Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday 27 September 2019

This is the most dangerous UK government we have seen in our lifetimes

It used to be the case that a Prime Minister that had deliberately shut down parliament against its will might have felt sufficiently ashamed that they would have resigned when the courts found against them. It certainly would have been true for most of my lifetime that they would have shown some contrition when the verdict became clear. If you ask me to prove those claims of course I cannot, because no previous PM would have even thought it permissible to shut down parliament against its will. But since WWII many senior politicians have resigned when they made a mistake of this magnitude. But Johnson is a Prime Minister like none before him, as Steve Richards shows with authority.

If instead they had appeared unapologetic and kept insisting they were right, political parties in the past would have shown much disquiet over what had happened. Yet on Wednesday we saw the massed ranks of Conservative MPs cheering as the Prime Minister declared he thought he had done nothing wrong. He says he has respect for the law, but what respect is he giving it if he simply asserts all supreme court judges unanimously misunderstood the constitution. This is no criminal claiming his innocence as he is taken down to the cells, but a Prime Minister telling all 11 supreme court judges that he knows the law better than they do.

If you read the judgement of the supreme court it is obvious that they are correct and are acting as the ultimate upholders of the constitution. Parliament is supreme, and cannot be shut down against its will for the convenience of the executive. As they note, the government didn’t even offer any explanation of why they felt it necessary to prorogue parliament for 5 weeks when preparation for a Queen’s Speech normally takes 5 days. What they did claim is that it had nothing to do with their own political interest, yet the PM and his allies had the cheek to infer that the judges had decided for political reasons to do with Brexit. Of course that claim was a huge political tell, because that was exactly the motivation for them shutting down parliament.

What this case shows is that good government in this country relies on the executive acting within the constitution and obeying the law. This government is so dangerous because it seeks at every turn to ignore the constitution and use its power for its own ends, in the full knowledge that their actions will be challenged in the courts. So the PM says we will be leaving come what may on 31st October, despite an Act of Parliament telling him he must ask for an extension. He knows he will be breaking the law, but just as parliament will not get its lost days back, perhaps the UK will have crashed out of the EU before the courts make him follow the law.

Then there is language. Words like betrayal and surrender, once the preserve of the Brexit press, have now become the words of our Prime Minister. Words are chosen for their emotive effect alone: how can postponing the date we leave the EU be described as surrender. It is the most obvious manifestation of something that should be clear to everyone: Johnson is acting like Trump and employing the tactics of Trump quite deliberately. It is the language that violent thugs on the right happily repeat, and directly leads to a rise in hate crimes on our streets. It is the language and tactics of someone who wants to brush aside all checks on their absolute power, the language and tactics of an elected dictator.

One MP has already been murdered, and a plot by right wing thugs to murder another was foiled. Yet the response of the Prime Minister and his chief aide to concern about death threats from any MP that dares to oppose their policies is that they should do what the Prime Minister asks and the threats would end. Like many dictators they effectively use violence and threats of violence to help their cause..

The lesson we cannot avoid drawing is that this government has become dangerously rogue, and the party from which it comes is no better. People are no longer safe with it in charge. In the past, at least the press would have held the government to account, but now it eggs it on. A BBC that also might have told inconvenient facts has been threatened into submission. A rogue government is a big enough problem, but one that can control large parts of the media is able to pretend it represents the people versus the establishment.

All Johnson’s actions and provocations have one aim. He aims to pretend at the forthcoming general election that he alone is fighting for the people against an establishment of parliament, the judges and the EU that are combining to block the people’s will. Apparently calling an act of parliament a surrender bill polls well. He hopes the combination of a FPTP system and a divided opposition will mean he can win an election even though he commands the support of a minority of the British people. To this end the press that is his propaganda arm have attempted to demonise the leader of the main opposition so that too many say they could not possibly vote for him.

The real threat to this country today is not someone who champions Jewish causes outside Israel, or someone who sees that our current economic system is failing too many. The real threat lies in far right thugs and a government that wants to destroy our pluralist democracy. The only way we have to stop a Prime Minister whose over the top language is used in death threats to MPs, and who describes those who ask him to be careful as talking humbug, is to remove him from power.

We can only have one of two Prime Ministers in 2020. It is essential for those who want to protect our pluralist democracy to ensure they vote tactically to remove the Prime Minister who threatens that democracy. If anyone believes our current Prime Minister will change his ways if he is in charge of a minority government just needs to watch him now. People tell me negative messages do not win elections. Preserving a pluralist democracy and not inciting far right violence surely promotes the positive messages of mutual respect, democracy rather than dictatorship, and for our MPs and others to work in peace rather than fearing the next violent attack. When a Prime Minster responds to the fears of MPs over death threats encouraged by his language by saying humbug, it is time for him to be removed. 

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