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’. Continue reading