Democracy – Lame Duck or Dead Duck?

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in Ceylon Today on September 26 2019

I have been reading a very depressing book called How Democracies Die by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. They go back as far as Peron’s populist subversion of Argentinian democracy beginning in the 1940s which eventually led to the horrors of rule by a military junta in which dissenters were dropped out of helicopters. In between, they cover the overthrow of Chile’s democratically-elected president in a military coup sponsored by the USA. They analyse more recent examples such as Erdoğan in Turkey and Trump in the USA.

The book was published in 2018, so they do not cover the ongoing farce that is Brexit. In the UK, as I write, there is fierce contention over the meaning of “the will of the people”. This is a dispute that could lead to civil unrest and has already resulted in violent clashes and an upsurge in hate crime.

Some  contend that it would be a denial of the people’s will if the UK does not leave the EU on October 31 2019. They argue that the views of 17,410,742 people will be disrespected if the UK does not leave the EU. On the other hand, the views of 16,141,241 citizens will be disrespected if the UK does leave the EU.

The philosopher AC Grayling writes: “The ‘Eurosceptics’ in the Tory Party, soon and unexpectedly to be aided and abetted by the little rump of far-left Eurosceptics in the Labour Party, had been giving their own party leaders a great deal of trouble ever since the UK joined the then-EEC in 1973. Their power varied inversely with the number of Tory seats in the House of Commons. They succeeded in getting a Tory prime minister, David Cameron, leading a minority Tory party in the House of Commons and therefore in coalition, to commit to a referendum on continued EU membership.There was no other reason for having such a referendum; it was purely an internal Tory party affair.”

The vote in the referendum of June 2016 was a close one – 51.89% to 48.11% – too close to warrant such a major constitutional change as leaving the EU, Referendums are usually advisory rather than legally binding and should require a two-thirds majority rather than a simple 50% plus one majority. Scotland, Northern Ireland, Greater London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Leeds, Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Cardiff, Greater Belfast, Brighton and Hove, Leicester, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, York and Gibraltar all voted to Remain.The referendum result was simply a mandate for the principle of leaving the EU, not for the manner of doing so. The legislative branch passed legislation to stop the prime minister forcing through no-deal a few weeks ago. The judiciary has done the same.

Tony Grayling again: “One of the major scandals of the 2016 referendum is that its outcome has never been debated in parliament. The question, ‘Shall we take the advice of 37% of the electorate to take an enormous, uncosted, unplanned and unpredictable step?’ has never been debated and voted upon in our sovereign state body.”

Political commentator Ian Dunt writes: “Brexit is presented as some sort of triumph of popular will. But in actuality it has involved a relentless attempt to massively strengthen the executive and dismiss other forms of democratic legitimacy, to an extent not seen in this country since the days of absolute monarchy.”

It is now clear that the public was given false information by the Leave campaign and that there was foreign interference and electoral fraud relating to campaign contributions. The main organizer of the Leave campaign, Dominic Cummings, was found guilty of contempt of Parliament but is nevertheless calling the shots as Boris Johnson’s unelected special advisor.

When David Cameron, a Remainer, resigned as prime minister, he was replaced by Theresa May, also a Remainer. Despite her personal view, she felt it her duty to respect the referendum result, to trigger Article 50 and leave the EU as soon as possible. She did not have to act in haste; she did not have to set a departure date for 29 March 2019. Nevertheless, the House of Commons supported May and backed the government’s European Union Bill, supported by the Labour leadership, by 498 votes to 114. Subsequently, May’s serial misjudgments, including her refusal to reach out to Remainers and the loss of her majority in an ill-advised general election in 2017, meant that the deadline was not met.

Things have changed a great deal since then. Supporting the principle of leaving was easier than agreeing the practical means to leave. The UK hammered out a withdrawal agreement with the EU. May annoyed everyone by postponing a Commons vote on the deal because she knew she was going to lose. On January 15 2019, May sustained the heaviest parliamentary defeat of any British prime minister in the democratic era after MPs rejected her Brexit deal by a resounding majority of 230. In all she suffered three defeats and was willing to go for a fourth but the Speaker, John Bercow, would not allow it.

She was replaced as prime minister by Boris Johnson, one of the main purveyors of lies for the Leave side in the referendum campaign. Fintan O’Toole wrote in his New York Review of Books article ‘The Ham of Fate’: “he has quite literally made a career of mendacity”. Former attorney general Dominic Grieve recently called him a “pathological  liar”. Johnson once boasted that his only conviction was one for speeding. He was not a conviction Leaver. He wrote two articles for his Daily Telegraph column (£275,000 a year, considerably more than this columnist receives), one arguing in favour of Remain, one in favour of Leave. At the last minute he told the editors to spike the article in favour of Remain. Harry Mount, one of his editors at the Telegraph, described him as a “greased albino piglet” and a “blond onion, however may layers you peeled off, you never got to the bottom of him”.

Once in power, the former possible Remainer Johnson said that he would rather die in a ditch rather than fail to get the UK out of the EU by 31 October, whether he has a deal or not. Any sensible person can see that a no-deal departure would be a disaster for the UK and the island of Ireland and also damaging to the rest of Europe. Johnson has no mandate for a no-deal departure. Nobody voted for that. Nobody voted to be worse off (although one Leaver said he would be happy to die of his diabetes if he was unable to get insulin after Brexit).

Johnson became prime minister after being voted leader of the Conservative Party by 92,153 Conservative members, a group that collectively accounts for 0.13 % of the British population – roughly the size of a decent football crowd.  On September 3, the government had a working majority of one. As Johnson addressed the House, Phillip Lee stood up and crossed the floor to defect from the Conservative Party to the Liberal Democrats. A total of 21 Conservative MPs rebelled against their newly installed leader.  Johnson immediately moved to throw them out of the party and banned them from standing as Tory candidates at the next election. The party is now deprived of the experience and wisdom of long-serving and well-respected figures, including former ministers, such as Kenneth Clarke, Alistair Burt, and Nicholas Soames, grandson of Johnson’s supposed hero, Winston Churchill.

In giving the unanimous verdict of the eleven Supreme Court judges who decided that the Executive had acted illegally in proroguing parliament, Lady Hale said. “The House of Commons exists because the people have elected its members. The government exists because it has the confidence of the House of Commons. It has no democratic legitimacy other than that.”

If every opposition and independent member of Parliament in the 650-strong House of Commons were to oppose Johnson on any legislation, he would be defeated by 43 votes. He has already sustained seven defeats in the Commons. When Ranil Wickremesinghe became prime minister of Sri Lanka the UNF only had 60 seats. Look what happened to the country since. In the 2000 US presidential election, Gore had won the popular vote by more than half a million but the Supreme Court gave the job to Bush and after that Afghanistan and Iraq were invaded and the world economy crashed. In 2016, Hillary Clinton got three million more votes than Trump but Trump became president and went on to mess up the world order and looks as though he plans war with Iran. Johnson with a mandate of 0.13 % of the British population and a majority in the House of Commons of minus 43 might be allowed to wreck the economy of the UK, cause untold hardship to countless people and to bring violence back to Ireland. Funny old game, Democracy!

Ian Dunt writes: “Brexit is presented as some sort of triumph of popular will. But in actuality it has involved a relentless attempt to massively strengthen the executive and dismiss other forms of democratic legitimacy, to an extent not seen in this country since the days of absolute monarchy.”