The authoritarianism inherent in Brexiter populism nears the surface

It is now hard not to take the view that the ruthless pursuit of the goal of Brexit is now No. 10’s order of the day, “by all means necessary” in the words of the alleged brief given to the effective Chief of Staff Dominic Cummings by PM Johnson and the Vote Leave team now controlling the executive. That ruthlessness has an urgent domestic priority, to break the Parliamentary resistance to Brexit as formulated by No.10. If that means a No Deal Brexit, so be it. In terms of the relationship with the EU, this will not resolve the problems of a breakdown in the trading relationship with Britain’s by-far biggest market. In domestic terms it comes at a massive price in both an economic recession, a failure in Parliamentary democracy and a possible shift towards authoritarianism. It is not clear yet if Parliament can successfully resist the constitutional outrage, because otherwise the tool of direct democracy via the 2016 referendum, while supposedly supplanting the weaknesses in politics of the last decade, looks to strengthen the powers of the executive in relation to Parliament.

The “People versus the politicians” election strategy

Johnson’s team has been busy clearing the decks for an early general election. Money is being set aside for pre-election “sweeteners”, spending is being promised on more police, the NHS and schools, government has set aside the usual three-year spending review in favour of a one-year one, and election officials are being appointed.

It is believed that Johnson is aiming for a “people versus the politicians” strategy. This could be one which presents Johnson as “respecting the vote” of the 2016 referendum, the so-called “will of the people” as against the “politicians” in Parliament who could be presented as obstructing the will of the people and preventing Brexit. Constitutional niceties are not something that is likely to wash with the Great British Public, that in England at any rate.

To argue that Parliament should exercise its rights under the constitutional doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty and have a say in such a momentous decision as a No Deal Brexit would be a complex argument and a hard sell, especially if the onset of a recession, as now seems already in process, can be made the fault of politicians’ obstruction. There is a victim psychology in Brexitism and targets of blame include the EU and now “politicians”. In the lexicon of Brexiteers, it is the “political class” that has brought Britain’s current plight upon the country, not a disruptive campaign by variously Farage and Vote Leave.

The “Boris Bounce” of a surge in polling support for Johnson at present looks like a classic upturn that comes with a new leader and new policies, and it would pay Johnson to get in early with an election, before the bounce dies away, and avoid the mistakes of May and Brown, the last two PM’s who misjudged this important factor.

Parliamentary resistance

Thus Johnson’s opponents risk falling into a trap, and it is hard to see how they can avoid it. Tory rebels like the former Attorney-General Dominic Grieve and Oliver Letwin have fought a long campaign in alliance with backbench Labour MPs like Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn to prevent the Tory government from carrying out a version of Brexit without Parliamentary consent. The government claim that they have a mandate from the 2016 referendum, not an established part of the constitution, to leave the EU and that it for the government to decide this. In the Miller case (2017), the Supreme Court decided that under Parliamentary Sovereignty, Parliament must have a say. This has yet to be tested in the current No Deal context, where Parliament has already passed legislation in order to leave but arguably not held a vote on a No Deal scenario. The government, and many observers, say that this No Deal departure is the default position.

Parliamentary opponents are now trying to assemble a coalition of opposition MP’s and Tory rebels that would be enough to either take control of Parliamentary business and pass legislation to take control of Brexit or bring down the government and then either form a government of national unity or, since Labour are resisting that idea, trigger an election.

The problem here is that, under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (2011), the time involved could take Britain past the “default” deadline date of 31 October, and the election would fail to stop Brexit. It has been suggested that Johnson might delay the election delierately, since the FTPA is not precise on this situation. There is now an argument as to whether Johnson can do this or would be abusing the principle of “purdah” in which government does not take major policy decisions during an election.

Will it wash with voters or will they vote for “authority”?

Just to run through this complex power strugle is to serve a reminder that for many voters this would be immaterial. Voters are concerned with everyday issues, such as the competence of the government, the economy and jobs, or the NHS. Brexit has now reached the top in voters’ minds but to sell the above-mentioned Executive/Parliament conflict may be a step too far. It risks tapping into the existing anti-politics mindset. It should not be forgotten that there is a growing antipathy to politics and both government and politicians, and there are increasing demands to “just get on with it”, a strong leader and making decisions. A recent Hansard survey has underlined this authoritarian shift in opinion (to download the report, click here).

That all this has a potential authoritarian bias is not lost on observers, and many consider that populism has an inbuilt authoritarianism despite the apparent emphasis on “the people’s will”. After all, a plebiscite is a well-known tool of dictators.

What is happening in the UK fits within a global trend towards authoritarianism and a reduction in human rights. While it hasn’t happened yet, the risk is still there. Parliamentary opponents of Johnson have a huge and very responsible task on their hands, but one that might not be appreciated by a majority of voters under Britain’s FPTP system.

Great disruption

If Johnson succeeds, it will be the executive that has triumphed at the expense of the legislature, the rights of Parliament and the constitutional principle of the Sovereignty of Parliament. It might not concern voters that much, and that may be a major price to pay, let alone the huge shift in trade and economic policy and the massive disruption to the British Isles and northern-western Europe that Brexit will entail. It won’t solve ongoing problem of relations with the EU, and the same issues will re-emerge when they finally talk again.

Some observers even see a deliberate wrecking or “Great Disruptor” strategy in all this, like the Brexiters aim to achieve a massive upheaval to ensure their neoliberal “free market” result, the Hidden Agenda of Brexit, as others think Corbyn’s team also plan to win through in the end with their version of “socialism in one country”, as some people call it.

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