When the Prime Minister threatens democratic norms of behaviour

Where do we go from here? One might now be urgently asking the question, where is our democracy heading now? While the Tories are conferencing this week in Manchester, the city of Peterloo, one might reflect on the irony of their choice of city in the bicentenary year of the Massacre by the local yeomanry of peaceful Mancunian citizens who did not have the vote and who had turned out in their Sunday best with families to hear “Orator” Hunt demand Parliamentary reform and the extension of the franchise. The achievement of democracy in Britain, admittedly within the limitations revealed this week, was hard fought in the 109 or so years that followed, and in 1819 the landed aristocrat-led government was clamping down on such radicals, seen as “Jacobins”, for fear of revolution. One might legitimately wonder what version of democracy one saw in action this week, when the Prime Minister threatens UK democratic norms by proroguing Parliament, is condemned by the Supreme Court and yet blatantly showed no contrition.

Johnson’s behaviour threatens democratic norms of behaviour

Johnson this week showed a remarkable show of defiance of the ruling of the Supreme Court in favour of Parliamentary Sovereignty, and the earlier assertion of that bedrock principle in the passage of the Benn Act to prevent a No Deal Brexit without the consent of Parliament. It is as though he grudgingly accepted the legal obligation while rejecting the principles, effectively facing two ways at once, “humbug” one might say.

His style of address in Parliament truly shocked many people, both MPs and observers. The style was aggressive and defiant, using language like “the surrender bill” about the Benn Act, or “humbug” when challenged by women MPs about his language over the potential stirring of right-wing misogynistic violence as happened with the murder of MP Jo Cox. Many consider that such rhetoric will heighten the danger of such attacks, and far right violence generally. In such circumstances one maybe reaches back to reminders of the street violence that marked the fall of the Weimar Republic in 1933. One observer remarked, “If people feel the government or establishment is not legitimate and is not being effective, that can create an idea everything goes and I don’t need to obey the norms. For policing to be effective you need a cohesive society, where people see the system as legitimate and effective.” (Sir Peter Fahy, former Chief Constable of Greater Manchester police, no less). Democracy can fail when such norms are not respected. The risk is that such rhetoric emboldens the Far Right.

Many realise that what Johnson is doing is a mix of trying to force an agreement or a No Deal Brexit, but also conducting an election campaign, making Corbyn look weak and implausible in the eye of voters, goading MP’s into overthrowing him and having a general election in which he hopes to exploit the split Remain vote, win with a good majority and achieve Brexit “by any means necessary”. Such a win would be an ex post facto validation of his behaviour.

This style is aggressive and aimed to force through a result regardless of the damage to democracy that is done. It is however widening the opposition to him, and there is increasing concern amongst “One Nation” moderate Tories. His cross-party Parliamentary opponents are now working much more closely together and are likely to tighten up the Benn Act by, as before, seizing control of business and passing another bill.

The opposition has a major strategic choice to make

However, many feel that the opposition has a strategic decision to make that is very challenging for them. Corbyn has said he wants an election, but only once No Deal is off the proverbial table. So too, apparently does Swinson. Thus they are refusing to play Johnson’s game, which frustrates the heck out of him. However, they still risk potentially falling into the Brexiter Tory trap of a general election, in that the Remain vote is still split. Projections so far vary a lot, which is not surprising given high electoral volatility and other factors, but there is a suggestion that the Tories could win. This would endanger the whole project that many in the the opposition have been tentatively feeling their way towards, if not overtly stating.

This tentative project could be stated as

  1. Removing Johnson and forming a Government of National Unity
  2. Taking powers to protect Parliament from abuse by the executive and thus rebalancing the constitution, in a form that cannot easily be overturned
  3. Perhaps holding a referendum to gain a hopefully final popular endorsement for one of the options in play, Deal, No Deal or Remain
  4. Ensuring that No Deal cannot be forced through without Parliamentary consent.

The challenge here is getting enough of Johnson’s opponents on board to make it work,and so far the 21 Tories who were expelled for voting for the Benn Act are not yet fully on board to give them the numbers.

Addressing the genuine grievance that underlies Brexit

The behaviour of the Brexiters, and the conflict since 2016, has widened and deepened the issues at stake. This is not just about leaving the EU and the future trading relationships, massive though those are, but also about our democracy and what country we want the UK to be. Underlying the Brexit fiasco is a genuine grievance about our country, its policies, how it is being led and crucially how responsive our democracy should be to these issues. Arguably it is that far deeper wound that policy-makers need to address. Let the loss of life in 1819 not be in vain!

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