Friday 20 September 2019

Colette Browne: 'Will British people even recognise their country once it is remade in the image of Boris Johnson?'

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking in the House of Commons. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking in the House of Commons. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

There were those who predicted in advance of Boris Johnson becoming UK prime minister that he would suspend Parliament in order to get his way. I was not one of them.

As duplicitous and scheming as Mr Johnson has proven to be, I believed that proroguing Parliament was beyond the pale. Even for him. I was wrong.

It is indicative of the depths to which politics in the UK has sunk that one of the basic tenets of a democratic system - the checks and balances that limit the power of the executive - has been casually dispensed with.

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Mr Johnson found the prospect of Parliament meddling with his plans too inconvenient and irritating. So, he has opted to shut it down for five weeks during one of the most critical periods in British political history.

This is an act so blatantly despotic that it usually only occurs in tinpot dictatorships, where autocrats quell dissent with violence instead of political debate.

That it has occurred in the so-called mother of parliaments, and that Mr Johnson and his coterie of insipid cabinet members have been cheered on by large swathes of the population, is shocking.

It is not hyperbole to suggest that a battle for the soul of British democracy is now under way, as members of Parliament attempt to snatch control of the order paper from Mr Johnson.

The truly depressing thing to witness, is that Brexit is considered such an article of faith for so many within the Tory Party that it now trumps principles and norms that were once considered sacrosanct.

Any true democrats in Westminster yesterday would have supported the rebel alliance, which is attempting to block Mr Johnson's deranged determination to pursue a no-deal Brexit using powers legitimately invested in them when they were elected.

Even those who are avowedly pro-Brexit should recognise that it should not be necessary, or acceptable, to set a precedent as dangerous as proroguing Parliament in order to achieve a political aim.

On this occasion, Mr Johnson has shut Parliament for five weeks. What's to stop him from closing the doors for 10 weeks or 20 the next time he finds parliamentary oversight too difficult to deal with?

What occurred in Westminster yesterday was not a power grab by Remainer members of Parliament. It was Parliament doing what it is supposed to do. Holding the government to account.

But there are those on the Tory frontbenches who welcome Mr Johnson's betrayal of democratic tradition. It is tragic that as Britain convulses itself with its Brexit mania, the calibre of politician in the UK is as dire as it is.

The members of Mr Johnson's government are a roll call of spineless, grasping and mendacious sycophants who have been willing to sell their political souls for a seat at his cabinet table.

Chancellor Sajid Javid said as recently as June that proroguing Parliament would be an unthinkable development.

"You don't deliver on democracy by trashing democracy. We are not selecting a dictator of our country, we are selecting a prime minister of our country," he said, in a clear and unequivocal statement.

Mr Javid has now claimed this comment was "taken completely out of context", attempting to insult people's intelligence as well as their sense of morality as he tries to worm his way out of a hole.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock was even more virulently opposed to suspending Parliament than Mr Javid.

He said such an eventuality would "go against everything those men who waded on to those beaches fought and died for" and he "will not have it". Further upping the ante, he added that "a policy on Brexit to prorogue Parliament would mean the end of the Conservative Party as a serious party of government".

Predictably, Mr Hancock's tune has also changed and Mr Johnson's naked assault on parliamentary sovereignty doesn't appear to upset him so much any longer.

There are others who have backtracked. Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd said proroguing Parliament would be "absolutely outrageous"; Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan said it was "mad"; Business Secretary Andrea Leadsaom did not believe it would happen and was "passionate about parliamentary democracy"; while Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove was adamant that "it would be wrong for many reasons".

Notably, none of these people has handed Mr Johnson their resignation letters since he embarked on the course of action they all found so objectionable.

If politicians elected as part of a democratic process cannot defend democratic norms, and are happy to work under a leader who uses authoritarian tactics to advance his agenda, it is clear that the body politic in Britain is in acute distress.

The hostility, venom, disinformation and double-dealing that has come to characterise the Brexit debate has infected the larger body politic.

In their timely book, 'How Democracies Die', authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt note that tanks and guns are not a necessary perquisite when democracy is imperilled, but that an electoral route to authoritarianism exists when autocrats abandon democratic norms and capture democratic institutions, destroying them from the inside.

"The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy's assassins use the very institutions of democracy - gradually, subtly and even legally - to kill it," they write.

The threats to modern Western democracy do not come from military coups or violent uprisings, but from leaders who build their careers by disseminating lies, denying the legitimacy of their opponents and destroying norms which form the bedrock of democratic foundations.

Immoral political figures have always existed, but usually they are met by the gatekeepers of democracy, leaders of established political parties, who reject their extremism and their demagoguery.

What is now happening in Britain, and the US, is that these political gatekeepers no longer exist. Republican grandees who loathe Donald Trump refuse to disavow his increasingly aberrant behaviour.

In the UK, craven Conservatives who recognise Mr Johnson has embarked on a dangerous, and unprecedented, route to attain Brexit, refuse to publicly criticise his actions for fear of losing favour. Personal ambition trumps public service.

There are some within the Conservative Party, like former cabinet ministers Philip Hammond and Justine Greening, who have put the country before personal aspiration, but their number is far too few.

Ms Greening yesterday announced her intention to stand down at the next election because she no longer recognises her own party - indicating the rebels are seriously outnumbered.

The question that the British public now needs to contemplate is if they will recognise their own country when Mr Johnson has finished remaking it in his own image.

Irish Independent

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