For a politics wonk like me, yesterday afternoon, evening, and most of the night were electrifying TV viewing. Johnson’s cunning plan to close down Parliament in order that his Brexit solution should not be discussed by what, constitutionally, is the highest political power in the land, provoked intense rage among more than half of the sitting MPs, causing his government to lose all the votes that day in the House, and shackling him to a requirement to delay Britain’s exit from the EU past the set date of October 31 despite his repeated insistence that he would ‘rather die in a ditch’. Of course he is legally obliged to do that now, which triggered another debate on whether his government regarded itself as subject to law, like all the rest of us. If he still resists, he could be arrested, tried and – even, though this is a long shot – sent to prison. So it was serious; not only for him personally, the aspect which the personality-focussed popular press inevitably concentrates on; but for British democracy, no less.
At bottom it’s a dispute between two conceptions of democracy. Britain has long – for at least 400 years – been a Parliamentary democracy, with major decisions taken by the people, but through the medium of their elected representatives. Those representatives don’t always mirror popular opinion precisely, but that’s the whole point of them: that they are trusted by the people to use their judgements, which should be known to their electors beforehand, to come to considered decisions about the issues that come before them in Parliament. Britain has always distrusted direct democracy, as exercised through referenda, in case its decisions are too influenced by ignorance or manipulation; arguing that if Parliament is seen to get things too wrong this can be corrected at the following General Election. Most other nations that employ referenda have inbuilt rules that are supposed to have the same effect: demanding enlarged majorities in existential cases, for instance, or allowing for re-runs. Britain’s 2016 referendum on membership of the EU had none of these safeguards. David Cameron, whose reputation as the most foolish prime minister in British history has only been arguably topped by his two successors, gambled his nation’s whole welfare and place in the world on a supposedly ‘advisory’ referendum in which a simple 52:48 majority would be decisive. That slim majority might have been acceptable in other circumstances; but the degree of corruption and manipulation that was very soon revealed on the ‘Leave’ or ‘Brexit’ side clearly threw doubt on it; as did the demographic shift that had taken place in the British population thereafter, with crusty old Brexiters dying and being replaced in the electorate by clean-limbed young pro-European 18-20-year olds; and its unfairness to two of the four nations that make up Britain. (Scotland and Northern Ireland had both voted for ‘Remain’.) In the meantime, however, the privileged and Machiavellian Right in the British political establishment, egged on by populist thuggery, had made the prospect of any backsliding on their holy referendum a dangerous prospect, stirring up nightmare visions of widespread social unrest, and even civil war.
For them the issue was about far more than Europe, which few of the thugs had given any attention to before it was held up to them in 2016 as a scapegoat for their ills and sufferings in recent years: none of which could truly be blamed on the EU, but which was presented to voters, together with the Europhile ‘elite’, as the villains of the piece by the Right. Having ‘won’ the debate in 2016, any suggestion for a new referendum to decide on the issue again with the advantage of better knowledge, was dismissed as (curiously) ‘anti-democratic’; as a cunning plot by the ‘elite’ to override the ‘people’s voice’; and as somehow unsporting, as if the Remainer ‘team’ was only insisting on a re-play because it had been defeated. ‘You lost: get over it!’ was a common cry. In this way, the dispute was metamorphosed into one between ‘the People’, and the ‘Establishment’, with the latter being identified with ‘Parliament’ in a way that of course ran right against the traditional and intended concept of Parliament as the very vehicle for the expression of the ‘people’s’ will.
Last night’s debates illustrated all of this; as well as, incidentally, Boris Johnson’s Eton-schoolboy view of things, exemplified in two particular (and sexist) insults he threw at the Opposition: calling Corbyn a ‘big girl’s blouse’, and David Cameron a ‘girlie swot’. (As opposed, Dominic Grieve suggested, to a ‘manly idler’. Grieve isn’t known for his humour, but this was top-notch.) The way that Parliament has been portrayed in the media over recent months hasn’t helped its reputation: for which not only its depiction as the ‘enemy of the people’ by the Right-wing press can be blamed (see https://bernardjporter.com/2019/08/31/populism-and-parliament), but also its own behaviour – rowdy, antiquated, and with customs and ceremonies which are intrinsically difficult for modern people to engage with. (What on earth are they to make of ‘Black Rod’ in pantaloons?) Now that they can be seen every day on TV, it’s certainly difficult to portray MPs as the representatives of ‘ordinary people’. This can only add fuel to the new populist attack on them; which is – whether it realises it or not – a threat to the Parliamentary democracy which characterises Britain.
The ‘People’ versus the ‘Elite’ is a powerful slogan; which may be why the Opposition is beginning to adopt it for itself. It should be quite easy, after all, to label a government of ex-Public Schoolboys financed by big money and strongly supported from over the ocean by Donald Trump for his own ‘MAGA’ reasons as somewhat less than a ‘popular’ British movement, and by that means to restore Parliament’s more democratic reputation against those particular ‘elites’. It should have been an even simpler matter when Johnson deliberately and dictatorially closed down Parliament in order to stifle democratic debate. It was this that provoked those exciting events last night, and could help restore our now dangerously beseiged Parliamentary democracy.
What’s to come? No-one can know. There are stirrings of a cross-party alliance – Labour, Lib Dems, Tory rebels, SNP, various odd Independents – forming in order to prevent the worst form of Brexit – the ‘No Deal’ one – that Johnson and the Tory ultras look likely to try to force on us. That, of course, was emphatically not what the referendum came out in favour of. In July 2016 we were told that a ‘deal’ with Europe to preserve our trading links, and so on, would be the ‘easiest thing in the world’. That’s another ‘democratic’ reason, quite apart from the flaws in the original referendum, for establishing a government that could negotiate a compromise, at least. Norway, anyone?