Former government legal chief gives insight into ‘Who Runs the Country?’

Sir Jonathan Jones KCB QC gave an illuminating insight into ‘Who Runs the Country?’ during his 42 lecture to Perse students.

From 2014 to 2020, Sir Jonathan was Head of the Government Legal Service, the branch of the Civil Service which provides legal advice to the government and represents it in court proceedings.

Sir Jonathan explained that while the UK does not have a single written constitution, there are still many important constitutional rules that have been committed to the statute books.

He added that the sovereignty of parliament to make laws is paramount, with Acts of Parliament being bills that have been approved by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords and given royal assent by HM The Queen.

As a result, Sir Jonathan said the late Labour MP Austin Mitchell once described the British constitution as “whatever the government can get away with”.

However, he outlined there are several constraints that ensure such a situation should not occur.

These include the government having to obey the law, giving the example of the decision to prorogue parliament during the run-up to the Brexit deadline in 2019 being deemed unlawful by the Supreme Court.

Political pressure, whether from parliament itself, other political parties, pressure groups or the media, can also act as a balance, while unwritten rules, conventions and practices of behaviour and decency that the government is expected to go along with – political historian Peter Hennessy’s ‘good chaps’ theory – help keep it under control.

Ultimately though, Sir Jonathan concluded that a government with a substantial majority in the House of Commons has the power to enact laws to suit its purposes.

Following the talk, he held a seminar with Sixth Form politics students, answering a wide range of questions including whether the UK should move to a single written constitution and if so, what should be included within it.

Afterwards, Sir Jonathan said: “I was really pleased to see how interested the students were because there are some big issues facing the country and this goes to the next generation of people making judgements or maybe even playing a role in how we’re governed.

“What standards apply in public life and what laws are made are all very big questions for us, not least in a post-Brexit world, coming out of Covid, with all sorts of challenges for our economy and international relations. It was really good to see how engaged the students are with these issues.”


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