In this, arguably, the punchiest synthesis of the ‘confusion’ unfolding in the UK, the writer asks the potent question: Is Boris Johnson the death of Britain’s democracy?
By Jon Allsop*
Britain is a mess again. On Wednesday, Boris Johnson, the new prime minister, moved to suspend the country’s Parliament between mid-September and mid-October, a process known as “prorogation.” It is not, in itself, abnormal for Parliament to take a break, especially following a change in leadership; Johnson and his allies insist that a reset is needed to breathe life into their legislative agenda. But these are not normal times. As things stand, Britain will tumble out of the European Union without an exit deal on October 31, and crash into disastrous economic consequences. By suspending Parliament, Johnson has reduced his opponents’ ability to legislate against such an outcome. In other words, he’s running out the clock to increase the odds that Brexit will finally, actually happen, deal or no deal.
The liberal media met Johnson’s gambit with howls of outrage. It was a constitutional crisis, we were told, and nothing less than a coup. At home, the editorial board of the Financial Times, not normally the left-wing firebrand’s newspaper of choice, said that Johnson had “detonated a bomb under the constitutional apparatus of the United Kingdom” and called on Parliament to throw out his government. Those sentiments were echoed in Europe’s media, including Deutsche Welle, a public broadcaster in Germany, which assailed “Boris the dictator.” The United States joined the panic: under the headline “Boris Johnson is taking British democracy to the brink,” Ishaan Tharoor, of The Washington Post, wrote that the suspension of Parliament “offers more evidence that the West’s oldest and most respected democracies are not immune to the dangerous impulses facing younger democracies elsewhere”; in The Atlantic, Yascha Mounk called it “the most blatant assault on democracy in Britain’s living memory, and one of the most serious any Western country has faced in this populist era.” There were even comparisons to Nazi Germany; in 2019, Godwin’s Law is one you can never seem to suspend.
Britain’s conservative publications (several of which used to employ Johnson) painted talk of a coup as hysterical gibberish. The crux of their argument—that there’s nothing to see here—is disingenuous. But some of their points have merit: Parliament was scheduled to break anyway, to allow political parties to hold their annual conventions, and as things stand it will still have time to block a “no-deal” Brexit, should a majority of lawmakers want that. Some commentators on the Left made similar points: in The New Statesman, Stephen Bush wrote that, on close inspection, Johnson’s move “isn’t as significant or as game-changing as it looks.” It’s as likely that Johnson is trying to tee up national elections as a no-deal Brexit.
Suspending a country’s legislature at a time of crisis is deeply cynical, at best, and Johnson’s motives merit intense scrutiny. But the more panicked responses overlook the nuances of the decision, and Johnson’s right to make it. “The irony is that the UK parliamentary system has always been praised for its flexibility and pragmatism. Boris Johnson is simply exploiting that flexibility to break a political log-jam,” Charlie Beckett, a media professor at the London School of Economics, tells me in an email. “Those of us who oppose his policies cry foul but he’s not actually breaking any fundamental rules, it’s more that he is ignoring precedent and stretching conventions to breaking point. In the partisan atmosphere of Brexit that means everyone is treating policies as principles and claiming divine, or at least, constitutional authority.”
Many articles about Johnson’s move rightly highlighted the problems behind it: the inability of British politicians to broker compromise; the flimsiness of cherished norms; and the prime minister’s slender mandate, since he was installed by fewer than 100,000 members of his ruling party, not the public at large. But to read the week’s events as a despotic subversion of a healthy, best-in-class democracy is off the mark; in truth, Johnson is exploiting an atrophying political system that seems increasingly incapable of representing the will of its voters.
We could yet see a despotic subversion: on Wednesday, BuzzFeed’s Alex Wickham reported that Johnson is weighing genuinely dangerous maneuvers to ram Brexit through, such as simply ignoring any Brexit-delaying laws passed by Parliament. This week’s play was an order of magnitude less serious than that. The frenzied reaction recalls Maggie Haberman’s line about coverage of Trump—that treating everything like a four-alarm fire makes it harder to flag true emergencies. Brexit may yet burn Britain’s democracy. For now, let’s keep some perspective.
Below, more on Boris Johnson and Brexit:
- Court short: This morning, a British judge rejected a motion to immediately block Johnson’s suspension of Parliament; a full hearing will be held early next week. A separate legal challenge filed by John Major, Britain’s former prime minister, and Gina Miller, a prominent anti-Brexit campaigner, will also be heard next week. The Guardianhas a live blog with all the latest updates.
- Friends like these: Yesterday, George Young, a Conservative member of Britain’s House of Lords, resigned from the government in protest, while Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish wing of Johnson’s Conservative Party, also stepped down. Headlines calling Davidson an “ally” of Johnsonfelt a bit thin: Davidson has long opposed Brexit, and publicly compared Johnson to a penis in 2016. She mostly cited family reasons as underpinning her departure.
- Cummings and goings: On taking office, Johnson shocked many commentators when he hired Dominic Cummings, a political maverick and self-styled savant, as a top adviser. (Cummings was the central character, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, in the recent HBO movie Brexit: The Uncivil War.) Following the suspension of Parliament, Tom Chivers wrote, for UnHerd, that Cummings’s love of “Rationalist” blogs may be shaping Britain’s Brexit strategy.
- The limits of journalism: In June, I dug deep into Johnson’s background as a journalist in a profile for CJR.
Allsop wrote and published this piece a few hours ago in Columbian Journalism Review where he runs ‘The Media Today’ newsletter