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