I haven’t seen this pointed out yet, but the reason that prime minister Boris Johnson was able to suspend Parliament legally is because Great Britain is a monarchy. It’s a parliamentary monarchy, sure, but it is first and foremost a monarchy and if the monarch says sure, suspend parliament, then that is the law. The vaunted unwritten constitution of Great Britain essentially delineates what powers the democratically elected legislature has and what vestiges of absolute power are still retained by the monarchy. You just saw one. The right to suspend democratic rule.
Were Britain a constitutional republic the queen would be a tourist attraction and nothing more. But she has far more powers than the subjects—that is what they are, legally—either own up to or are aware of. And now her subjects in Great Britain are painfully aware of the scale of those powers. Why Great Britain and the Dominions of Canada, Australia and New Zealand persist in remaining officially subjects of the monarchy defies my understanding. Tradition, apparently.
And while I’m not sure how much of a bearing this had on the origins of the parliamentary rule in Britain, there’s always been distant echoes of the Roman Republic in British politics, structural echoes, as if the institutions were shaped with Roman history in mind. Certainly the scholars and aristocrats of Renaissance and Enlightenment England were steeped in Roman history, and in the original Latin. And is it a coincidence that the Roman constitution, also unwritten, allowed for the Roman legislature to be suspended in times of emergency and a dictator appointed? Results of such dictatorships were mixed for the Romans, and such appointed dictators helped hurry along the end of the Republic and the establishment of the Roman Empire. Within a few generations any pretense to democracy was shed and Romans lived under totalitarian rule. And when fascism was born in Italy after the cataclysm of the World War One it saw itself as the rebirth of Roman dictatorship and absolute rule. Mussolini fancied himself the new Caesar. He wasn’t. But ancient Rome is like a template for Europe. Or templates. There’s a Roman era for everything. But I digress.
Is Britain now finding itself in a political situation which has its roots in using parts of the Roman constitution as a model for Britain’s own? I don’t know, I just wonder, but when I heard the news that the Queen had agreed to allow the suspension of Parliament, I immediately thought of two things: the Queen nullifying an election in Australia in 1975 because she didn’t like the result, making a travesty of the democratic process, and I thought of Sulla, appointed dictator legible faciendis et reipublicae constituendae causa, that is Dictator for the making of laws and the settling of the constitution. That was in 82 BC. He retired after a year of furious change and reorganization. He fixed what was broken. Yet he set a precedent for Julius Caesar, and The Roman Republic lasted only another 37 years, when it replaced by an emperor to vast popular acclaim. Democracy died then, stone cold dead, not to revive for a thousand years.
We certainly have our own problems here is the US, but the worst of them—our president—can be taken care of by a regularly scheduled election. President Trump, were he capable of understanding the analogy, would see himself as the American Sulla, as would his followers, were they capable of understanding the analogy themselves. But unlike Sulla he flounders, a wannabe strongman but hopelessly incompetent. A buffoon. There’s no place in the American political system for a Sulla, and quite deliberately so. The men who drew up the constitution were as aware of Sulla as is Boris Johnson, who studied the classics at Oxford and can doubtless quote Roman histories in the original Latin. It’s hard to see how he doesn’t see Sulla as a role model here. The comparisons are too close. The vaunted British unwritten constitution has the influences of Roman constitutional law laced deeply within it, and that right now doesn’t seem like a good thing. It’s made this moment possible. It makes this new English Sulla possible. That can’t happen here without the US constitution being chucked out completely. But in Great Britain, as in the Roman Republic, it is laid out in the constitution itself. It is perfectly constitutional.
Has this been a profound moment in English history? Has something fundamental been shaken loose? Will there be other Sullas, ones who won’t step down after a year? Who can say. That’s a Rubicon to be crossed anon, if ever.