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The UK is in the middle of an all-consuming constitutional crisis

In one week, Britain's unwritten constitution has utterly unravelled.

House of Lords, Wikimedia

Britain is in the middle of a full-blown constitutional crisis. The crisis resolves itself around the definition of the referendum: was it a representation of the sovereign will of the people? Or was it a consultative act informing parliament of the electorate’s wishes?

Nicola Sturgeon and Martin McGuinness recognised the stakes of this question quicker than anyone else. A referendum has been called on the future constitution of the United Kingdom and the result has split along national lines. This has huge implications for the Union. McGuinness and Sturgeon are suggesting that the nation that went to the polls on Thursday no longer exists.

The Nationalists are claiming that Britain’s body politic is broken. The implications are only now dawning on politicians and the public. The Conservatives - ironically - have broken the institutions that they supposedly love. They'll get their 'sovereignty'. It won't be a sovereign United Kingdom though, but a sovereign English rump. If the Tories invoke article 50 and try to cling on to Scotland there'll be a deepening of the current crisis. Sturgeon has made this crystal clear. The SNP are hoping to effect their revolution at the ballot box in a new referendum on independence. Sinn Fein is calling for a referendum on the question of a united Ireland. Unionist hardliners may not let things get that far peacefully.

The key here, as the public have made clear, and as the Brexiters divined months ago, is sovereignty. But there’s no slipperier political concept, especially in Britain. The Queen is sovereign. Parliament acts on her behalf. The struggle is over who gets access, through the party system, to the prerogative powers of the State. The referendum was not a vote about the economy or a vote about taking control but the opening up of a monumental struggle within the British constitution - between the Crown and a People who have no intermediary institution to express their will.

Bizarrely, this means that two of the key players in the unfolding events are now the Queen and Jeremy Corbyn.

Over the last day or so, Corbyn has lost the constitutional levers of the Parliamentary Labour Party as his shadow cabinet slinks away. If he clings on to the leadership, the Labour party will no longer be a functioning opposition party. It’s likely that it will be forced to split. Corbyn is determined that his mandate is given to him by the members of the party - not the MPs. But this is not constitutionally correct, or is not, at least, the whole story. Corbyn, as the leader of a parliamentary party, has no claim to power other than his capacity to win the State. So he is ultimately drawing the Labour party out of its allotted constitutional role and putting it in opposition, not to the government, but to parliament itself and, via parliament, to the crown.

The only option within the current constitutional settlement is for Corbyn to step down or to declare - whether implicitly or explicitly - that the current make up of the House of Commons does not represent the will of the people. His current stance is to claim that he represents the will of his members not the will of the nation (this distinction is key). He is therefore joining Sturgeon and McGuinness by casting the legitimacy of the Crown-in-Parliament in question. The full implications of this are that the Labour party (under Corbyn) is becoming an insurrectionary party. This may be exactly what he wants. He is, after all, a republican.

If Corbyn doesn’t step down then the Corbynist reading of the people’s will on Thursday becomes crucial. It's the Tory Brexiters’ position in reverse. If he judges that there is now a constituency who he can push through the current political impasse then he has to mobilise them. But he has to reckon with the fact that they will be mobilised by other revolutionary forces.

Boris Johnson, in an extraordinary statement published in the Telegraph, has revealed the depths of his mendacity. When it becomes clear to the Brexit Ultras that he is supporting free movement of labour with no control over the terms of our exit from the EU the public anger will be extreme. Farage has now made his first move, talking of backsliding in the hope of mobilising his supporters once Johnson and Gove’s betrayal sinks in.

Underpinning the crisis is a decision about whether the referendum was a de facto 'election'. In fact, it was not, but in politics anything goes. So we’ve got a rolling constitutional catastrophe in which all of the key institutions of the nation have been delegitimised.

1. Her Majesty’s Government (no longer able to rely on a majority of MPs in parliament, because of the number of Tory eurosceptics and a lame duck PM)

2. Her Majesty’s Official Opposition (no longer able to count on its members to oppose the Government at the centre of power)

3. The Crown itself (now that the territorial integrity of the UK is under threat and the people it represents are split along ethnic/national lines).

We’re left with exactly the kind of chaos that the unwritten ‘genius’ of a constitution based on precedent, institutions and prerogative power was designed to avoid. The Queen’s decision to travel to Northern Ireland is a deeply worrying portent of things to come.

The crisis, if it doesn’t spill out into the streets, is for now contained within the Labour Party. But its implications infest the Conservative Party. If Cameron doesn’t call a general election the UK will disintegrate. The Brexiters, Johnson and Gove, will stop him from calling one with all their might. They want the future prime minister to come from within their own ranks.

On the basis of Cameron’s comments on Monday in the House of Commons they may get their way. However, the post-Cameron Tory leadership will be a toxic position in the face of Farage’s attacks. Oliver Letwin is already at work on the terms of the Brexit deal and will be the only Conservative who understands its implications. Yet again the leadership will rely on his expertise.

 In the meantime, Corbyn’s gamble implies that he thinks he can persuade the 52% to become a vanguard of the left not the right. The question remains whether he has the charisma and the Party structure to effect this kind of political education. He certainly doesn't have the media. Perhaps most importantly he doesn't have a nation to fix his future on either. He isn't betting on Scotland. He isn't betting on Northern Ireland. His politics are internationalist in a hostile environment inimical to international socialism.

Corbyn’s comment that he has "been on the phone to socialists across Europe" after the referendum reveals the failure of his politics. Podemos were smashed in Spain. Marine Le Pen is gloating. Racist attacks have spiked. This is not the time for a revolution. Corbynism has been revealed as moralism of the worst kind.

About the author

Freddie Foks studies modern British history at the University of Cambridge.

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