Legislatures in democracies seem to function well because they can usually put off any decision that would really challenge them. Procrastination and obfuscation keep the democratic ship plowing fitfully forward. Government’s real failures often mean only that those least capable of effective protest will silently suffer more. Even for most ordinary citizens, those people are normally kept both out of sight and out of mind. The ship of state sails on.
Occasionally though, there will be a decision made, often almost by accident, that forces a political system into the kind of crisis that even the most adroit political actors cannot compromise, table, or defeat. Political figures used to manipulating symbols find themselves dealing with issues involving, at the worst, national survival, at best a political and economic upheaval that could effect the lives of citizens for generations.
That is where the parliament of the United Kingdom finds itself this week. In a world in which some democratic governments are being threatened with increasingly authoritarian leaders, what happens in the next few weeks in London could change the course of history. The history behind this crisis is worth reviewing.
First, some background: The United Kingdom is made up of everything on the island of Great Britain (England, Wales, and Scotland), plus Protestant Northern Ireland (six counties on the larger island of Eire the remainder of which is Catholic Ireland). Of these, England has by far the largest population (56 million) and a good share of the industry. Even though the English have thought of themselves as being “off shore” for good economic reasons the UK officially joined the European Union on January 1st, 1973 so they have been part of the EU for 46 years.
Their membership in the EU has never been comfortable. Joining the EU has meant a good deal of bureaucratic regulation from EU headquarters in Brussels. Regulation bound to raise the ire of decision makers whose world view involved their making decisions for quiescent colonies. British efforts to evade, or to modify, rulings from Brussels have made for a difficult relationship.
Division in the dominant Conservative Party about whether that membership should continue led to one of those aforementioned earth shattering political decisions. In 2016, James Cameron, the very aristocratic Conservative Prime Minister, made a mistake. He promised that if his party’s majority in parliament was returned there would be a national vote on leaving or remaining in the EU. He assumed that faced with an actual choice the voters would opt not to give up the huge markets and the career possibilities that membership made possible. The voters would vote to stay in rather than to leave. He was wrong. By a small margin they did vote to leave, or rather, the more rural parts of the English section of the UK voted to leave. Metropolitan areas voted to stay in the EU. Ironically those parts of the UK outside England itself, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, voted to stay (their separate identities felt more protected if they kept a connection with Brussels).
Cameron, faced with having to administer a withdrawal which he fundamentally opposed, resigned in July of 2016. He was replaced by Theresa May. Although a hard worker, May comes across, as a psychological loner who in person is cold and uncommunicative. Rather than involving all parties in a process that could leave the prosperous UK an economic isolate cut off from its largest market (a hard Brexit), May tried to engineer a “soft Brexit” herself. The story of the last three years has May making scores of trips to Brussels, working out plans which are then rejected by a bitterly divided parliament. This June, she was finally forced to resign. She has just been replaced by Boris Johnson.
If you were to hang around our “best” universities you would run across students from hugely privileged backgrounds who seem to know everything. And, there is a reason for that. They do know everything. Or, at least they know a lot. Those people also tend to take university rules rather lightly because they live on such a foundation of privilege that the rules that apply to others seem to only lightly apply to them. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, of Eton and of Oxford, is that kind of person, in spades.
Boris Johnson is often referred to as the British Trump but that is not quite right. They both had privileged youth. Both have been something less (far less) than faithful husbands. They both have well founded reputations for lying frequently and apparently spontaneously. They are not really the same. Donald Trump’s mind seems to be so focused on himself that things outside him seem so unimportant that there is no reason not to lie about them. Boris Johnson radiates self-confidence. For Johnson, gaining his natural place as Prime Minister was so important that any lie helping to get him there felt justified. Johnson supporters know that he can be a clownish prevaricator but believe that behind his actions is a mind so brilliant that it will somehow spare them from disaster.
And, Johnson did lie. Voters were warned that continuing in the EU would mean mandated hordes of migrants. Voters were told that millions of pounds going to the EU could be rerouted to the National Health Service. Voters were told that his admirer, Donald Trump, would provide huge buying contracts to replace commerce with the EU. Johnson’s ascension was built on lies. Now, at last in office, Johnson has suspended (prorogued) parliament for five weeks to stymie parliamentary members opposed to withdrawal, even if they comprise the majority. They may lose their ability to democratically prevent a hard Brexit before Johnson’s imposed Oct. 31st deadline.
The reaction by parliamentary members and by the public has been dramatic and all that drama will play out this coming week. Although he denies it, Boris Johnson clearly wants to be the leader during the UK’s withdrawal from Europe and from the EU. He will have made the history books. It will be up to members of the parliament including those opposed to “leaving” in his own party to stop him. It will be a historic week. Despite British nostalgia, what Boris Johnson wants would be a tragedy. Stay tuned!
H.J. Rishel 9/01/2019