Things are bad at home. I am on a beach halfway around the world and, instead of joyfully swimming around, I’m writing this blog and wishing I was back in London so I could be part of the emergency anti-government demonstrations this week.
This week, in the next installment of the clusterfuck that is British politics, Boris Johnson successfully petitioned the Queen for the right to prorogue Parliament through much of the crucial run-up to Halloween, in order to stop them blocking a no deal Brexit and facilitate us crashing out of the EU at the end of October. This is… really bad. Not just for those of us who want the fledgling Remain coalition to have enough time to stop no deal, but for our democracy (if you can still call it that).
I wrote last week about the power of the stories we believe about the world. Britain is developed, it’s advanced, it’s democratic, it’s (broadly) safe. During the anti-government protests in Sudan this year, I wrote about the right to protest without fear of persecution, remembering the Brexit march and how none of us were afraid of being gunned down or imprisoned because we dared speak out against our leaders, a safety not offered to many citizens of the world. There is a lot to criticise about the UK, but there is also a lot to be thankful for, as the benefits of being a citizen of a wealthy, developed nation cannot be overstated.
But then this all happens. Brexit was already a democratic nightmare, given that the Leave campaign committed electoral fraud in their bid to convince people to leave the EU, a crime that apparently has no serious consequences (it always seemed clear to me that, if a vote is shown to have been influenced by electoral fraud, the campaign should be rerun and the votes recast. But what seems clear, obvious and right has obviously not been a priority for some time).
In fact, the importance of democracy has been questioned, challenged and invoked constantly over the past three years. Ardent Leave voters said that we must respect the result of the referendum, because to interfere would be undemocratic. Those of us who felt electoral fraud should invalidate a result felt it was undemocratic to not challenge the outcome. And many of us felt that the point of democracy was not to force us to ratify an act of national self-harm because one questionable referendum result told us to, even after months of negotiations and research proved it would be an abject disaster. But regardless of which side you’re on, the fact that the UK is a democracy has been weaponised time and time again to justify whichever outcome seems most palatable to each person.
Well, the assumption that democracy is the cornerstone of the Brexit process has been well and truly overturned. The whole thing is laughable. Now, an unelected prime minister has asked our unelected monarch to suspend Parliament to force through a disastrous no deal Brexit that nobody voted for. On 26 June, Boris Johnson even said: “I am not attracted to archaic devices like proroguing [Parliament]. Let’s get this thing done as a proud representative democracy.” What a joke.
Boris Johnson has thrown away any pretence that he respects democracy with this move. He has also called into question everything we believe about the governance of this country, and it’s apparent objection to corruption and autocracy. Which, it should go without saying, is an extremely dangerous precedent to set. History is full of selfish, hurtful rulers who have enacted untold damage because they are nonplussed about throwing the democratic process in the bin and doing all they can to advance their own agendas through any means necessary. The story we’re told about the UK is that we’re past this. Autocracy of this kind is resigned to our textbooks and to other, less advanced countries. Maybe that paragraph needs a rewrite.
Among the more immediate concerns for the final outcome of the Brexit process are the long-term implications for the politics of this country. Similar conversations seem to be happening across the pond, too. It can be hard to fight growing intolerance if its instigators are happy to lie, cheat, bastardise the political institutions we recognise as a foundation of our country and brazenly further their own interests at the expense of most of the population. How do you compete with that if you are committed to truth, honesty, justice, due process and doing what’s right for the many, not the few? But, if we decide to stoop to their level and throw those same structures and expectations out of the window, then we are no better, and everything will get worse. So the Remain alliance will be over here following the rules while Johnson and his cronies play dirty and wreck our economy in the process. Ugh.
This debacle has also thrown into question the archaic nature of the British political system. By getting the Queen involved, Johnson has exposed a bizarre weakness of our weird hybrid democratic monarchy: that the surprisingly large amount of power the Queen could wield is predicated on her not using it. The Queen isn’t actually allowed to have an opinion; she isn’t allowed to go against the PM’s wishes just because she thinks it’s a bad idea. This means that the monarchical go-ahead gives perceived – but, crucially, imaginary – higher authority to an idea with very real consequences.
It’s all based on a tense compromise between the monarchy and the government, surrounded by a stack of ancient compromises and precedent laws. It is poorly designed. The whole thing rested on the assumption that no one was going to get carried away and do anything stupid – which, looking back, was clearly going to backfire spectacularly. Power has always corrupted, and one of the great tragedies of politics is that those who are truly in it for the people are less likely to gain ultimate power. Perhaps, in a twisted way, Johnson has done us a favour. He has done away with the transparent notion that he’s not in it for himself, giving us a real platform for outrage (compared with watching equally power-hungry individuals stress that they’re just looking out for the nation’s interests while stabbing citizens in the back for their own personal gain). Perhaps, in the future, we can see these weaknesses for what they are and create a political system less prone to corruption. But for now, we are here. And we’re angry.