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Parliament, shut up!

by Hans Dembowski


Protesting in Downing Street on Thursday.

Protesting in Downing Street on Thursday.

The rise of right-wing populism in several rich nations makes it increasingly difficult to promote democracy. If the president of the United States can run roughshod over relevant principles, why should leaders of developing countries be expected to respect them? Last week, we witnessed another step downwards: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced he will suspend parliament that does not agree with his approach to leaving the EU.

In recent weeks, the British government has been telling China's communist leadership that it must respect citizens' rights in Hong Kong, where pro-democracy protests have been attracting masses of people. Beijing was not impressed, not least because Hong Kong was not a democracy while it was still a British colony.

It now seems ever more likely that the Chinese regime will send in the military. In any case, repression has been intensifying in Hong Kong, so the protest movement cancelled protests planned for this weekend. Leading activists have been arrested. Nonetheless, people rallied yesterday, there were burning barricades and the police clamped down harshly. I am not sure that the British government has responded to this most recent development. What I do know is that it is now in an even weaker position to express criticism than it ever wasr. The Chinese authorities can now simply say: "Why are people demonstrating for democracy in London, Glasgow and even Exeter? And what exactly is democratic about closing down parliament in a period of important political decision-making?"

In strictly formal legal terms, Britain's prime minister is allowed to prorogue parliament. Prorogation means that the parliament is suspended for a brief period of time and all incomplete legislation is cancelled. A new session of parliament then begins with a Queen's speech in which she outlines the prime minister's policies. In normal times, prorogation lasts for one week or so. Now it is scheduled for five weeks. It normally happens when no urgent decisions are on the agenda. In the next few, important decisions must be taken.

Not normal times

The United Kingdom is currently not experiencing normal times. It is about to leave the European Union on 31 October. Johnson's decision is undermining the ability of his people's elected representatives to deliberate precisely at a time when deliberation is needed. Moreover, they will not be able to do oversight of government action as they normally do.

Some British papers have done an excellent job of arguing this case. The Guardian, for example, has written: “The prime minister is fooling no one in claiming that he can do in two months what Theresa May could not do in two years. More plausible is that he’ll press ahead, if necessary, with a no-deal Brexit against the express wishes of the Commons. This is an affront to democracy.”

The Financial Times (paywall) states: “Boris Johnson has detonated a bomb under the constitutional apparatus of the United Kingdom. The prime minister’s request to the Queen to suspend parliament for up to five weeks, ostensibly to prepare a new legislative programme, is without modern precedent. It is an intolerable attempt to silence parliament until it can no longer halt a disastrous crash-out by the UK from the EU on October 31.” 

The Economist (paywall) warns that Johnson's “actions are technically legal, but they stretch the conventions of the constitution to their limits. Because he is too weak to carry Parliament in a vote, he means to silence it. In Britain’s representative democracy, that sets a dangerous precedent.”

As a German observer, I find especially infuriating that Johnson and his team are adopting rhetoric that resembles how the Nazis spoke. The Brexiteers are now arguing that the government must take decisive action because MPs have so far not adopted any clear policy on Brexit. In the early 1930s, the Nazis belittled Germany's parliament as a mere talking shop that did not get things done. Johnson and his supporters are now taking that stance in the UK. According to media reports, Johnson is even preparing an election campaign that would pit “the people” against “the parliament”.

Causes of disarray

It is worth bearing in mind why exactly the British parliament is in disarray over Brexit. Yes, a majority of British citizens voted to leave the EU in the referendum 2016, but it was not defined clearly what leaving the EU would actually mean. It may mean cutting all ties with the EU. It may mean staying in the customs union. It may mean staying in Europe's single market. When the referendum was held in 2016, the Brexiteers promised  “frictionless trade”. Now they argue that sacrifices are justified and may  be needed.

After the referendum, Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May only involved the MPs from her conservative party in the debate on how to define Brexit. They were – and are  – deeply divided. That is why May ultimately failed. The plain truth is that conservative Brexiteers contributed to the dysfunction of parliament that they now bemoan. The democratic way forward would be further debate, now involving all parties and assessing all options.

Johnson knows that he does not enjoy the support of the majority of members of parliament. Even worse, he isn't even supported by all conservative MPs. In this setting, the prorogation of parliament is plainly not normal, no matter what his team says. He claims to hope for a last-minute deal with the EU, gaining concessions the EU will only grant if it fears Britain will actually crash out. He does not deserve much trust. Action speaks louder than words – and so far he has not made any tangible proposals for what a good agreement would look like. He’s been in office for five weeks now,  and spent four of them without even reaching out to his European counterparts.

What makes everything even more bewildering is that one of the Brexiteers' most prominent goals was “to restore parliamentary sovereignty”. It is sometimes necessary to destroy a village to save it, a leading US military officer allegedly said during the Vietnam war. In a similar vein, Johnson's latest approach to empowering sovereign legislators is to shut them up. 


Update 1 September 1 pm Frankfurt time

The Guardian website has a nice new entry, with five authors further discussing the matter: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/sep/01/britain-coup-parliament-suspend-prorogue-brexit

It includes a short comment by Peter Bone, a Brexiteer, who states that prorogation is not unconstitutional but is needed to restore normalcy. His core argument is that a minority of radical remainers are misusing parliamentary procedures to thwart Brexit. It is flawed in several ways:

- Hardline Brexiteers have been just as guilty of thwarting May's withdrawl deal in parlimaent as remainers were.

- The changes Johnson is demanding from the EU only reflect those Brexiteers demands 

- One week of prorogation might make proceedural sense, but five weeks is excessive.

- If this is not a moment of crisis, why then was the civil service barred from taking vacations this summer? It is peculiar, to put it mildly, to insist a situation is so serious that every single civil servant is required full time, but at the same time so normal that parliament can be dispensed with for another five weeks after a long summer break. 




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