Over the past months, the big question I’ve heard asked about Boris Johnson, the new prime minister of the United Kingdom, is whether it’s right to characterize him as an authoritarian populist in the mold of America’s Donald Trump or Italy’s Matteo Salvini.
Like Trump and Salvini, Johnson makes simplistic promises, encourages a cult of personality, and loves to lambaste the elite (despite being very much a part of it). Unlike them, he cultivates a comparatively liberal image on social issues, emphasizes his love of learning, and believes that Britain stands to benefit from at least some forms of diversity and immigration.
Each camp seemingly has evidence on its side. But if this debate seems inconclusive, that is in good part because it is based on a misunderstanding of populism. Populists can come in all kinds of ideological flavors. Many, especially in Europe, are far-right. Some, especially in Latin America, are far-left. A few, like those who belong to Italy’s Five Star Movement, claim to eschew traditional political categories. What they all have in common is an opposition to the pluralism that is inherent to any functioning representative democracy: By claiming that they, and they alone, stand for the people, populist leaders around the world delegitimize any institution that might provide a check on their power. This is why populists so often turn against long-standing democratic traditions.
In that sense, Johnson’s decision to “prorogue,” or temporarily suspend, parliament has lastingly defined his character. In stopping the House of Commons from deliberating about Brexit—or giving the growing number of his parliamentary opponents an opportunity to depose him—Johnson has demonstrated that he considers himself a more legitimate spokesperson for the will of his countrymen than the institution that has been charged with this task for the past three centuries.
It is the most blatant assault on democracy in Britain’s living memory, and one of the most serious any Western country has faced in this populist era.
From workers’ rights to an expansion of the franchise, political issues that inspired civil war in many other countries were settled by elected representatives in Parliament. And though, like any other democracy in the world, Britain has of course faced a number of urgent political challenges about which its populace was deeply divided, no single issue seemed capable of upending that long tradition. This very much included its relationship to the rest of Europe: While a strong contingent of so-called euroskeptics opposed Britain’s membership in the European Union, less than 1 percent of respondents named this as the country’s most pressing political issue in a poll taken less than a decade ago.
Over the past three years, however, a revolutionary spirit has taken hold of the country. When euroskeptics within his own party made it difficult for Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to sustain a parliamentary majority, he set out to “lance the boil” by granting them an in-or-out referendum about Britain’s membership in the EU. That’s not what happened, in part because voters proved more willing to use the referendum as a way to express their disapproval of the ruling class than Cameron had anticipated. And since nobody had seriously pondered the consequences of a victory for the Brexiteers, the referendum contained a serious design flaw that has haunted the country ever since: While it was reasonably obvious what it would mean if Britain voted to remain in the European Union, it was unclear what course of action a vote to leave would license.
The vote set up a conflict between popular and parliamentary sovereignty that is, in this form, unprecedented in British history. On the one hand, there was a clear popular mandate to leave the European Union. “Brexit,” as Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, said a few days after the referendum, “means Brexit.” On the other hand, a representative assembly whose members had largely opposed Brexit were tasked with making sense of what Britain’s future relationship with Europe should look like. May’s truism notwithstanding, the question of what Brexit meant in actual, concrete detail soon started to tear the country apart.
In the acrimonious debate that followed, the most extreme euroskeptics learned to exploit arguments about popular sovereignty in order to take a hammer to the country’s institutions. When a court ruled that Parliament would have to sign off on any deal the prime minister might strike with the EU, the Daily Mail printed the pictures of the three judges who had made the decision under a headline reading “ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE.” This charge became a constant refrain in the country’s political debate. And since any position that the most hardened euroskeptics disliked could be smeared as a “betrayal of the people’s will,” the notion of what a “real” Brexit might look like became more and more extreme.
At the time of the referendum, most advocates of Brexit favored a close trading relationship with Europe; some even wanted Britain to remain a member of its heavily regulated “single market.” A year later, euroskeptics were casting membership in the single market as altogether insufficient, and were starting to push for a “hard” Brexit that would free British companies from having to abide by rules set in Brussels. A year after that, some Brexiteers began portraying the idea of crashing out of the EU without any deal at all—something they themselves had long dismissed as ridiculous—as a fine outcome, even though it would in effect cut the British economy off from its biggest trading partner overnight.
In this environment, May’s attempts to strike a deal that might prove acceptable to some erstwhile Remainers as well as most Brexiteers was doomed to fail. Compromise came to seem futile.
May’s protracted demise set the stage for the rise of one of the most vocal advocates of a hard Brexit: Boris Johnson. Grasping the basic dynamics of the situation, Johnson has consistently favored a hard over a soft Brexit, and taken the side of popular over parliamentary sovereignty. To resolve the impasse in which the country finds itself, he is promising to champion the people’s will at any price—and has appointed himself its chief interpreter.
Though Johnson dismissed the prospect of leaving the European Union without a deal as a disaster in the past, he now vows that he is willing to make a clean break if European leaders do not accede to his demands. And though Johnson likes to talk and write about his love of British institutions, he is now taking the extraordinary step of suspending Parliament to stop the people’s freely elected representatives from interfering.
The claim that Johnson is the sole legitimate executor of the people’s will is all the more preposterous because his democratic mandate is so tenuous.
Whereas most British prime ministers come into office after leading their party to victory in a general election, Johnson was chosen as May’s successor when he was backed by a majority of the Conservative Party’s 160,000 members. Elected with a razor-thin majority in the House of Commons, his openness to a no-deal Brexit has since eroded his parliamentary support even further. In fact, his decision to prorogue Parliament is a transparent response to the fact that neither he nor his preferred policy now enjoys the clear support of a majority of its members.
Responding to Johnson’s plans, John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, called it “a constitutional outrage. However it is dressed up, it is blindingly obvious that the purpose of prorogation now would be to stop Parliament debating Brexit and performing its duty.”
If anything, this strongly worded statement underplays just how anomalous Britain’s constitutional crisis really is. Back in the days before the United Kingdom acquired a reputation for moderation, the country fought a bloody civil war over the principle that the Houses of Parliament should serve as a check against the whims of the executive. Now the country’s prime minister has, temporarily, suspended Parliament in order to override the will of a majority of its members.
Britain’s political system remains too deeply entrenched to be destroyed by one man or even one political crisis. Despite his evident disdain for parliamentary democracy, Johnson is neither able nor willing to go as far as populists such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or Venezuela’s Nicolas Máduro, who have jailed scores of their critics, and abolished free and fair elections. Johnson’s critics evidently remain free to denounce him in the press, and Parliament will be able to resume its job when it reconvenes in October. But while it would be a huge exaggeration to say that Johnson’s attack on Britain’s unwritten constitution spells the death of parliamentary democracy, it is equally futile to deny that he is trying to stop the country’s democratic institutions from shaping a decision of enormous importance.
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