A house of cards on the Thames: How Boris John­son is rip­ping up the British con­sti­tu­tion

The Times of India (New Delhi edition) - - Times Nation - Hasan Suroor

Lon­don: The sight of Prime Min­is­ter Boris John­son strug­gling to sur­vive in of­fice af­ter a se­ries of de­feats in Par­lia­ment might make good TV, but the real story be­hind the head­lines is how Bri­tain’s famed par­lia­men­tary sys­tem – the mother of par­lia­ments – is im­plod­ing un­der the pres­sure of an increasing­ly po­larised polity.

Bri­tain ceased to be a great power long ago but it used to be said in mit­i­ga­tion that it still re­mained ar­guably the world’s most sta­ble par­lia­men­tary democ­racy and a tem­plate for younger democ­ra­cies, in­clud­ing In­dia. The only demo­cratic coun­try with­out a writ­ten con­sti­tu­tion but hawk­ishly pro­tec­tive of con­sti­tu­tional prin­ci­ples and par­lia­men­tary prece­dents – a sys­tem Brits con­sid­ered so pre­cious that Win­ston Churchill turned up his nose at the idea of trust­ing In­di­ans with it.

Fast for­ward and one won­ders what he would have said as John­son, his ar­dent ad­mirer and bi­og­ra­pher to boot, rips off the 300-year-old sys­tem in his ob­ses­sive pur­suit of a “pure” Brexit. He is de­ter­mined (“do or die, no ifs, no buts”) to lead Bri­tain out of the Euro­pean Union by Oc­to­ber 31even with­out a deal, de­spite the fact there is no ma­jor­ity in Par­lia­ment for it. Many of his own Tory party MPs are op­posed to a no-deal Brexit be­cause of the dam­age it would cause to the econ­omy and its knock-on ef­fect on sup­plies of es­sen­tial com­modi­ties, in­clud­ing food and medicine.

The past month and a half has seen a steady ero­sion of Par­lia­ment’s sovereignt­y as

Peo­ple are chant­ing the sort of slo­gans (“stop the coup” and “save our democ­racy”) more likely to be heard on the streets of Hong Kong than in the Mecca of democ­racy

John­son’s gov­ern­ment has tried to push through its ex­treme ver­sion of Brexit. Par­tic­u­larly con­tentious is the de­ci­sion to shut down Par­lia­ment for nearly five weeks ahead of the Brexit dead­line in what is seen as an at­tempt to pre­vent scru­tiny of his Brexit plans. It’s the long­est sus­pen­sion of Par­lia­ment since 1945. It’s also the first time that a gov­ern­ment has cho­sen to shut down Com­mons with a sus­pi­ciously per­verse mo­tive, prompt­ing ac­cu­sa­tions of abuse of power to evade par­lia­men­tary ac­count­abil­ity.

The de­ci­sion raises fears it could be a slip­pery slope to­wards un­rav­el­ling the West­min­ster sys­tem it­self. His­to­rian Si­mon Schama de­scribed John­son’s move as a “re­turn to the 17th cen­tury” while John Ma­jor, for­mer Con­ser­va­tive prime min­is­ter, called it a “dark mo­ment” in Bri­tain’s mod­ern con­sti­tu­tional his­tory. He has joined a slew of le­gal chal­lenges aimed at stop­ping sus­pen­sion of Par­lia­ment amid coun­try­wide pub­lic protests with peo­ple chant­ing the sort of slo­gans (“stop the coup” and “save our democ­racy”) more likely to be heard on the streets of Hong Kong than in the Mecca of democ­racy.

John­son is call­ing for a snap gen­eral elec­tion next month framing it as a “Peo­ple Ver­sus Par­lia­ment” elec­tion – po­si­tion­ing him­self as the leader of the peo­ple against an “an­tipeo­ple” es­tab­lish­ment.

Crit­ics have rounded on him point­ing out that for the PM to la­bel Par­lia­ment and MPs as “en­e­mies” of the peo­ple and pit the lat­ter against their demo­crat­i­cally elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives is not only pro­foundly un­demo­cratic but deeply di­vi­sive at a time when the coun­try is al­ready so po­larised. The as­sas­si­na­tion of Labour MP Jo Cox by a far right ac­tivist in the run-up to the Brexit ref­er­en­dum three years ago is still fresh in the pub­lic mind, and there are fears that at­tempts to in­cite par­ti­san pas­sions risk putting MPs’ lives in dan­ger.

“It looks like we’re liv­ing through a rev­o­lu­tion­ary mo­ment,” com­mented Nel­son Fraser, ed­i­tor of the Tory-lean­ing Spec­ta­tor magazine as vet­eran West­min­ster ob­servers warned against creep­ing au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism af­ter more than 20 MPs, in­clud­ing se­nior and dis­tin­guished fig­ures such as Win­ston Churchill’s grand­son Ni­cholas Soames and the “fa­ther of the House” Ken­neth Clarke, were ex­pelled from the Tory party for back­ing a cross-party mo­tion op­pos­ing a no-deal Brexit – a move likened to “Stal­in­ist purges”.

In the UK, par­ties have a great deal of in­ter­nal democ­racy and it’s nor­mal for MPs to vote against their own party/ gov­ern­ment if they feel strongly on an is­sue. John­son him­self voted sev­eral times against his pre­de­ces­sor Theresa May’s gov­ern­ment with­out fear of be­ing pun­ished. Con­sti­tu­tional schol­ars such as An­drew Blick be­lieve that it’s time to draw up a writ­ten con­sti­tu­tion to min­imise ex­ec­u­tive ex­cesses. The cur­rent tur­moil has ex­posed the fragility of a sys­tem that we were led to be­lieve was a gold stan­dard for democ­racy. In the event it looks more like a house of cards – and crum­bling.

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