‘Lying to the Queen Is Not a Good Look’: UK Artists React to a Court’s Ruling That Boris Johnson’s Suspension of Parliament Was Unlawful

In a momentous decision, the UK supreme court has ruled that the prime minister illegally suspended parliament.

Cold War Steve's satirical take on the UK prime minister's unlawful suspension of parliament, September 24, 2019. Copyright the artist.

Boris Johnson chose designer Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel in New York’s Hudson Yards as the backdrop to make his first public statement after hearing some very bad news from back home in London. The UK Supreme Court unanimously ruled this morning that the prime minister had acted “unlawfully” when he suspended parliament, dragging the Queen into the Brexit political crisis.

As the unrepentant politician cut short his visit to New York for the United Nations general assembly  in order to fly back to the UK and face parliament, he vowed to deliver Brexit by October 31. He disagreed with the judges’ verdict, and also downplayed the legislation passed earlier this month that would make a Halloween Brexit illegal if he fails to make a deal with the European Union first.

The artist known as Cold War Steve, whose satirical art about Brexit has gone viral on Twitter, was quick to post his own visual verdict on Johnson’s hardball strategy, which even some in the prime minister’s own conservative party feel has been reckless as well as unconstitutional. (A former conservative prime minister was among those who challenged Johnson’s actions in the Supreme Court.)

The civil servant turned satirical artist’s latest photomontage shows Johnson walking away from a car crash accompanied by his controversial chief strategist, Dominic Cummings. There have been calls for both to resign, though that appears unlikely for the time being, despite the momentous defeat in court. Johnson has not ruled out trying again to suspend, or prorogue, parliament.

Cold War Steve, whose real name is Christopher Spencer, calls today’s court ruling “a rare day of positive news.” The artist, whose work is now on show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, has been trolled for his often apocalyptic, satirical photomontages. He says that he is expecting the pro-Brexit right-wing press to declare the 11 judges the “enemy of the people.”

The London-based, Guyana-born artist Hew Locke shares with Spencer the widespread hope among both “Leavers” and “Remainers” that the UK will find some way out of the polarizing Brexit crisis, although that looks unlikely as long as Johnson’s premiership lasts. Locke personally supports an extension to Brexit (Johnson has said he would rather “die in a ditch”), and a second referendum. In the meantime, artists, gallerists, and museums, along with every other business in the UK, are being told by the government to prepare for Britain to leave the European Union on October 31.

The prime minister and his lawyers argued unsuccessfully in the Supreme Court and before that in a Scottish court that suspending parliament had nothing to do with stifling debate about Brexit. “Lying to the Queen is not a good look,” Locke says.

Locke is familiar with the Supreme Court building, which stands opposite the Houses of Parliament. He visited the court house while researching his public art commission inspired by the Magna Carta. It is sited at Runnymede outside London, where the famous charter that is a symbol of political rights was signed by a reluctant king in 1215. “It was empty at the time, but left a strong impression on me,” he recalls of the building in the world’s media spotlight today. “What fascinated me was how far the ruling went back in history,” he says, referring to the days of hearings last week over whether the prime minister’s actions were illegal and his advice to the Queen to suspend parliament was truthful.

Locke speaks for many when he says that he feels grateful to the campaigning businesswoman Gina Miller, who for the second time has taken the UK government to court over Brexit, and won. Her stand “took a lot of guts,” he says. She had to be protected by bodyguards on her way to the court hearings, having received death threats. Locke recalls knowing Miller when she was growing up in Guyana. “My brother, sister, and I would regularly go over to her house to play,” he recalls.

Hannes Koch, a co-founder of Berlin- and London-based art collective and studio Random International, says that it is as if the UK is suffering from a “collective iteration of Stockholm Syndrome, held captive by a small bunch of reckless (and deluded) amateur Machiavellis.”

Many expect a general election later this fall or early in the New Year, while others urge a second referendum. Koch thinks a general strike might be required to break the stalemate. “It would,” he says, “send a strong signal to the UK’s European partners that the country hasn’t lost its marbles.” In the meantime Johnson should be “thrown in the Tower of London at once,” for lying to the Queen, Koch says.

Meanwhile, the the first female president of the court, Lady Hale, whose delivered the bombshell verdict in a typically understated way, is now a hero to many on social media. The symbolism of her spider brooch became an instant talking point. The Sunday Times newspaper’s art critic Waldemar Januszczak tweeted: “the great Louise Bourgeois has been in touch from Valhalla,” referencing the French-American artist’s giant spider sculptures.

The art critic also applauded the designers of a black tee-shirt that honors the judge by featuring her spider brooch, promising to wear his in bed. Nearly 6,500 sold out in less than 24 hours, raising more than $19,000 for a charity that supports the homeless. The designer, Balcony Shirts, is based in Johnson’s parliamentary constituency of Uxbridge in West London.

Thomas Heatherwick’s studio did not respond to a request for comment.

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