Democracy is by definition a system of disappointment. I understand that. Generally speaking, for the majority to win, the minority has to lose – and the game only works if the losing side respects what has happened and goes along with it. So I accept that Leave won the referendum in 2016 (though one can argue about their methods), and I accept that we have a Conservative government, which I do not like and for which I did not vote. All of this, however disagreeable to me and people who think like me, I accept as true.
Today, though, the game has changed in subtle but sinister ways, and it seems the rules are no longer being observed. If I’m right, and that is the case, then the concept of democracy itself in the UK, of the right of the majority to have its way but its duty also to respect and acknowledge the rights of the minority, is seriously under threat.
Boris Johnson is the prime minister. This has not been universally well received, to put it mildly: for a while around the time of his elevation, the hashtag #NotMyPM was trending on Twitter, as people of all parties and none rejected the idea that this unelected ideologue, lacking a mandate but possessed of what seems like boundless determination, could even hope to represent the 60+ million people of the United Kingdom. And the numbers are important here: Johnson was nominated by 92,000 Conservative Party members, tacitly accepted by the 311 MPs in the Parliamentary Conservative Party, and formally appointed by just one, Her Majesty The Queen. So much for the popular vote.
It is not just the nature of Johnson’s elevation, the closed circuit of like-minded individuals talking to each other, which causes scepticism and concern among the wider electorate. It is the fact that the new PM shows no sign of seeking a broad consensus on great national issues, no indication that he will make good on his promises during the leadership election and try to bring the country together. On the contrary, it seems that he is set on pursuing a hard, no deal Brexit, forced through (or around) an unwilling Parliament, assisted by a hard-right collection of ministers and advisers like Dominic Raab, Michael Gove and the Svengali of the piece, Dominic Cummings.
This is desperately dangerous for our democratic institutions. Of course, a prime minister elected midway through a parliament will not enjoy the same kind of popular mandate as one who has just triumphed at a general election, and they will sometimes seek their own mandate as a matter of urgency, like Anthony Eden in 1955. But the British constitution, such as it is, relies on a common understanding of, and adherence to, a diffuse set of rules and conventions. If a prime minister like Boris Johnson comes along, intent of tearing up those rules, we are in a dangerous place indeed.
Take the much-discussed plan to prorogue Parliament so that it is not sitting when a No Deal Brexit takes place by default on 31 October. This is, according to a strict interpretation of the rules of procedure, perfectly permissible. No-one is acting ultra vires and defined powers are being exercised in a legal way. But it would clearly be a democratic outrage if the PM were to force through a no deal Brexit - for which no-one has voted - simply by avoiding even putting the question to the elected legislature. It may be legal, it may be orderly, but it just isn’t right.
Where does it stop? Dominic Cummings is famously disdainful for the processes of Whitehall and Westminster – remember, this is a man who was found in contempt of parliament because he refused to attend a select committee hearing to which he had been formally summoned. Institutions do not matter to him, except that they are convenient Aunt Sallys, to be pelted repeatedly and savagely until they fall. If a government can bypass Parliament, the sovereign body of the people, then any institution – the courts, the police, the Armed Forces – can be circumvented, or bent to the will of the new masters. We ignore this at our peril. We have to realise that we are at a crossroads, and if we don’t choose the path to restoring our democratic institutions, to engaging better with the electorate, to respecting the independence of our pillars of state, then we’re looking at a hard road ahead of us indeed.
Chris Wright, CBE is Co-Founder and Chairman of Chrysalis Group.
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