It is one of the ironies of the rise of authoritarian movements in Western democracies that politicians who claim to be strengthening the foundations of democracy work so assiduously to undermine those foundations. So it was especially satisfying on Tuesday when Britain’s Supreme Court soundly and unanimously slapped down Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s brazen attempt at an end-run around Parliament to pull Britain out of the European Union.
The intervention of Britain’s highest court in the tradition-encrusted world of British politics was in itself extraordinary. Created only a decade ago, albeit on the venerable foundation of the House of Lords, the Supreme Court goes about its business without the powdered wigs and flowing robes of lesser courts. In fact, Baroness Brenda Hale, the president, wore a widely noted giant spider brooch when she gave the court’s judgment that Mr. Johnson’s move to suspend Parliament was “unlawful, void and of no effect.”
Lady Hale made it clear that she was aware of the moment: “The question arises in circumstances which have never arisen before and are unlikely to arise again,” she declared.
That may have been a mite optimistic, given the inordinate strains that the anguished debate over Brexit has put on the traditions, practices and conventions that make up Britain’s unwritten constitution. Yet until Mr. Johnson became prime minister in July, the rowdy debates and inconclusive votes at least stayed within the bounds of democratic rules. If there was deadlock, it was a reflection of a bitterly divided nation, and not a flawed political system.
Enter Mr. Johnson, a politician known for colorful speech and disdain for fact, and his Svengali-like adviser on Brexit tactics, Dominic Cummings. Determined to get Britain out of the European Union with or without a deal — the latter a plunge Mr. Johnson’s own government itself has depicted as potentially disastrous — they set about sidelining Parliament, which has repeatedly voted against a no-deal Brexit. Their gimmick was to ask Queen Elizabeth to “prorogue,” or suspend, Parliament, purportedly to prepare for the new prime minister’s agenda, but in fact to severely curtail the time available to debate Brexit before the current deadline for a deal, Oct. 31.
The brazen misuse of the device, including the lies fed to the queen that the reason for shutting Parliament down was to prepare for the start of a new legislative agenda, drew vehement denunciations, underscored when Mr. Johnson’s brother Jo Johnson quit Parliament and the cabinet citing “unresolvable tension” between family loyalty and national interest. Opponents of the measure quickly sued in Scotland and England, soon bringing the case before the Supreme Court.
Unlike the United States Supreme Court, the British court is not normally an arbiter on political or constitutional matters, on which Parliament is the highest authority. That led to concern in Britain, especially among proponents of Brexit, that the judiciary was trespassing into politics. The high court in England used that argument when it declined to intervene.
But the unanimous judgment of the 11 justices of the Supreme Court, which covers the whole of Britain, was that it was Mr. Johnson who violated the established order by preventing Parliament from carrying out its constitutional functions.
The ruling does not resolve Brexit, and the Halloween deadline for Britain to drop out, even without a deal, still looms threateningly on the horizon. Mr. Johnson, who is in New York for United Nations General Assembly meetings, said he “strongly disagrees” with the court ruling but would respect it.
Given his history, Mr. Johnson is bound to try other ways of preventing another extension of the deadline. But at least his preferred route around constitutional barriers is closed for now.