Notes from the Margins | Chronicle of a Coup Foretold: Boris Johnson’s assault on democracy must be stopped

To pursue No Deal without consensus is bad enough, but to undermine parliament in order to achieve it is a gross violation of executive power, and must be opposed by anyone who cares about the integrity of representative democracy in the UK, writes Matt Carr.

New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, August 28, 2019 18:40 - 0 Comments

By

Share

Today, after weeks of hints, denials, and rumours, the UK has lurched closer towards constitutional and political collapse when the Boris Johnson government announced that it would ask the Queen to suspend parliament in the second week of September, and reconvene with a Queen’s Speech a month later, on 14 October. Many people have seen this coming for some time and have been actively preparing to prevent it.

It is now clear that everything the Johnson government has done since 92,000-odd  Tories voted it into office last month, has been part of a strategy that is far more coherent than anything its opponents have had to offer. First, the hardline law-and-order agenda to please the Tory base and win over Brexit Party defectors: More prisons, more Stop & Search, more ‘terror’ for criminals and more money for police. Then the fake promises about increasing public spending and ‘offers’ of already-existing money for the NHS. Rethinking HS2; better Broadband; ending freedom of movement on the 31st October; a schools ‘revolution’ with academisation and pupil exclusion at its core — the stream of proposals in the last few weeks has already outdone what May offered in three years.

All this has been bolstered by an equally febrile social media campaign, largely revolving around videos of Eton’s tousle-haired Rent-a-Churchill, sleeves rolled-up, chatting to hospital patients or delivering giddily vapid monologues about making the UK the ‘greatest country in the world to live in’ and suggestions that reality can somehow be avoided through optimism, oomph and national self-belief.

Boris Johnson has already achieved what Theresa May never could: He has given the impression of running a bold government, with a broad policy agenda that goes beyond Brexit, and which meets the needs of the whole of society, rather than the tiny section of society that elected him. The impression is more important than the substance, which is only to be expected from Johnson. Because even though the government has tried to behave like a government in pre-election mode operating in normal political conditions, it is fully aware that the UK is very far from being a ‘normal’ country right now.

On October 31, as everyone knows, the country is due to crash out of the European Union without any formal alternative arrangements in place – an outcome that most economists, and even the government’s own advisors, agree will have a destructive impact on British industry, agriculture, social care, the supply of food and medicines and a range of other sectors. Today’s announcement makes it clear, if there was any doubt, that the blizzard of policy proposals was simultaneously intended to distract attention from this outcome and also to facilitate it. Johnson, Cummings and their cohorts know that parliament does not favour ‘No Deal’ and is very unlikely ever to vote for it. 

With a breathtaking recklessness that is only matched by its arrogance, this band of grifters, ideologues and political chancers is now attempting to hobble parliament’s ability to prevent or even debate this outcome, by limiting the time available to it through constitutional sleight-of-hand.

Showing the dishonesty that one has come to expect from a party that has lost any moral scruples it once had, a chorus of Tory Brexiters, from James Cleverley and Zac Goldsmith to Daniel Hannan,  have all argued that suspending parliament is merely a natural and inevitable end of a long parliamentary session, that all governments are obliged to do.  But there is nothing natural or inevitable about suspending parliament in order to push through an extremist version of Brexit that most MPs reject, and which has no national consensus. Johnson knows this perfectly well, and so do all the Tory choirboys and choirgirls who are now queuing up to defend prorogation with protestations of cherubic innocence.

So does this amount to a ‘coup’?  Not exactly. Parliament is not about to be suspended indefinitely. And even if prorogation takes place it will return, and it will still have some time — just — to hold this government to account, at least in theory. But if it is not a coup, it is a dangerous and reckless precedent that is traditionally associated with despotic kings, queens and autocrats than with democratic governments. 

Various commentators have pointed out that No Deal was not presented to voters as an option during the 2016 referendum, and many have warned that such a drastic and deeply divisive outcome should not be pursued without further consultation and debate, whether in parliament or through the mechanism of a final say vote. Yet the government has ignored these warnings and has tacked to the most extremist wing of the Tory Party and its Brexit Party outliers. It has now taken a decision that threatens to undermine the ability of parliament to negotiate a way through one of the greatest political crises in British history. In doing so, Johnson has launched a direct assault on the institutions on which the country prides itself, and adopted a populist definition of ‘democracy’ that is enshrined once and for all by a binary referendum from which a range of possible options could be adopted, and according to which anyone who thinks otherwise is a ‘traitor’ or an ‘enemy of the people.’

Johnson and his army of reactionaries have taken it for granted that they — and not the country’s elected representatives — are the de facto expression of the ‘will of the people’ and concluded that hundreds of years of representative democracy can now be discarded, at least temporarily, until they have achieved their objectives.

To call this a scandal does not even begin to describe it. Fascism once took its legitimacy from the belief that it was a more credible embodiment of the abstract ‘will of the people’ than parliaments and elected politicians. Johnson is no fascist, but he is a reckless gambler, a narcissist and a charlatan, who bets everything because he cares about nothing and therefore has nothing to lose.  Nevertheless, his political instincts are profoundly authoritarian, and matched by a disdain for a country that he increasingly seems to treat as though it were an Oxford pub from his Bullingdon days.

What makes Johnson dangerous is his ability to put on a superficially amiable front for an unsavoury gaggle of anti-globalist fanatics, hedge-fund vultures, right-wing businessmen, Russian oligarchs, and libertarian astroturfed campaigners intent on transforming the UK into a millionaire’s playground and an offshore tax haven. Beyond the jokes, the Latin and the cabbage-patch doll exterior, he is supported by the likes of Steve Bannon, Nigel Farage, John Bolton and Trump himself. These are politicians who routinely present parliaments and congresses as political impediments and unaccountable ‘elites.’ In the UK, as is the case elsewhere, such ideas have gained some traction amongst discontented and angry voters who rail against the ‘Westminster elite’ and just want to ‘get Brexit done’. Regardless, October 31st  ends nothing and settles nothing.

We don’t know yet whether the Johnson ‘coup’ is intended to force a vote of no confidence that will lead to an election, or whether it is intended to bring about No Deal first in order to present Johnson as the hero who ‘delivered Brexit.’ Whatever the case, today’s announcement should be opposed by anyone who cares about the integrity of representative democracy in the UK.

There is no doubt that British democratic institutions are flawed. Parliament should not be dependent on whether the Queen says it can sit or not. A 21st century democracy should not be holding its breath to await the decision of a ‘privy council’ dating back to the Norman Conquest, or reduced to sending ‘humble letters’ from the House of Commons to Balmoral. But no matter what the likes of Arron Banks and Farage say, parliament will always be a more legitimate representative of the people than they are.

To pursue No Deal without consensus is bad enough. To undermine parliament in order to achieve this outcome is a gross violation of executive power. The implications of this go beyond Leave or Remain. A Brexit government has no more right to do such a thing than a Remain government would have had to revoke Article 50 without consultation.  

That is why we should oppose this manoeuvre by every means possible, and we cannot rely on a divided, weak and fractious opposition to do it. If law courts and MPs succeed in preventing it, all well and good, but democracy is too important to be left to them. Parliament is sovereign because we make it sovereign, and if that sovereignty is threatened by demagogues and authoritarians, then we should take our cue from the Hong Kong protesters.

Like them, we should ‘be water’ and fill the streets to defend our democratic institutions, and the political rights that were won through centuries of political struggle and political transformation. We should surround parliament and keep the doors open. Close Downing Street. Occupy town halls across the country – whatever it takes to prevent this outrage.

Because a country that allows its fundamental democratic institutions to be undermined by its own government does not deserve democracy, and whatever the promises made during the referendum, such a country has definitely lost far more ‘control’ than it has gained.

Sign the petition: Do not prorogue Parliament 

Share
Matt Carr

Matt Carr is a writer, blogger and freelance print and radio journalist. He is the author of My Father's House, Blood and Faith: the Purging of Muslim Spain, and The Infernal Machine: an Alternative History of Terrorism. His book Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent was published in autumn 2012. His latest book 'Savage Frontier: the Pyrenees in History', has just been published in the UK by Hurst. He has lectured in a number of UK universities, schools and cultural institutions. He blogs at www.infernalmachine.co.uk.

Leave a Reply

Comment

 

More Ideas

More In Politics

More In Features

More In Profiles

More In Arts & Culture