Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeIssues XXVIII-2Comptes rendusBlick, Andrew and Hennessy, Peter...

Comptes rendus

Blick, Andrew and Hennessy, Peter, The Bonfire of the Decencies. Repairing and Restoring the British Constitution

London: Haus Publishing, October 2022
Catherine Marshall
Bibliographical reference

Blick, Andrew and Hennessy, Peter, The Bonfire of the Decencies. Repairing and Restoring the British Constitution, London: Haus Publishing, October 2022

Full text

1The title of this book, The Bonfire of the Decencies, is an obvious reference to the numerous “bonfire of the vanities” imposed by Dominican monks from the 13th to 15th centuries in Italy and France to burn heretical objects judged as insignificant. It is also a reference to Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel about ambition, politics and greed. Here, it is “the decencies” the authors are talking about and especially the lack off by politicians in Britain. The main culprit is in reality, Boris Johnson, PM from July 2019 to September 2022, and the ways in which he has damaged the constitution in a particularly powerful way.

2The book is divided into three parts. Part One “The Nature of the Problem” (pp5-82) and Part Two “The Problem in detail” (pp83-118) focus on how Johnson has inflicted wounds on the system which cannot be easily healed. The subtitle, Repairing and Restoring the British Constitution, concerns Part Three “Recommendations and Conclusion” (pp119-145) and presents a number of useful and practical solutions to the predicaments presented previously. The useful appendices are firstly, “a Timeline of Constitutionally Significant Events” since 1951 (in which the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act of 2022 is bizarrely missing, pp149-152); secondly, the “United Kingdom Constitution Monitoring Group Statement of Principles” which specifies the constitutional principles of the country (153-161); thirdly, “Recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life” made up of 34 recommendations for more integrity and transparency (163-169); fourthly, “A note on literature and methods” adopted by the authors (171-172); followed by 55 pages of notes and references on the sources used (pp173-238). There is no index which is to be regretted. Yet, this is both an easy and valuable book to use on one’s own or for teaching because of the amount of easy- access, up-to-date information it contains. It is also well written, in a firm but gentle style, with a number of amusing/appalling details regarding the last three years of British political life. This makes pleasurable reading for anyone interested in the British system of governance or who has been following, with increasing unease, the last seven years since the Brexit vote of June 2016.

3Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield is well-known for his work both as a commentator of British political life and, since 1992, as a professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary University, London. He is the thinker who resurrected the concept of the “good-chap theory of government” and who, through a long and successful campaign as an independent crossbench peer of the House of Lords, made the ministerial code (or the rules for ministers) public when a 30-year embargo prevented the public from having access to it. In this sense, he has certainly contributed to the transparency of government, and he has been bent on making ministers accountable if in breach of the ministerial code. He had also seen the ways in which the uncodified nature of the constitution was open to abuse and has, relentlessly since the 1990’s, been warning about the fragile nature of the system.

4Andrew Blick is professor of politics and contemporary history at King’s College London. It is rather fitting to discover that his PhD on the history of special advisers in the UK government was supervised by Peter Hennessy. He has also been very much involved in exposing the frailty of the system as Senior adviser to the Constitution Society and in editing the bi-annual reports of The United Kingdom Constitution Monitoring Group (UKCMG).

  • 1 See: House of Lords, Select Committee on the Constitution, 6th Report of Session 2021–22, HL Paper (...)

5Both of them have been closely involved in the Revision of the Cabinet Manual, published under David Cameron in 2011 and initiated by Gordon Brown. Peter Hennessy was one of the members of the Select Committee on the Constitution of the session 2021-2022 which required the urgent updating of the Cabinet Manual, when the Government did not consider it a priority in the wake of COVID1. Andrew Blick was called upon to give evidence as a witness. In effect, their book is very much the sequel to the report published by the Select Committee on the Constitution on the updating of the Cabinet Manual which made clear that: “As a matter of constitutional principle, ensuring adherence to the content of the Manual, in general terms, will ultimately be a matter for the Prime Minister” (p8). Here was pinpointed the central question at the heart of their book: what to do when the PM himself has breached the rules, defied accountability to Parliament and bent the uncodified structure of the constitution in such a way as to damage it?

6The authors start in the introduction with a useful explanation of “the good chap theory of government” an expression invented by Clive Priestley in 1985 and which refers to the need to “ share of basic set of values” (p3) and to be “able to and willing voluntarily to remain within the limits” (p3). They make clear – an important clarification for the present world – that the expression is old-fashioned and with cultural connotations of masculine sovereignty but that the spirit of the idea survives. What they mean is “the importance of self-regulation” (p3) which launches the rest of the book. How, in an uncodified system relying on “Laws, codes, conventions and expectations” (p1) and which is based on “states of mind” (p2), can the system be made accountable when the persons running it go rogue?

7Part One, “The Nature of the Problem”, uses the case study of the Johnson years to explain in fine detail in what ways the former Conservative PM abused the system he was meant to safeguard: “he was a source of disruption from the outset of, and throughout his tenure” (p5). Yet, one cannot help thinking that many other PMs from Walpole to Sunak have had questionable behaviours over the centuries. In fairness, Blick and Hennessy recognise that, quoting some famous examples such as Anthony Eden’s role in misleading Parliament during the embarrassing Suez Canal Crisis of 1956. Yet, in their view, there is something altogether more problematic and sinister with Boris Johnson who “exposed gaps in the protective coverage of the UK constitution that allowed him to proceed in the way he did” (p7). Therefore, there is a certain urgency in filling in such gaps because others, in the future, can carry on using the same techniques, regardless of the consequences.

8Using the constitutional texts available in Britain – “The Nolan Principles”, officially known as “the text of the seven principles of public life”, and the Cabinet Manual – they put side by side in several tables the selected texts and “examples of challenges, questionable activity, or outright violations” (p17) of the Johnson years. The ways in which the former PM has breached standards during his three-year term is glaringly exposed in this surprising but powerful presentation. From the Prorogation of Parliament in September 2019, through the attempts to undermine his own treaty commitments with the Northern Ireland Protocol (“negotiated in bad faith”, p20), to “the misleading accounts” (p21), in June 2022, over Conservative MP Chris Pincher which led to Johnson’s demise, it becomes clear – if this had not been the case before – that Johnson’s “desire for personal political survival seemed to take priority over anything else” (p17). The conclusion is very stark which states that “an absence of self-regulation, therefore, to a significant extent leaves the system exposed” (p30).

9Self-regulation is essential in a system which has very few ways of putting constraints on those in power. The other table presented (pp31-38) comments on the limits available to just put a stop to bad behaviour in an uncodified structure in which conventions and practices are not “hard law” (p33). Removing a leader for “transgressing norms” (p36) as was the case with Johnson was only done because he had become an electoral liability, removing the idea of any form of integrity in his outing. Relying on external forces such as the public or the media is complicated because “constitutional questions […] can be cloudy, even opaque, and clothed in deeply unexciting language” (p37).

10Throughout the years, various constitutional texts have appeared from the Questions of Procedure for Ministers in 1992 later to be known as The Ministerial Code in 1997, the Civil Service Code in 1996, the Seven Principles of Public Life in 1995 to the Cabinet Manual in 2011. If the first two have some law enforcement mechanisms, the last two do not and are just guidance documents to help the PM take decisions. This leads the authors back to the original question about what to do if the PM himself is the source of the problem. Interestingly, the authors consider that the semi codification of the constitution of the above quoted texts is not a good sign. It is “suggestive of a decline in implicit trust-based forms of regulations” (p42). One can only agree firstly because it does not take sufficiently into account the historical setting of the constitution, dilutes the question with too many texts and exposes the lack of enforcement.

11The big shadow lurking in the book’s background is Brexit and the impact it is having on the UK, its nations and its constitutional system. For the first time ever, direct democracy, in the shape of the referendum came in direct opposition with parliamentary sovereignty (pp45-46). Quoting the Conservative Dominic Grieve, Attorney General from 2010-2014, the authors hope that it “is not to say that there will not be a settlement back when people start behaving and respecting the conventions and realising their advantages” (p45). Yet the international situation and the two predicaments of “backsliding” and “populism” (p51) do not inspire any confidence to the authors in a context of “erosion of norms” (p47).

12Blick and Hennessy identify thirteen worrying signs – from the “denigration of lawyers” to “challenges to the status and impartiality of public institutions and office holders” (pp51-53) – which are “anxiety-inducing” (p54) and which are directly imputable to Johnson’s lack of integrity. The end of part one tries, with varying success, to make sense of how such an unsuitable man could have risen to the position of PM. Once again, with Johnson, there is an attempt at trying to analyse his weaknesses and forces but the end result is the same: Johnson got into power and was the architect of the landslide election of December 2019. Therefore, the Conservative Party is not the only reason for his ascent. A number of facilitators around the man, but also the very context of 2019 allowed Johnson to get into to power (Corbyn was also not a pleasant alternative for a number of voters).

13Moving on to their second part, the authors analyse “the problem in detail” (p83) by which they mean how the British Constitution is showing troubling signs of “departures from constitutional conventions” and “unlawful and illegal activities” (p83). If Johnson is again the prime target here – mostly for a lack of restraint in the language he chooses to use even as Foreign Secretary or as PM – others are guilty of not behaving properly. Rishi Sunak – who was fined, like Johnson, for lack of social distancing and who was found to have a Green Card to work in the USA and Priti Patel, the former Home Secretary under Johnson, accused of bullying – are seen as other breakers of the unenforceable Ministerial Code. Another table (pp91-94) shows in how many instances the code was broken for “questionable activity” under Johnson with no consequences for the persons involved. The lack of integrity was exposed by the great number of departures of civil servants during the Johnson years who had no other way to express their discontent. The Civil Service Code and its 4 pillars of “integrity, honesty, objectivity, impartiality” (pp113-118) are presented as having been badly damaged too during the Johnson years with a number of shortcomings exposed during the pandemic along with a number of civil servants trying to do their job under trying circumstances, where the twin combination of lack of trust and of truth exposed them.

14The third part, devoted to the recommendations, allows the reader to understand how much the two authors have thought about ways of preventing what is, for them, an obvious “backsliding” into unchartered dangerous territory for the British constitution. The main predicament, that they are aware of, is that any system – codified or not – relies on “individuals of good intention and sound judgement” (p122) and without whom the edifice is exposed or in danger of collapse. The solutions provided are a pragmatic combination of trying to do everything to avoid bad behaviour but when it happens, to look at ways of imposing responsibility. This is a rather old-fashioned way of looking at mending problems in the time-honoured fashion of evolution without revolution. In this sense, Hennessy and Blick follow the footsteps of the “good-chap theory of government” that they are attempting to bring up to date. Their proposals are of three sorts: “straightforward”, “ambitious” and “more extensive” (p123). Some of the simple solutions are to enforce The Cabinet Manual and the Ministerial Code – the potential of enforcing the latter in a justiciable way having been opened up by the High Court in December 2021 (pp128-9). In such a case, constitutional principles could become enshrined in law (p130) opening new routes to legal enforcement. The next step would be to ask the Prime Minister to take an oath in the House of Commons promising to uphold the rules of the constitution (pp132-3) which would force the executive to recognise the legislative as a key element of checks and balances in the system. The collegial work done in Committees is an important element of integrity. The last step would be to consider codifying the constitution, even though the authors are well aware of the pitfalls of such an enterprise, but they do consider several possibilities of setting this up (p144), from a Royal Commission, a Citizens’ Assembly, or a specially elected assembly, with a ratification through a referendum. This would mean getting rid of A.V. Dicey’s central “Sovereignty of Parliament” once and for all.

  • 2 Stephen Davies, The Economics and Politics of Brexit. The Realignment of British Public Life (Great (...)

15The conclusion of the book is a work in progress. If the main target is Johnson, perhaps it would have been useful to look into the reasons why such a man as Boris became PM. He did not jump onto the political scene as the disturber in chief all of a sudden. The realignment of British politics which took place before the Brexit years, allowing a populist shift to the right in the Conservative Party, had a lot to do with what happened in the last seven years2. Another line of approach would have been to denounce the abuse of the historical language of political deference for populist reasons by the members of the ERG as well as by a loose cannon such as Cummings. This enabled Johnson to try and pull one last trick in July 2022 by saying that the people had elected him at the General Election of December 2019. In so doing, he further exposed the tension between “direct democracy” and “parliamentary democracy” already present at the time of the Brexit referendum.

  • 3 J. W. Mueller, “What is Populism?”, Workshop Friday 26 Feb. 2016, Standford University, https://pol (...)

16If Blick and Hennessy offer a number of valuable recommendations, a lot of what they say amounts to getting those in power to commit to the rules and holding them to their words if they do not – which seems to be a minimum in a Liberal Democracy. The series of scandals that have tainted Johnson personally make us wonder about the future of the ‘British model of government’, that is to say about the belief that ‘the British constitution is a state of mind’. Johnson’s popular majoritarianism could never correspond to a politics that is devoid of lies and broken promises to test the system. Populism has many contested definitions but there is one that sticks and has got Johnsonian echoes, J W. Mueller’s saying that “what is distinctive about populist regimes is that they practice clientelism and discriminatory legalism with a clean conscience3”.

17Perhaps the only way forward is to recognise the worth of the Anglo-British historic form of deference, with the help of politicians who will be able to regenerate trust, with a sense of the civil art of politics which has made Britain such a successful state. Essentially that political deference is a political language of conciliation and arbitration and not the language of the ego – especially not in the one who leads and who is supposed to enforce probity. An ethics of deference would be much more conducive to behaviours which would ease relations and re-evaluate the language of civility, not for social reasons only, but mainly for politically democratic reasons, understanding too that there is something very different in the British system, which makes it much more open to abuse by those who run it, than in other liberal democratic systems.

  • 4 Catherine Marshall, Political Deference in a Democratic Age. British Politics and the Constitution (...)

18In the end, deference, believed to have disappeared – but very much alive in Blick and Hennessy – is just the glue to the system. Perhaps it would be better to say that it is the last pillar in A. V. Dicey’s system of checks and balances along with the sovereignty of parliament, the rule of law and conventions4. Without deference to conventions, the system is unstable. It would be better to see this and accept that the British system is fundamentally different to any other one, that it is based on values, on constitutional habits, on ways of behaving which are rooted in the historical past and that is a fine-tuned machinery. And this machine requires respect not because it is old and damaged, but because it is a truly magnificent device in favour of liberty that pales into comparison with codified rigid constitutions found elsewhere. Reminding the public of its worth seems to go without saying for the two authors, but it is always better saying so and seeing that codification would have unseen consequences on the political system that could undermine it even more.

Top of page


1 See: House of Lords, Select Committee on the Constitution, 6th Report of Session 2021–22, HL Paper 34, Revision of the Cabinet Manual, Ordered to be printed 30 June 2021 and published 8 July 2021, Published by the Authority of the House of Lords. consulted 23 February 2022.

2 Stephen Davies, The Economics and Politics of Brexit. The Realignment of British Public Life (Great Barrington, MA]: AIER, 2020).

3 J. W. Mueller, “What is Populism?”, Workshop Friday 26 Feb. 2016, Standford University, consulted 22 March 2022.

4 Catherine Marshall, Political Deference in a Democratic Age. British Politics and the Constitution from the Eighteenth Century to Brexit, (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), pp. 102-7.

Top of page


Electronic reference

Catherine Marshall, “Blick, Andrew and Hennessy, Peter, The Bonfire of the Decencies. Repairing and Restoring the British ConstitutionRevue Française de Civilisation Britannique [Online], XXVIII-2 | 2023, Online since 02 November 2023, connection on 30 November 2023. URL:; DOI:

Top of page

About the author

Catherine Marshall

CY Cergy Paris Université

Catherine Marshall is Professor of British Studies at CY Cergy Paris Université in France (formerly the Université of Cergy-Pontoise), Director of the Master’s degree ‘Political Ideas in a Digital Age’. Her research focuses on political ideas in Victorian Britain and on their legacy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Her most recent publications are a monograph entitled Political Deference in a Democratic Age. British Politics and the Constitution from the Eighteenth Century to Brexit with Palgrave (Palgrave, 2021) and two articles, one, in Rivista di Politica (April-June 2022) on Walter Bagehot and the concept of deference, and the other, in Pouvoir (Sept 2022) on the constitutional education of Elizabeth II. She has also just co-edited an issue of the RFCB on “One Nation Conservatism from Disraeli to Johnson” (2023, Her next two projects are an international conference on Disraeli (for 2024) and a monograph on the role and the invisibility of Liberal women in Liberal Victorian England.

By this author

Top of page



The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search