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.
Read: Boris Johnson is suspending Parliament. What’s next for Brexit?
For much of my adult life, I thought of Britain as one of the most stable democracies in the world, if not the most. It’s not just that Britain’s unwritten constitution has been in place for many centuries, or that an adherence to representative democracy lies at the very heart of the country’s self-conception. It’s that Britain has, time and again, managed to mediate explosive political conflicts because its institutions were able to broker a compromise that most of its citizens could, happily or unhappily, put up with.
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.