The hollowing out of British democracy

The hollowing out of British democracy
Remain campaigners hold signs next to a giant puppet depicting British prime minister Boris Johnson pushing a detonator on a no deal outside Parliament Square in London yesterday. Picture: AP.

By attempting to suspend parliament as the Brexit deadline looms, Boris Johnson has damaged the rule of law and is acting like a fascist leader, writes Nina L Khrushcheva.

Most people think of revolutions as sudden earthquakes or volcanic eruptions that come without warning and sweep away an entire political system.

But historians, political scientists, and even the odd politician know that the reality is very different: revolutions happen when systems hollow themselves out, or simply rot from within. Revolutionaries can then brush aside established norms of behaviour, or even of truth, as trivialities that should not impede the popular will.

A revolution happens, as the Chinese put it, when a system of rule loses the “Mandate of Heaven”.

Only time will tell whether we are currently witnessing the hollowing out of British democracy.

But UK prime minister Boris Johnson may well have crossed some invisible Rubicon by recently moving to suspend Parliament from mid-September until October 14, with the aim of virtually eliminating any chance the people’s elected representatives might have to thwart his plans for a possible no-deal Brexit on October 31.

Whatever happens now, British parliamentary democracy may never be the same again. It will certainly never again be the model that so many people around the world once admired.

As Johnson and his supporters rightly point out, there is nothing unusual about proroguing Parliament (an ever-so-polite Britishism that masks the act of preventing the legislature from sitting). They argue that Britain’s uncodified constitution allows for precisely the sort of suspension request that Johnson made to Queen Elizabeth II, who alone has the authority to prorogue Parliament. And Johnson clearly has the formal authority to make this request.

The real question is one of motivation: can the prime minister advise the queen to suspend parliament when the clear but unstated purpose for doing so is to nullify its sovereignty?

That is what the UK’s courts must now decide.

The English fought a civil war in the 17th century over the issue of Parliament’s sovereignty, and the ensuing settlement with the crown should be the precedent on which the British courts now rely. And at the heart of that is the concept that parliament, not the crown — and certainly not the executive — is sovereign.

But with senior British judges having previously been labelled “enemies of the people” by Brexiteer populists for a 2016 ruling in which they affirmed parliament’s sovereignty and its right to hold a meaningful vote on Brexit, one wonders whether the courts will hold firm again.

The decision by former British prime minister John Major to join forces with Gina Miller, the anti-Brexit campaigner who brought the 2016 case, is a remarkable intervention that suggests Major regards Johnson’s actions as a grave threat to British democracy.

Johnson’s behaviour has indeed damaged the rule of law in a way that will be hard to heal. And he has demonstrated a ruthlessness and contempt for constitutional norms and conventions that beggar belief, particularly from a man who fancies himself as acting within the Churchillian tradition of British leadership.

After all, the brutal irony here is that Johnson’s attempt to emasculate parliament has disturbing parallels with what Europe’s fascist leaders did in the 1930s.

One thinks of Hitler persuadingthe ageing German President Paul von Hindenburg to sign the Enabling Act, which essentially made the continued existence of the Reichstag into a complete nonsense.

One also recalls how Mussolini cynically manipulated Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III in order to entrench his own power. The Italian king’s acquiescence would eventually cost him his crown and lead to his exile after the Second World War.

Few — at least for now — fear for the safety of Queen Elizabeth’s crown. But the British monarch has been drawn into a political and constitutional crisis without parallel during her reign of nearly 68 years.

The fact that a supposedly Conservative prime minister would run such a risk suggests that Johnson’s contempt for democratic norms and the rule of law matches that of his idol, US president Donald Trump.

The days and weeks that lay ahead could determine the fate of Britain’s centuries-old parliamentary democracy.

It remains to be seen whether the majority of MPs who are opposed to a no-deal Brexit can unite and block Johnson’s attempt to hollow out parliament, and whether the British courts will have the courage to defend the norms and conventions of the British constitution.

Much will also depend on whether those members of Johnson’s cabinet who once opposed prorogation in no uncertain terms — Sajid Javid, Amber Rudd, Matt Hancock, Nicky Morgan, and even the arch-Brexiteer Michael Gove — all continue to acquiesce in Johnson’s bid to neuter parliament in order to keep their jobs.

But the most important question is whether enough Britons will finally recognise Brexit for the swindle that it has always been.

Their future now rests on a binary choice between retaining democracy, the rule of law, and close relations with Europe, and rushing headlong toward authoritarianism, arbitrary government, deepening global isolation, and Trump’s smothering embrace.

Nina L Khrushcheva is professor of international affairs at The New School.Her latest book (with Jeffrey Tayler) isIn Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones.

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