Tensions over Brexit have led some public figures to adopt a narrative of ‘parliament versus people’. Such comments can be seen in the words of Boris Johnson and his ministers, and risk becoming a frame for the general election period ahead. But, Meg Russell argues, this is the language of corrosive populism, designed to exploit dissatisfaction with the institutions of democracy – and points to a dangerous path. In troubled times, it is the job of responsible politicians to seek to rebuild, not drive down, public trust in politics.
In a general election campaign, language can get heated. But words matter in shaping people’s perceptions, and can alter the public mood. One worrying recent development is the move by some senior politicians and campaigners towards adopting a rhetoric of ‘parliament versus people’ in narrating the UK’s Brexit drama. For months, it has been suggested that Boris Johnson wanted a general election based on that narrative, to boost his support as the man who can ‘get Brexit done’. Now that an election is happening, politicians and journalists should resist cloaking it in a ‘parliament versus people’ narrative. First because such language is dishonest, and more importantly because it could have dangerous long-term effects.
To be fair on Boris Johnson, he did not single-handedly create this framing of events – it could be argued that his predecessor kicked it off. Having been defeated twice on her Brexit deal in the House of Commons, Theresa May made an ill-tempered statement from Number 10 in which she sought to distance herself from parliament, pledging to the public that ‘I am on your side’. This language was widely criticised as potentially inflammatory. But its tone was mild compared to some recent statements. For example, after Johnston’s attempt to prorogue parliament for five weeks (in itself a divisive and troubling move) had been ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox suggested to the House of Commons that ‘This parliament is a dead parliament… [that] has no moral right to sit’. On another occasion, Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested that, by acting to block a ‘no deal’ Brexit, ‘parliament sets itself against the people’.
Starting with the dishonesty, in calling for an election Johnson has argued that parliament gave him no choice. In an early campaign video, he stated that ‘after three and a half years it was perfectly obvious… that this parliament is not going to vote Brexit through. There are too many [MPs] who are basically opposed to Brexit, who want to frustrate it’. But there are two reasons why such claims are disingenuous.
First, MPs actually approved the second reading of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill to implement Johnson’s Brexit deal. This meant that they agreed it in principle, and supported proceeding to detailed scrutiny. A large, complex bill of this kind – at 115 pages, and full of important detail with major consequences – would normally be scrutinised over weeks or months. For example Theresa May’s 62-page European Union (Withdrawal) Bill had 36 days parliamentary scrutiny in total, starting with 12 days in the Commons. While Johnson’s bill clearly needed to move quickly, external experts judged the three days of Commons scrutiny proposed by the government to be grossly inadequate. MPs’ rejection of the bill’s ‘programme motion’ was hence reasonable – and the government simply needed to offer additional time. Instead, Johnson moved straight to demanding an election (as he had done on two previous occasions in September). As former Conservative Chancellor Philip Hammond told the Radio 4 Today programme, ‘the government is trying to create a narrative that parliament is blocking Brexit and therefore we need an election. But that is simply untrue’. Many Conservatives clearly agreed.
The second difficulty with Johnson’s statement is the implication that it is opposition MPs, or ‘remainer’ MPs that are responsible for the length of the Brexit delay. As is well known, Johnson himself and various ‘hard Brexit’ supporters on the Conservative benches voted repeatedly against Theresa May’s Brexit deal. This helped to scupper the original exit day of 29 March. As explored in a previous post on this blog, several of those people now sit in Johnson’s Cabinet. Theresa May battled to get MPs to support her deal over months, but Johnson withdrew his just three days after they were first presented to the Commons. As another former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, Father of the House Ken Clarke, suggested: ‘following the ordinary principles of government, we would be well on our way to leaving in the middle of November’ had the bill not been dropped. Clarke, unlike Johnson, had voted for all Brexit deals put before the House of Commons.
So the ‘parliament versus people’ rhetoric can be seen as opportunistic, rather than driven by any clear imperative – it is designed to attract public support to Johnson’s position for electoral purposes. This is disreputable, and even sinister: again for two reasons.
A language of ‘the people against the elites’ is the hallmark of populism – a divisive approach, which seeks to sow the seeds of discontent with political decision-makers for electoral gain. The rise of populism around the world has been widely noted by academic and media commentators, with increasing concern. A populist approach is in essence antipolitical, making it difficult to reach the kinds of agreements that are necessary in complex societies. The diversity of views among ‘the people’ is glossed over, as are the challenges for politicians in meeting these complex demands. Instead, political actors and institutions are demonised, driving out compromise and mutual understanding.
As democratic theorist Nadia Urbinati has put it, ‘the trajectory of the populist leader starts with the attack against the political establishment… he has to go on humiliating the other state elites and institutions that obstruct his government, and attacking the checks and balances and independent institutions that limit his power’. Despite being written by a US political scientist, for publication in 2018, this seems to exactly describe Boris Johnson’s strategy. Urbinati tells us that ‘once elected, the leader feels authorized to act unilaterally and make decisions without meaningful institutional consultation’, which neatly predicts Johnson’s attempted five-week prorogation of parliament. Even the Supreme Court’s ruling that the prorogation was unlawful did nothing to temper the rhetoric of the Johnson administration, as shown by the comments from Geoffrey Cox above. Such approaches have clearly alarmed many Conservatives (and former Conservatives). As Rory Stewart has suggested, ‘If this great party stands for anything, it stands for respect for parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law… [Johnson] is tiptoeing on to a dangerous path. He is pitting… people against the parliament’.
A significant threat of populism is that it ultimately leads to the dismantling of democratic institutions, and of the proper checks and balances on executive power – as seen in regimes such as that of Viktor Orban in Hungary, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. In other words, populism can lead to very dark places indeed. The UK may yet be some distance from that. But an immediate concern is that a populist language of ‘people versus parliament’ can serve only to drive down trust in our core political institutions. The populist twist in the language of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who launched his election campaign with a rhetoric of ‘people versus elites’ is also worrying – as some commentators have noted. But has at least not yet aimed its fire at core bodies such as the courts or parliament.
The legislature lies at the heart of any democratic system. It is, fundamentally, not possible to be a democracy without a functioning legislature. And any such body, as a representative institution, needs the consent of the public to be able to do its job. In the UK system, parliament can be seen as even more central than that. As the Supreme Court judgment set out, most agree that the core principle of the UK constitution is that of parliamentary sovereignty. This means that parliament is the most senior institution in our system of government, sitting above both the executive and the courts. For the executive to pit itself against parliament in such a system, where it has no independent electoral mandate and gains its authority from parliament, is to put its own legitimacy at risk. Parliament may not be perfect, but public support for our entire system hence rests on acceptance of its authority.
A rising antipolitical sentiment, seen in many countries around the world, coupled with declining attachment to political parties, and key events such as the MPs’ expenses crisis, have already been coupled with low levels of trust in political institutions. For example, the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement has seen a steady increase in the number of respondents saying that the present system of governing Britain could be improved ‘quite a lot’ or ‘a great deal’ – a figure which reached 72% in the 2019 Audit. The same survey found that 57% of respondents claimed the Brexit process had reduced their confidence in MPs. Another poll in September 2019 suggested that only 12% agreed that parliament ‘can be trusted to do the right thing for the country’ and just 10% that it ‘works well’.
Evidence such as this offers great temptations to populists, to exploit a negative public mood. But the proper reaction by responsible politicians is instead to work to maintain, and indeed enhance, trust in our political institutions. Johnson may hope to exploit the Hansard Society Audit’s most worrying headline finding – that 54% believe ‘Britain needs a strong leader willing to break the rules’. But that would be a disreputable and dangerous path. For the short-term gain of winning an election, further undermining of the long-term stability of British democratic institutions is far too great a price to pay.
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About the author
Professor Meg Russell is Director of the Constitution Unit, and a Senior Fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe studying ‘Brexit, Parliament and the Constitution’. She is also the co-author of Legislation at Westminster: Parliamentary Actors and Influence in the Making of British Law.