How does the UK Supreme Court operate and what is it going to decide on prorogation?

September 18th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

The Supreme Court is a relatively new institution in the British constitutional system and few people know much about it. In my short guide to the British political system, I have provided a brief explanation of the Supreme Court here.

The court really has two decisions to make.

First, is the issue of prorogation “justiciable”? That is, is prorogation simply a political matter, in which case it would not be proper for the court to opine. Or is it a legal matter, in which case the court is entitled to take a view.

Second, if the matter is “justiciable”, has the Government – really the Prime Minister – used its prorogative powers improperly or unreasonably, that is in a matter intended to prevent Parliament from doing its constitutional duty of holding the Government to account.

An English court has ruled that the matter is not “justiciable” and so it declined to judge the Government’s action. However, a Scottish court found the matter “justiciable” and ruled that Government had behaved illegally. The Supreme Court is considering an appeal against both decisions from the parties who lost the original cases.

The Supreme Court is due to sit for three days, hearing the arguments and considering the evidence, and it is unlikely to reach a decision before Thursday or even later.

In a sense, the decision is academic because the Government has already failed in what its opponents judge was the intention of the extended propagation – that is, to stop Parliament blocking a no-deal Brexit. In the short time that it had before prorogation, Parliament rushed through an Act that technically should prevent a no-deal Brexit unless the Government can find some obscure way round this blockage.

In another sense, the decision is fundamental. In the short term, if the Goverment loses the case, then it might have to recall Parliament. On the other hand, if the Government wins the case, it might be emboldened to prorogate Parliament again before trying to push through Brexit. In the medium and long term, the decision of the Court will be a vital precedent on the scope of the power of prorogation.

I’m no lawyer, but I’m going to take a guess that the Supreme Court will decide that prorogation is a political and not a legal matter and will decline to express a view on the Government’s action. I wish it were otherwise, but we shall soon see.

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Can the positions of the political parties on Brexit get any weirder?

September 18th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

For three years, Brexit has been a moving picture with surprise after surprise. It’s a political soap opera that never ceases to amaze. So now we have three established political parties facing in very different directions but each with major doubts over their capacity to deliver their current position.

The official Conservative view is that the UK will leave the European Union on 31 October 2019 with or without a deal but that a deal is preferable and possible. The trouble is that there is no evidence that a deal is likely and, since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister two months ago, no firm proposals for a deal have been submitted to the other Member States of the EU. Meanwhile Parliament has passed an Act which declares that, if there is no deal, then we must seek a further extension of Article 50 to 31 January 2020. So how can we get a deal in the next month and a half and, if we don’t, how can the Government ignore the will of Parliament?

Then we have the Liberal Democrats who have just decided at their Annual Conference that the party’s position is now that we should withdraw the UK application under Article 50 to leave the EU. Apparently this will be the position of a Lib Dem Government elected at the forthcoming General Election. Except that there is no question of such a government and even the talk of up to 200 seats in the new Parliament is utterly fanciful. And, in any event, ignoring the decision of the referendum and staying in the EU without the mandate of a further referendum, can be seen as profoundly anti-democratic and will certainly infuriate Leave supporters.

So that brings us to the position of the Labour Party which has evolved this week – at least far as the view of its leader Jeremy Corbyn is concerned. He wants to win a General Election, renegotiate the terms of leaving under four pillars, and then put the new deal and remain to a second referendum, But astonishingly he states that, as Prime Minister, be would not publicly back or campaign for either option. So the British head of government would have no view on the most importance political decision since we declared war in 1939 – what an abrogation of leadership. But this ambiguous decision might just play well at the ballot box in an election since it would allow both Leave and Remain voters to back Labour if they are happy with Corbyn’s leadership and the rest of the Labour manifesto.

Of course, it is by no means certain that Labour can win a General Election in the next few months or even form a minority or coalition government. But, if it does manage to take office, can it really negotiate a better deal with the EU when the other Member States know that Corbyn as Prime Minister has no intention of supporting such a deal? And, if Corbyn himself is going to stay neutral in a further referendum, will he – as Harold Wilson did in 1975 – allow his Ministers and MPs to campaign on whichever side they support personally?

In short: can the positions of the political parties on Brexit get any weirder or more diverse? Well, let’s see what the Labout Party Conference has to say in less than a week’s time and what the Labour manifesto actually states once an election is called.

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Can anyone really understand Israeli politics?

September 16th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

Tomorrow Israelis go to the polls in a second general election in a mere five months. What’s going on?

As the latest report in the “Guardian” newspaper explains:

“Israel is due to hold its second election in five months after Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving prime minister, was unable to form a coalition government. Facing political defeat, he forced a repeat election.

Final opinion polls released on Friday suggest razor-thin margins between his ruling Likud party and the centrist Blue and White alliance led by the former military chief Benny Gantz. It is possible there will be no clear winner, which could kick off weeks of political deal-making with smaller parties to decide Israel’s next government.:

There could be a new deciding factor in this election:

“Israel’s Arab parties are expected to win significant seats after reunifying into a single alliance, similar to 2015 when they became the third-largest force in the Knesset. It is possible they could gather enough seats to block Netanyahu from continuing as prime minister.”

But the Israeli political system is unique in the world and you might like to know how it works in order to make sense of the election. Also you might like to know how the various political parties did at the last election so that you can see how much things change tomorrow. In which case, I recommend my short guide to the Israeli political system,

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Today is the Mid-Autumn Festival: ‘zhongqiujie kuaile’

September 13th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

A significant proportion of the global population – including the people of China – will today celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. You can learn more about this tradition here.

There are many ways to wish friends and family good fortune and a happy Mid-Autumn Festival, but one of the most simple and commonly used ones is ‘zhongqiujie kuaile’.

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A review of “Born A Crime”, the childhood memoir of Trevor Noah

September 10th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

I have been a massive fan of South African born Trevor Noah since in 2015 he took over the hosting of “The Daily Show”, an American satirical look at current affairs that I view religiously. This memoir covers the first two decades of his life before he became a professional comedian and it is written in a wonderfully conversational style through a series of stories that range from the hilarious (such as his childhood excretion in his grandmother’s Soweto home and his mother throwing him out of a car) to the tragic (notably his adolescent experience of physical abuse from his step-father and the shooting of his mother by that same man).

Noah’s mother Patrica Nombuyiselo Noah is black and Xhosa while his father Robert is white Swiss/German. At the time of his birth in Johannesburg, inter-racial sex was illegal in South Africa under the terms of the Immorality Act 1927 which explains the title of the book and why he could not be seen in public with either of his parents. In fact, Noah is light-skinned and, under the apartheid regime, was classed as coloured. Many blacks – including his grandmother – treated him as white, while most whites regarded him as black. Some coloureds hated him because of his blackness, while others hated him because of his whiteness. So he was bullied all the time and, as the constant outsider, he struggled with his sense of identity. 

On his own admission, Noah was a hyperactive child who loved fire and knives – as well as books and computers – and he was often in trouble at both home and school. He finished his education at 17 and, as an adolescent, he was a low-crime hustler in a black ownship who only learned to settle down when he found himself spending a week in a police jail. His memoir brings home vividly the cruel and unjust nature of apartheid as well as some of its absurdities (Chinese were classified as black but Japanese were labelled as white). His life was one of real poverty and deprivation, with the regular risk of violence, but his saving grace was a devoted mother who was full of aspirarion and (tough) love for him.

Noah’s special background means that he is multi-lingual, speaking English as his first language plus Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, Afrikaans and German. This skill helped him navigate some of the complexities of inter-racial life in post-apartheid South Afica and it has made him a marvellous mimic which explains how he can deploy so many accents in “The Daily Show”. 

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When a general election is actually held, could Labour win it?

September 9th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

Most recent polls do not look good for Labour with Conservative leads of between 10% (Opinium) – 14% (YouGov). But there are many variables to consider and a major one is timing.

ComRes has done a survey looking at voting intention before and after 31 October on the assumption that, before that date, there is still a prospect of the UK being out of the European Union by Halloween but, after that date, the UK is still in the EU and Boris Johnson has been shown to have failed to keep his promise.

In the first scenario, the Conservatives have a (narrow) lead of 3% but, in the second scenario, Labour has a (equally narrow) lead of 2%. So the timing of the election is likely to be critical and you can see why the Opposition parties do not want an election until it is clear that Boris has failed to meet his objective of the UK leaving the EU by 31 October with or without a deal.

BUT: there are so many other pondorables to take into account:

Will there be more resignations from the Government and the Conservative Party in Parliament?

Can Labour sort out its policy on Brexit? Will it really seek to negotiate a better deal and then campaign against it in a second referendum?

Will Boris Johnson manage to fight an effective ‘people vs the parliament’ campaign?

Will Jeremy Corbyn again prove to be a better election campaigner than parliamentary performer?

Will tactical voting – between Conservative and Brexit party voters and between Labour and Lib Dem voters – have a significant impact?

Will non-Brexit issues – such as the Tory’ spending splurge or Labour’s renationalisation plans – have an impact?

In short, the outcome of the election is still very uncertain and it’s going to be a febrile and frenetic few months in British politics.

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A (very) brief history of the River Thames

September 7th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

For the last five months, I’ve lived in a flat in a block which is less than one minute’s walk from the River Thames as it snakes its way through central London. So I see the river every day and, throughout the day and night, it changes level and character considerably because of the tides. An article in the “Guardian” newspaper explains the situation:

The name of the longest river flowing entirely in England may derive from “tamasa”, a Sanskrit word meaning “dark water”.

The Thames has always been brown, and will remain so even if one day it is entirely free of pollution. The brown waters are caused by eight-metre tides that scour its muddy estuary. They are the source of much of its biodiversity: allowing plankton to survive which feed off nutrients in the water column and provide food for fish.

Sixty years ago, however, the Thames was toxic. “The tidal reaches of the Thames constitute a badly managed open sewer,” the Guardian reported in 1959. “No oxygen is to be found in it for several miles above and below London Bridge.”

In 1957 the Natural History Museum declared the Thames to be biologically dead. The Victorian engineer Joseph Bazalgette’s brilliant sewer system, which saved London from the “great stink” of 1858, had been damaged during the second world war. Parts had fallen into disrepair. Heavy industry used the Thames as its free waste disposal service.

Not everyone was outraged. The Guardian reported in 1959 that a member of the House of Lords opined that cleaning the river was unnecessary: rivers were “natural channels for the disposal of waste” and allowing them to break up our waste gave them “something to do”.

Repairs to the sewers and tighter regulations, including to reduce fertilisers and pesticides from farmland draining into rivers, gradually cleaned up the Thames, as did broader economic changes. The decline of Thames-side industry removed pollution; toxic metals have reduced since 2000, helped by the switch to digital photography, which has reduced the photographic industry’s silver pollution.

A time-traveller from the 1950s visiting the hides at the London Wetland Centre (created from disused reservoirs in Barnes) would scarcely believe the great white egrets, kingfishers, hobbies and dragonflies that are testimony to a new, enriched urban ecosystem.

The Thames is more wildlife-friendly than it was, but it is not perfect. Salmon were reintroduced to the Thames, but this scheme seems to have failed. The inner Thames is too busy and noisy with boats for dolphins or porpoises to thrive (seals do not hunt using sound and so are more able to survive alongside water traffic).

A species as rare as a tiger still snakes through the capital – the endangered European eel – but it is in drastic decline. Like London’s citizens, the future prospects for this and many Thames species depend on the world beyond it.

Posted in Environment, My life & thoughts | Comments (4)

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside …

September 5th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

… and today I’m off for a day trip to Brighton before summer is completely over.

Of course, here in Britain, you’re never too far from the sea. But how far from the idea is the furthest location and where is that?

The answers are 70 miles and the delightfully named Coton in the Elms – as explained here.

Posted in British current affairs, Environment | Comments (0)

A review of the art house film “The Souvenir”

September 3rd, 2019 by Roger Darlington

Art house films always have limited appeal and, even though this one had rave reviews from critics, some people walked out of the screening that I attended of this British work written and directed by Joanna Hogg. It is terribly slow and exceedingly opaque, yet oddly compelling, and it certainly provokes thought and discussion. It tells the story of early 1980s film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), aged 25 and posh but unbelievably naïve, and her toxic relationship with the older and enigmatic Anthony (Tom Burke) who apparently works at the Foreign Office. 

The acting is superb, so it is astonishing that it is Byrne’s first role, and much of this acting is very naturalistic with Byrne as the central character being told to improvise everything. Also the composition and cinematography are frequently very striking and the use of music sometimes haunting. The main problem is the narrative. The relationship seems utterly unlikely and yet this is clearly an autobiographically-inspired drama and Hogg gave the leads her diaries and letters from this period of her life. 

For Hogg, this is an intensely personal film. Julie’s mother is played by Tilda Swinton who has been a friend of Hogg since they were both 10 and Byrne is both Swinton’s daughter and Hogg’s goddaughter. 

The title of the film is a reference to a painting of that name by Fragonard which hangs in London”s Wallace Collection, but there is only one scene featuring the painting and later a verbal reference to the gallery. At the very end of the credits, it is revealed that there will be a Part II and I understand that this has already been shot. At one point, Anthony tells Julie: “You’re lost and you’ll always be lost”. I think that this was the reaction of some viewers to the film itself, but I’ll be back for Part II and hoping that Julie finds herself.

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If a week is a long time in politics, this week could be one of the most extraordinary you’ll ever know

September 2nd, 2019 by Roger Darlington

Former Prime Minister Harold Wilson once noted that a week is a long time in politics. But even he never experienced the kind of week that lies ahead of us in the British parliamentary scene. It is going to be constitutionally fascinating and politically turbulent and historically seismic.

As the “Guardian” summary puts it:


A meeting due to take place between Boris Johnson and former Conservative cabinet ministers including Philip Hammond and David Gauke, was cancelled on Sunday night. Hammond declined a one-to-one meeting, calling it “discourteous” to cancel on the group. Parliament still in recess.


MPs officially return to Westminster, though in practice many are likely to arrive on Monday.

It will be the first opportunity for the Speaker, John Bercow, to give his response from the chair on the decision to prorogue parliament, a move he has described as a constitutional outrage.

The first step for rebel MPs in trying to stop a no-deal Brexit is likely to be a request for an emergency debate under standing order 24, which Bercow is likely to grant. In order for MPs to seize control of the Commons order paper – the parliamentary timetable for the week ahead – they will need to use the time to table a business motion and be permitted to do so by the Speaker.

If rebels can win the vote on the business motion, they can use the time to table a new short bill which will order the prime minister to seek an extension to article 50 to prevent no deal. It is still unclear how long that extension will be and how MPs can ensure Johnson will actually request a meaningful extension.

Legal efforts to stop the prorogation of parliament will also get under way in Edinburgh, where the court will consider one of three legal challenges.


The chancellor, Sajid Javid, is set to present his spending review to parliament – though this will very much depend on how radically MPs have changed the order paper. It will also be Johnson’s first prime minister’s questions.

The day is likely to be used to clear all the Commons stages for a bill mandating an extension of Article 50.


The high court in London is due to consider another judicial review of Johnson’s plans to prorogue parliament, led by the anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller with other litigants including the former prime minister John Major and the Labour deputy leader, Tom Watson.

It is unclear if the rebels’ bill will have cleared the Commons by Thursday but there is a belief that it would be better to ensure it has reached the House of Lords as soon as possible because unlike in the House of Commons, peers can attempt to filibuster the bill with a huge number of wrecking amendments which must all be heard.


Parliament is not due to sit on Friday or at the weekend but peers could table a motion to sit through the weekend and get through all of the potentially disruptive amendments.

Johnson has reserved the right to prorogue parliament as early as Monday and if the bill fails to pass before parliament is suspended, the bill will fall. If the bill passes, rebels believe that the government cannot obstruct the Queen from giving royal assent so it becomes law.

The situation if the bill passes is then highly volatile – it is possible Johnson could opt to call an early general election.

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