Johnson Prorogue’s Parliament: A Very British Coup?
Johnson has prorogued parliament, stripping parliamentary oversight at a key moment in order to force through his damaging no-deal Brexit plan. People across the country are responding to this with anger, and rightly so, it is an affront to the notion of British democracy that our legislature should be suspended at a point like this, when so much of our national fate seems to hang in the balance. Some even go so far as to call this a coup; but is that what’s happening? Is this, as Stephen Fry has called it, a very British Coup?
The answer is no. This is not a coup. But that answer should not put your fears to rest – rather they should make them worse. While a coup may be a terrifying prospect, it maintains the comforting idea that we have a functional democracy and that we must, by our efforts, try and force a return to the normal functioning of our democracy, and strike out this aberrant deviation. But this idea is a myth – we do not have a fair or functional democracy, and this is not an aberration to our constitutional settlement, it is simply business as usual. What it shows is not that our democracy has been disrupted, but just how paper thin our claims to democracy are in our constitution. Let me try to explain why.
So firstly to show this is not a coup we have to look at the constitution. The UK does not have a written constitution, which in itself, is a cause for concern. The way our constitution works is from sources – this includes common law (the history of legal judgements at UK courts), statute law (whatever is passed by the legislature) and conventions and other documents, ranging from rules of parliamentary conduct to the Magna Carta, all of these amount to a record of the precedents for political action in the UK. It is also guided by certain principles, the most important of which is generally held to be Parliamentary Sovereignty, which basically puts statute law, the acts of parliament, in a position of primacy in our constitution, subordinating both the courts and other constitutional sources to it. This is one of the reasons we don’t really have constitutional courts in this country that are able to overturn government decisions in the way they can in places with written constitutions like the US and Canada, and even the human rights act only allows courts to make recommendations to the government which they don’t have to follow, as we see from the fact they were told prisoners being denied the vote was against the human rights act in 2004, by the courts, and still have done nothing about it. This effectively means that if parliament passes something it is de facto constitutional, as legislation is the primary source of the constitution. So what all this means is that parliament can do what it likes, even up to overthrowing democracy as democracy in the UK is only a constitutional right in so far as parliament has legislated for it, and no new parliament is bound by one before. Our democracy is entirely contingent on the will of our rulers to continue it.
This clearly shows how the British constitution does not in fact block parliament from, well, anything. In my view, it is basically an invitation to tyranny by parliament. But, I hear some of you cry, this is not parliament but the executive, the government, suspending democracy. So is that not the coup?
Well, this is a debatable point – you could say that by having the sitting days before and after this closure of parliament, as the Government are arguing, then parliament still has oversight and can call a vote of no confidence if it likes, and, given that the executive is drawn from parliament, this basically means parliamentary sovereignty is maintained. You could also argue this is an overstep by the executive, but the problem is, with an unwritten constitution, in any unprecedented situation, it’s just not clear what the limits are, so yes this could be debated. But another thing to consider is, given the way precedent plays into the constitution, if Johnson’s government does this and succeeds, then it is essentially setting a precedent and would therefore be constitutional unless future legislation outlawed it. Basically in practise this means anything the government or parliament can get away with basically becomes automatically constitutional.
But I hear you say, that sounds like a ridiculous structure, not the sensible politics of a fine, upstanding democratic state. And you’d be right. But our system was never intended to be a fine, upstanding, democratic state.
Our System – A Very Liberal Democracy
Our democracy has been, from the start, constructed not to maximise the rights of the common people, but to allow them to the minimum degree possible to prevent the population from rising up. In short, our democracy has never been meant to work for the benefit of most people.
This is well illustrated by the words of Charles Earl Grey, tea aficionado and celebrated as the founder of British democracy for his 1836 great reform act – there’s even a statue to him in the middle of my home city of Newcastle. In passing this act however, he made his intentions clear, when he said:-
“If any persons should suppose that this reform will lead to ulterior measures, they are mistaken; for there is no one more decided against annual parliaments, universal suffrage, and the ballot, than I am. My object is not to favour, but to put an end to such hopes and projects.” [EP Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class. P892]
But why would the rulers of our society want to constrain democracy so much? Well obviously power corrupts, and money too, but there is more to this story than that. The democracies we practise in most Western countries is what we call liberal democracy.
Liberalism is often hailed as a bastion of human rights, civil liberties and, of course, democracy. However, if we dig deeper into the philosophical underpinnings of the liberal system we find for many celebrated liberal thinkers these values can be superseded by another value, which liberalism places in the highest regard; that of private property, which foundational Liberal thinker John Locke calls ” the end of government, and that for which men enter into society”. But he is not just talking about personal possessions. The ownership he defends extends to ownership of land and industries far beyond what one person can work, which needs, therefore, a poorer underclass to be made to work it, so that the owner can profit from it through their labour. This was used not just to found the modern industrial society where bosses have dominion over their workers (and we must note that even though we pay lip service to political democracy, our workplaces, the institution we often interact with most in our lives, are profoundly undemocratic and rarely claim to be), but to defend land grabs from native peoples in places like America and Australia by claiming they had no legal ownership due to their lack of deeds, and even to the owning of labour itself in the form of slaves, something which Locke himself personally practised.
This required that the poor be denied full access to economic rights lest they try to reclaim their fair share of land from the rich, and remember the richest families in the UK have barely changed in 1000 years (http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/10/last-1000-years-families-owned-england/), so we can hardly call this wealth fairly gained on the owners merits. For this reason the defense of property, and thereby of capitalism, is acknowledged, by liberal philosophy, to be at odds with democracy – and so liberal thinkers from John Stuart Mill to Friedrich Hayek have all discussed how to curtail democracy.
We can see this in the following quote from Mill:
“There is a majority of poor, a minority who, in contradistinction, may be called rich…[I]s there not a considerable danger lest they [the poor majority] should throw upon the possessors… and the larger incomes, an unfair share, or even the whole, of the burden of taxation.”
We can see the results of this in the way governments over the last 40 years have prioritised tax cuts for the rich and spending cuts for the poor, resulting in a massively growing wealth divide in this country, or in how, since the massive growth in state provision in this country in 1945, much of government action has been aimed not at building on these systems, but at undermining and dismantling them, privatising industries, eliminating union rights, and, especially today, trying to undermine the public support for even the most beloved of social industries, the NHS. Most seriously, this will to protect private property and the profits of business has left our governments helpless to take serious steps capable of actually solving an existential threat to our society; climate change. It is clear any serious action to prevent this catastrophe would require rapid action against the interests of powerful industries, especially coal and gas, and, as we see in the weakness of our global response, our liberal, capitalist, societies have been unable to suspend their desire to defend the profits of the super rich even when the survival of our societies, if not species, is on the line.
Of course No Deal Brexit does go against the interests of some parts of our capitalist elite, however, given that the government is clearly seeking a Brexit which would erode rather than enhance the protections people get in our society, be it rights in the workplace, safety standards on products or the right to move freely, not to mention to avoid transparency laws on tax, we can see that even in this case the project does in the end come down to protecting the interests of a certain faction of the rich, even if there is another faction of them which disagrees in this case.
So, as I said above, this is not a coup. This is just the system functioning as normal, to allow the government to do whatever it likes to protect its interests, even to the point of suspending or even eliminating democracy, which again parliament, in our system, can absolutely do, if it so chooses, without breaching the constitution. In fact to do so would effectively write democracy out of our constitutional framework because of its insistence on parliamentary supremacy. So what needs to change?
Clearly we need some pretty serious constitutional reform, and for me that would include at least a written constitution and functioning constitutional courts as many other western countries have, however, the problems of our democracy are not unique to the UK, even in a firmer constitutional system it is still possible to do awful things, and we still see a situation where government serves the rich and not the poor. The US, not just under Trump but under every president since 1945, can serve as an excellent example of this.
When the undemocratic underpinnings of our system are so clearly on display, as they are in this situation, we should not just demand a return to the undemocratic norm, or to the norms of other liberal capitalist nations. We should forward radical alternatives, and demand a true democracy. Many complain about first past the post, which is a voting system that favours the powerful, and advocate proportional representation (PR) as a solution. While I think this would be an improvement, I think we can go further – Germany, for example, has some PR and has not solved the problems we face.
So what would it be to go further? What would a true democracy look like? Well one thing we could consider is that in our current system, we don’t vote on issues but on personalities. We elect an MP but once elected they have pretty much unlimited power to vote how they want. Even party manifestos are in no way binding, which we could see in a range of broken pledges but is of course most clear in the UK with the complete reversal of the Liberal Democrats on almost all of their campaign promises in 2010, in order to jump into bed with the Conservatives.
Instead what if we voted on policies, and politicians were bound to the decisions of their constituencies. This is often called direct democracy, where we as people are able to influence the course of our political world. There are some existing Liberal examples of this, for instance Switzerland which enacts some parts of this with a system of regular referenda, but as anarchists we have a different view on how to carry this out.
We believe that direct democracy should be achieved by the radical devolving of power, empowering people to make decisions relevant to their lives at the level of the workplace and the community through local direct democratic councils. These councils would not just have to vote yes or no on proposals from above but could be used to spread the necessary information so that the people themselves can discuss and make the decision openly, perhaps even seeking more than just majority approval but consensus and discuss issues until a practical solution can be reached that works for all parties. This requires the radical democratisation of our lives and workplaces, but would give people the opportunity to make informed choices on the issues that affect their lives. Any oppressed class or minority group would have the protected right to oppose and block that oppression and any would be dictator can be shouted down by any other member of their group without fear of reprisal – a true democracy.
But of course for this to really be a true democracy we have to address the big elephant in the room – capitalism. While our system still permits the accumulation of wealth far above others, there will always be power in money – the ability to buy votes and influence, and even to buy the means to spread false information. You can never really speak to your boss in a workplace without fear of reprisal if their power and wealth gives them the right to decide your future, and whether you keep your job and thereby your means of survival. Your democratic rights are pretty limited when someone has the power to deprive you of your livelihood if you use your rights in a way they object to, as is the case with employers under capitalism.
Therefore we must both ensure equal access to the means of survival, and of luxury, and, by the same token, end the mass accumulation of wealth by a few. This means providing universal support to everyone, and sharing ownership and profits of workplaces and industries, not only so as to guarantee quality of life to everyone, but to ensure everyone has an equal say in how our society runs because no one has economic power to buy votes or deprive their fellow humans of their needs or luxuries. Essentially we must end capitalism if we ever want to truly realise the promise of a democratic country, and a democratic world.
This is not something we should wait for the powerful to deliver us. As we see in the case of Earl Grey, most reforms from above are designed not to offer a solution to the problems of people, but to create the illusion of one. But we can take this right for ourselves by organising in our communities and workplaces, and doing so under direct democratic principles, to build strong organised networks of people who are able to take part in the organising of their own lives, rather than to simply take direction from the powerful as we are so often asked to do. By this means we can build the solidarity, autonomy and connections that allow us to resist attacks on our democracy like the one Johnson’s Tory government is currently perpetuating, and, in the end, we can build a better world, a true democracy, where the will of the people is not subsumed into the selection of dictators, but is freed to make informed choices in the interests of the people, so we can finally set about building a better world that serves the people and the planet, not power or profit.