you beat me to it, Britain does not have a written constitution that tells him exactly what he constitutionally can and cannot do. Britain has depended upon all of these centuries of custom to develop a system in which people knew, "We do that, we don't do this," but now the rules are off and there are no written rules.

Britain is now left in a position where at least some are calling for a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister and the custom has been in Britain that when a Prime Minister loses a vote of confidence, he or she resigns within a matter of days. But as it turns out, and again, you beat me to it, there is no written constitution that says that a Prime Minister must resign if the Prime Minister loses a vote of confidence.

But there's some who will say, "Well, that's just British politics. Why should the rest of the world be interested? Why should Christians, seeking to think biblically, be paying attention or watching this carefully?" Well, there are actually several reasons.

First of all, because Britain is and does represent one of the longest experiments in democratic self-government in world history. As a matter of fact, Americans should recognize that our own constitutional system of government is inevitably to be understood as being born out of the British experience in democratic self-government. The United States did not emerge without precedent, even as we declared and have printed on our currency that this is a new order of the ages, the new American order did emerge from a previous constitutional order. It was the British constitution.

But that means something else, and that is that if Britain's constitutional system of government should be seen to fail, it would be a radical indictment of democratic self-government everywhere it is found in the world. Britain's parliament is called the mother of parliaments. The failure of the British system would have worldwide consequences. It would be, in effect, a deep mark against democracy in a world in which democratic self-government is increasingly imperiled.

But there's a second reason we should all be paying attention, and Christians in particular. It is because this crisis does underline the importance of a written text. It is extremely important that a constitution be written. All those admonitions from Edmund Burke and Walter Bagehot and others bragging that an unwritten constitution could be amended more naturally than a written constitution, all of that now appears to have been a form of avoiding the obvious, which is if you do not have a written constitution, in a very real sense, you don't have a constitution.

The third big reason we should all be paying attention has to do with that fuse on the bomb, the Brexit vote. Even politically looking at the United States, it's very easy to draw a line from the Brexit vote earlier in 2016 and the 2016 presidential election in the United States. They represented a similar kind of populist upheaval within the political system, and of course confounding the elites in both systems within just the span of one year.

The Brexit vote was unexpected, so was the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. The elites on both sides of the Atlantic thought this could not happen. And that included the elites in the Republican Party in the U.S. and the elites in the Conservative Party in the UK.

But the biggest worldview issue of all has to do with what happens when sovereignty is compromised and given away. When Britain decided to join the European Union, it effectively began the process of surrendering its own sovereignty as a nation. This became exceedingly clear to average Britons when over the course of the last several decades, they found that their own fishing rights, and trade rules, and even rules concerning the packaging of food were being made by nameless, faceless bureaucrats in Brussels and at other European capitals with no democratic recourse. They could not even turn to their own parliament for rescue.

That means that sovereignty is an extremely important feature of what it means to be a nation. Surrendering that kind of sovereignty means that it is extremely difficult to get it back. This is one of the reasons why the United States, though being a founding member of the United Nations, has had a very conflicted history with international organizations. It's easy for Democrats and liberals in the United States to say, "That's a Republican thing." But it's very interesting to note that even democratic presidents have found it virtually impossible to work with international organizations when representing American interests. This is one of the reasons why the Americans, among others, demanded a security council with American veto power along with several other major powers when it came to the United Nations. The United States, regardless of all of its elevated rhetoric coming from people who said that we were a part of a new international order, the United States only entered that new international order when it had a veto power over anything important.

I'll admit that right now my sympathies are with Boris Johnson and the desire to simply get the Brexit issue over. Even the head of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby made a statement to the effect that the opponents of Brexit should simply surrender. It was a democratic vote. The British people voted. If you turn to the people and say, "You have the voice, you have the vote, you decide," and the people decide, then the British government will simply have to one way or another reckon with the fact that the British people decided to choose sovereignty over the internationalism of the European Union.

And Johnson, I think has it right when he understands that the European Union has no reason whatsoever to give Britain what it's demanding, in so many terms related to the exit. The European Union has to look at Britain as a major trading partner, it has to look at dislocation in the European economy as something they want to avoid, but not at any price. That was the lesson learned by the former Prime Minister Theresa May.

But again, a final lesson as we continue to watch this with concern and interest from afar, when a nation surrenders its sovereignty, it is excruciating, if not impossible, to gain it back. That's a huge lesson we dare not miss.

Part

Why Is Wall Street Becoming More Liberal? Wall Street Is Betting the Past Was Conservative and the Future Is Liberal

Next, while we're thinking about the intersection of economics and morality and politics, I turn to an article that appeared at Bloomberg, that's the news source formerly known as Bloomberg Businessweek. The Bloomberg name comes from the very liberal former mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg. But the point made here is that Bloomberg is a business interest, and that explains the headline, "The stock market has become a very liberal place."

Jared Dillian writing the article tells us, "Left-leaning behavior by publicly traded companies is being rewarded by investors." Here's why this is so morally significant: When we look at the realignment of American society according to the demands being made by the LGBTQ movement and other moral revolutionaries, we come to understand that traditionally one of the most conservative institutions in the United States has been the stock market. Why would that be so?

Well, it is because the stock market is made up of investors, and investors represent wealth, and wealth has been the greatest ballast for conservatism throughout the history of human society. That is to say people are more risk averse when they have something to lose. That's why the stock market has been a rather conservative institution in the United States. That's why we had better pay attention when we are being told that especially on social moral issues and political issues as well, it is now veering markedly left.

Jared Dillian writes, "Wall Street was a very conservative place politically when I started working in the capital markets in 1999. But it seems to have lurched to the left lately. It's not only," he says, "that many of the people who work there have become more liberal, but more importantly left-leaning behavior by publicly traded companies is being rewarded by the stock market."

Here again is something we need to know as we think about how societies change and political dynamics are either increased or decreased when you think of this situation. Let's look at the stock market. When you're looking at publicly traded corporations, the value of the stock becomes essential to the corporation's future. Therefore, it doesn't want to take actions that will injure that share value. What we're being told here is that now you have companies taking very left-leaning political and moral positions because they do not fear that it will hurt their stock price.

Dillian goes on to explain, "For decades, most public companies have chosen to remain politically neutral. That remained the case," he says, "even after the Citizens United Supreme Court decision on campaign finance in 2010 that held that the free speech clause of the first amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent expenditures for political communications by corporations. Most," he said, "expected the Citizens United decision to result in conservative political speech, but actually," he writes, "that it has been quite the opposite."

He points to the fact that, "Ben and Jerry's, a unit of Unilever PLC, recently launched a flavor of ice cream designed specifically to support Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign.” Now, let's just look at the ironies here. It's actually not even noted in the Bloomberg article. Here's the irony. You have a capitalist system — we're here talking about a stock market and a publicly traded corporation that is Unilever — you're talking about the very essence of capitalism and capital. You're talking about a major American corporation allowing one of its units to create an ice cream flavor to support a democratic socialist candidate for president of the United States.

How do you explain this? Well, Dillian is certainly right when he points to the emergence of the technology sector as a major force on Wall Street because as he notes, "That technology sector veers far to the left politically and in moral positions." He points to several left-leaning actions taken by these major American corporations and then writes, "There have been few consequences and no serious boycotts of these companies by conservatives or at least none have been effective.”

But then Dillian writes a sentence that he does not take to its logical conclusion, but we will. He writes, "Corporate America may have declared a political orientation for strategic reasons. Companies," he says, "today have more data and information than ever on their customers." He then makes this very interesting statement, "What works for Nike may not work for Bass Pro Shops."

That's profoundly true and it points to the fact that even in corporate America, we're really looking increasingly at two different Americas. Sometime back on The Briefing, I talked about the fact that at least some political scientists have looked at some of these parallels. One in particular looked at the fact that you could predict voting patterns, constitutional district by constitutional district, by whether or not that district was really marked by the presence of either, and the word “either” here is most important, Whole Foods or Cracker Barrel.

If you can just symbolize those congressional districts by whether or not they're really symbolized by Whole Foods or Cracker Barrel, you probably can predict nearly unfailingly how the congressional district is going to go in partisan affiliation and how it will vote in presidential elections. You could say that the same thing is reflected in this article in Bloomberg in which the dichotomy isn't Whole Foods and Cracker Barrel, but rather Nike and Bass Pro Shops. Now undoubtedly, there are customers who wear their Nike's into Bass Pro Shops and undoubtedly there are some people who go to eat at Cracker Barrel and then pick up some food at Whole Foods but not that many. The reality is that it's far more likely that people will eat at Cracker Barrel and then go to Bass Pro Shops or wear their Nike's into Whole Foods. It's all part of a big picture.

But for Christians, thinking about how we observe the culture around us, what's really interesting, and for that matter frankly alarming, is the fact that when Wall Street is recognized as turning in the liberal direction, indeed the article in Bloomberg said “lurching left,” that tells us that Wall Street isn't, in this case, leading the movement it perceives that it is following it. That's the big signal. Wall Street thinks that many of these battles are effectively over and that conservatives have lost, or you might put it another way. Wall Street is hedging its bets believing that the future is more liberal and the past is more conservative.

Part

Royal Drama in Thailand: King Vajiralongkorn Elevates Mistress to Official Concubine with His Wife by His Side

But next, as we're thinking about moral issues that may not have made major headlines in your part of the world, interesting news came from Thailand where we are told in an official and lavish royal ceremony, the Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn, he elevated his mistress to the role of official concubine. He did so with his wife, the queen sitting "expressionless at his side." Expressionless indeed.

There's a lot of interest in this story. First of all, that in the Thai kingdom the king can actually recognize an official concubine. That sounds very much like Solomon in the Old Testament, but it's even more interesting when you recognize that he did so with his wife in the picture and that's the big story. It turns out that the Thai people didn't like it. And so, even though the King has not expelled his official concubine, he has, on his official website of the Royal Household in Thailand, taken down the picture of himself with his concubine and his wife expressionless at his side.

Part

“Gay” Penguins in Berlin Zoo: Are They Simply Two Confused Penguins or Do They Grant Moral Permission for Same Sex Marriage?

But then maybe you did see the headlines in which it is claimed that at the Berlin Zoo, a famous pair known as the “gay male penguins” have adopted an abandoned egg and will hatch a chick in early September. The two supposedly gay penguins are named Skipper and Ping, the media report them as inseparable and they are taking turns, we are told, to keep the egg warm, that according to a Berlin Zoo spokesperson.

What's the big worldview headline here? It is the fact that those who are seeking to drive a moral revolution have to deal with nature. And nature is, let's just say, defiantly heterosexual. Nature is defiantly determined to reproduce and that takes a male and a female, which means that just like in the human world, it is — it still is — biologically impossible for two males to have a baby. That takes a male and a female. It takes both the sperm and the egg. It takes more than two male penguins identified politically as gay or not.

Christians looking at this see, at essence, two confused penguins. Those driving our moral revolution look at this picture, and this explains the headlines all over the world, see moral permission for same sex marriage. And so, there you have it. Just in a few minutes, all the way from a crisis in parliament to confused penguins.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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