The Mammoth Stress Test of British Democracy

By John Wight
in Edinburgh, Scotland

A measure of just how tumultuous and fast moving politics has now become in the U.K. is that a Labour Party conference in Brighton that had taken on the character of a Shakespearean drama — complete with a challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership over Brexit and an aborted attempt to unseat his deputy, Tom Watson, over his unending plotting and scheming – was quickly overshadowed by the Greek tragedy that unfolded at the same time in the country’s Supreme Court in London.

Johnson’s Judicial Caning

For it was here that Boris Johnson, who’d flounced into Downing Street with no mandate and a Churchillian flourish just a few weeks ago, pledging to “finally deliver Brexit” for the British people and free them of their EU chains, received a judicial caning that has placed him on course to being the shortest serving prime minister in the country’s history.

Euripides himself could not have imagined such a vertiginous fall from grace.

Presiding Judge Lady Hall, Sept. 24, 2019. (YouTube)

With the astoundingly unanimous approval of all 11 Supreme Court justices, presiding Judge Lady Hale described Johnson’s actions in suspending (proroguing) Parliament for five weeks with the consent of the Queen as “unlawful, void and of no effect.”

Not since Oliver Cromwell went toe to toe with King Charles I in the mid-17thcentury has there been such a hard-fought constitutional battle in Britain over whether, in the last analysis, the country is to be ruled by executive fiat or by parliamentary democracy.

We all know how Cromwell’s struggle with Charles I turned out, but if they should ever forget (hard Brexiteers here take note) all they need do is go down to Westminster in the heart of London and find Cromwell’s statue outside the House of Commons. (Though he himself became a dictator of sorts.)

In upholding the primacy of Parliament over the executive, Lady Hale with her Supreme Court did what Cromwell did with a sword and an axe. She did so much to the consternation of Johnson and his hard Brexit acolytes, whose response was on a par with Kenneth Williams’ immortal line in the 1964 British comedy romp Carry On Cleo. To wit: “Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!”

Johnson’s Defiance

Boris Johnson.

Johnson and company responded with stridency and defiance to the ruling, continuing their People vs the Establishment shtick as a way to try and force through a hard, no-deal Brexit with destination disaster capitalism in mind. In New York for the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Johnson spoke glowingly of a U.S.-U.K. trade deal to replace EU membership.  Johnson’s ability to leave the EU at the current Oct. 31 deadline, with or without a deal with the EU, is anybody’s guess.

Leaving without a deal would be in defiance of a law passed earlier this month requiring Britain seek an extended deadline if no deal is in place. However, Johnson’s willingness to even try to leave without a deal reflects the extent to which democracy in Britain is undergoing a stress test of mammoth scale.

The Supreme Court ruling was also met with rage by Britain’s populist right wing press. The  Daily Mail’s  front page ton Wednesday would not have been out of place in the Nazi Party newspaper, Völkischer Beobachter, effectively declaring the 11 Supreme Court judges “enemies of the people.”

Statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the House of Commons in Westminster, London. 

The immediate consequence of the ruling was Parliament being resumed on Wednesday by Speaker of the House John Bercow. He bore witness to a bravura performance by Attorney General Geoffrey Cox who had signed off on the legalities of Johnson’s prorogation and who took center stage to explain himself to the House.

Rather than fight the rear-guard action of a man whose resignation had, along with that of the prime minister, been anticipated by many in light of the Supreme Court ruling, Cox went on the attack with the force of the Red Army at the gates of Berlin, fighting off wave after wave of attack at the despatch box. It was parliamentary oratory at its finest, and will have done much to restore confidence to the Brexit ranks.

During his opening address to the Commons, Cox announced that the government intends to hold another vote on staging a snap general election, safe in the knowledge that unless a no deal Brexit is taken off the table by Johnson beforehand (and with it an  extension beyond Oct. 31), neither Labour nor the other opposition parties can possibly support it.

This is a crucial precondition given that Johnson, in his capacity as prime minister, enjoys the privilege of setting the date of any such election. With this in mind, clearly it would be in his interests to set that date after Oct. 31 and thus take the U.K. out of the EU without a deal by default.

Johnson appeared later in the evening of this first session of Parliament after the Supreme Court ruling. And just like his attorney general he was in no mind to utter words of contrition despite having been judged to have acted unlawfully. He went on the attack against Corbyn and the other opposition parties, accusing them of cowardice, of blocking the will of the British people, while challenging them to table a motion of no confidence and trigger a snap early general election.

Corbyn’s studied excoriation of Johnson’s conduct and integrity in response, which was only superseded by his chilling vocal exegesis of the Government’s Operation Yellowhammer document, which war-gamed the likely economic consequences of a no deal Brexit. It makes grim reading, predicting chaos at the ports, rising energy prices, shortages of some medicines and medical supplies, and the admission that the those on low incomes will be disproportionately impacted.

Corbyn Survives at Labour Conference

Corbyn: Under siege. (David Holt via Flickr)

                                                                          Jeremy Corbyn.

Compared to the drama that unfolded in the Supreme Court and the first session of Parliament upon its resumption, the Labour Party’s annual conference was a decidedly benign affair, despite the ructions and political skulduggery that ensued.

The attempt by his allies on the party ruling’s National Executive Council (NEC) to abolish the position of deputy leader, thus rendering Tom Watson powerless, backfired spectacularly; with the outpouring of protest from the Blairite wing of the party and the media compelling Corbyn to interveneto get the NEC to row back tabling such a controversial motion.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, it was quickly followed by the publication of a damning memo recently sent to Corbyn and his team by one of his former’s key aides, setting out his intention to leave his post by the end of the year, while mounting withering criticism of the leadership team.

The Watson imbroglio and the Fisher memo, made it appear that the final Labour Party conference prior to one of the most important general elections in modern British history was destined to go down as one of the party’s most schismatic and shambolic. This was before the attempt by the Remain wing of the party to push through a motion that would have committed the party to a clear remain position on Brexit going into that election.

It amounted to a challenge to Corbyn’s authority, given that he and the party had up till then embraced a position on Brexit of first a general election, followed by a special conference (in the event that Labour won said election) to thrash out the party’s official policy on Brexit as it entered negotiations with the EU. This alongside the pledge to put any deal reached with Brussels to the British people in the form of a second referendum.

Corbyn managed to prevail and defeat this motion, thus solidifying his leadership. It was a key moment – one that had the effect of breathing new morale-boosting energy into the conference as the party reunited around its leader and his nuanced efforts at straddling a most precarious Brexit-Remain divide. It is a divide that has driven a stake into the heart of social cohesion across the country’s regions and constituent nations.

Whither Brexit?

The crisis of neoliberalism (or market fundamentalism) that swept the world in 2008 was in the U.K. compounded by savage Tory austerity. In working class communities battered and bruised most by this mass experiment in human despair, the resulting anger went some way to producing Brexit in 2016. This in turn sparked a political crisis, which in its turn has given birth to the present constitutional crisis.

What can be said with certainty is that any celebration over the Supreme Court ruling as a portent of the end of Johnson’s government is as premature as the confidence of Johnson’s supporters that his hard Brexit stridency will ultimately prevail.

As Cromwell presciently warned: “Do not trust the cheering, for those persons would shout as much if you or I were going to be hanged.” Cromwell, of course, later went on to actually dissolve Parliament and install himself in power as a military dictator.

 “History repeats, the first as tragedy, then as farce,” Karl Marx reminds us. Brexit has now taken the UK into the realms of tragedy. We are yet to find out what farce is going to look like.

John Wight is an independent journalist based in Edinburgh, Scotland.