Rules of engagement

Put on trial for breach of an unpopular law, Clive Ponting effectively turned the case into an indictment of the Secretary of State for Defence for breaching a fundamental constitutional rule – that ministers must tell the truth to parliament. The ministers involved saw no need to appear in court to vindicate their action, so the proceedings were oddly skewed. In the public eye, the star witness on the rules that govern the triangular relationship between executive, legislature, and civil service, was Merlyn Rees. But the weightiest evidence was provided by the eminent constitutional lawyer, Professor Wade.

To this distant spectator, Professor Wade's evidence pungently recalled youthful studies of eighteenth-century constitutional struggles, when vital issues of state power were fought out as the judiciary consistently thwarted the pretensions of the executive. His testimony drew attention to the area within action is governed not by law but by unofficial rules and unwritten conventions. In Britain, so resistant to the idea of a written constitution, that area is unusually large. The stable operation of the political system is a function of that mixture of behaviour and attitudes known to political scientists as 'political culture'.

As the trial progressed, it seemed to resolve itself more and more into a question about British political culture. Whose action, the minister's in deciding not to authorise the publication of unclassified information to correct an earlier misstatement, or the official's in conveying that information to a Member of Parliament, was more consonant with unspoken assumptions about how the constitution is meant to work?

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