How charismatic populism is a threat to the survival of democracy in Britain

Today the UK Parliament enters upon an extended period of suspension, of prorogation, in the midst of one of the biggest crises the British state has encountered since the crises of the Stuart era in the 17th century. Such is the evolution of the current crisis over Brexit that we now have a struggle for power between the executive and legislature as happened in that earlier era. What has stood out recently is how the act of prorogation has been another measure of what an observer has called “executive exceptionalism” in the name of popular sovereignty against that of representative democracy, but also one where a charismatic authoritarianism risks being allowed at the expense of the requirements of elective democratic consent to the actions of the executive. What is so dangerous is that these actions are teaching people a lesson that such executive power is permissible at the expense of constitutional convention, that might is right in the pursuit of a higher goal, and that it would seem to have support from a major section of voters. This is how charismatic populism can supplant representative democracy. The alarms bells of democrats should be ringing.

The populist challenge to democracy

A distinctive characteristic of reactionary nationalist populism globally has been a preference for the “strongman”, a charismatic individual who leads a populist movement that is elected to power and then proceeds to erode democratic safeguards. These actions have included such actions as a preference for executive action despite democratic constraints, weakening the independence of the judiciary, eroding press freedom, and limiting opposition political activity. Such actions have been seen with Orban in Hungary, Erdogan in Turkey, Putin in Russia, and, despite the strong constraints of the constitution, a tendency towards such an outlook in President Trump in the USA.

Such people justify their actions by reference to the “will of the people”, of whose “will” they set themselves up as unchallengeable interpreters. Use is made of the referendum, a tool of direct democracy and long known as a device of dictators. The whole point of representative democracy is that it allows for policy to be made with the approval of elected representatives, the latter having been elected on a slate of policy proposals.

The problem with the referendum device as a claim to legitimacy is that it can be abused. In the UK’s case, a simple proposal to leave the EU lacked a detailed set of proposals with prior consultation and agreement with stakeholders and thus saddled elected representatives and ministers with the challenge of interpretation. When a final scheme was discussed and agreed with the EU, it was rejected by Parliament, particularly by the hard right Brexiters who claimed it violated the “will of the people” to “leave”. Thus a rival interpretation of the popular “will” was advocated, succeeded in a take-over of power under the Johnson coup in the Tory party and is now being expressed in the form of an extremist regime under Johnson and a threatened No Deal Brexit.

The breaking of democratic norms

In order to hold on to power and achieve their goals, regimes classically abrogate democratic constraints and assume more power for themselves. In the process they change the norms under which the system of government works. These norms then operate across the system.

The British system of government is a product of centuries of evolution and relies strongly on the effective functioning of democratic norms of behaviour. Famously, or notoriously, this is an unwritten constitution reliant on convention. Over recent time the system has worked well enough as a monarchical system, has given way to a system directed by an elected government, but has retained the weapons of the monarchical system. In the hands of a ruthless regime intent on driving through a fundamental change such as Brexit, it is vulnerable to authoritarian exploitation using those old monarchical weapons such as the royal prerogative.

As the struggle for power has progressed between the executive and Parliament over Brexit, and particularly the deal being negotiated, conventions have been broken on both sides. Until recently, this was by Parliament contriving to assert its say on the deal being negotiated. Thus the cross-party alliance has taken over business normally controlled by the government and passed bills to prevent a No Deal Brexit. Under Johnson, the executive has fought back. It has used the device of prorogation, a royal prerogative device, to limit the ability of Parliament to prevent a No Deal Brexit by shortening the time available before the Brexit deadline of 31 October. This is an effective breach of a convention that prorogation is only for short periods and before a state opening of a new Parliamentary session by the Queen. However, Parliament, again by using the business motion referred to above, was able to pass a law, the Benn Act, to prevent such an event. The PM has replied with a threat to refuse to obey the law and ask the EU for an extension as mandated under the law. This could result in a court order to compel him. Many consider that Johnson is using this device to trigger a Vote of No Confidence and an early general election.

For the purposes of this article however, the argument is being focused on the behaviour of key players in relation to democratic norms. What we are seeing here is a readiness by actors to depart from these norms to protect their position or advance their cause.

The PM and his advisors, like Dominic Cummings who seems to be calling the shots at present, are intent on the goal of Brexit and the use of any means to that end, what Cummings stated as “by any means necessary”. There is an amoral ruthlessness in their actions. Genteel conventions don’t count in this game of power at all costs.

What is important to realise is that such a ruthless norm trashes a system based on convention, accepted norms of behaviour, and replaces it by a concept of the end justifies the means, the strategy of dictatorships such as Soviet Russia under Lenin and Stalin. While there is a danger of the executive succeeding in its approach if it wins a subsequent election and thus an ex post facto legitimisation, there is also the possibility of Parliament increasing its power as a defensive action against what it might see as an executive abusing its power. This latter occurrence is what happened in the period before the outbreak of civil war in 1642. We’ve been here before.

The decline of a civic democratic culture

Just as the “political class”, as populists call those absorbed in this struggle, are energised by the latest stage in the conflict, out in the country observers have commented upon a widespread disinterest in what is going on, if not an impatience and outright rejection in certain quarters of the democratic norms being contested. Comments like “just get on with it”, or “all the politicians are useless” are very common. It’s like, “a plague on all your houses”. People are far more concerned with everyday “bread-and-butter” issues like the NHS, the housing crisis, insecure work, increasing poverty under austerity, the crisis in the country’s schools, a seeming rising level of violence, and so on. Many noted the Hansard Society’s annual audit of public political engagement revealed in 2019 that 54% agreed with the statement “Britain needs a strong ruler willing to break the rules”. Right on cue, it seems, Johnson is obliging. No wonder he hopes to capitalise on this mood with a populist general election based on “The People versus the Politicians”.

The risk here is that a majority Johnson government could be elected in the anticipated election on a vote of around 35%, as polls currently suggest, under the peculiarities of the UK’s FPTP electoral system. Johnson would appear to be trying to energise the Vote Leave base and take advantage of the divisions amongst the Remain opposition. He may clearly not have a majority of voters’ support for a ruthless, hard Brexit, but that is not how the British electoral system currently operates.

The key point to make here is that there has arguably been a long-term decline in political engagement, as evidenced by the above-mentioned survey. This can be seen in such factors as the small memberships of political parties. Johnson was elected as leader and thus effectively PM by 92,153 Conservative members, or 0.13% of the British population. Political alignment has shrunk as electorates have become far more volatile and likely to switch sides. More broadly, surveys have shown a distrust by voters of politicians who are seen as self-serving, careerists, elitist and remote and out of touch with the needs of their constituents. Cynicism with politics is widespread.

Thus, arguably, there’s a severe weakening in a political culture which can sustain a pluralistic system and leaves it vulnerable to exploitation by celebrity charismatic leaders as seen in other countries, of whom Trump is perhaps the leading example. This is fostered by the rapid growth in the use of an unregulated social media, increasingly open to misleading advertising and abuse as seen in the 2016 referendum and the US presidential election, with people operating in bubbles rather that interacting with a wide range of people. Social media has already become the main news source for those 34 and under.

A dilemma for the Parliamentary opposition to Johnson

The dilemma in this situation for those fighting Johnson’s abuse of power is that every protest simply reinforces the image of opposition politicians that Johnson seeks to project. He is able to present them as resisting “the will of the people” and obstructing the Brexit they allegedly voted for. This is despite all the objections, qualifications and sense of rectitude of his opponents. In the eyes of the Brexiteers’ base, it is the fault of “Remoaner” politicians aided by the EU. He can thus present Remain as obstructing progress and the betterment of people’s lives through Brexit, and justify the increasing authoritarianism and anti-democratic behaviour of his regime.

This contribution to the decline of representative democracy of a negative political culture has a history. One factor in the rise of Hitler was a widespread withdrawal of commitment to democratic norms in the failing Weimar Republic. As a leading historian of this event has shown, all it took was for conservative politicians to give Hitler his opportunity and the seizure of power in 1933 was made possible. Yet those same politicians had already given up on the Weimar system in the face of the paralysis in the Reichstag and the impact of the Great Depression. As Professor Evans argues, the great danger is of democratic politicians faced with paralysis in the legislature effectively giving up on themselves and of voters not defending a system that they may regard as having failed them. Britain today is not the same as Weimar Germany but there enough disturbing echoes to make the survival of representative democracy at the hands of charismatic populism a cause for concern.

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