The eventual demise of Boris Johnson and the sad state of British undemocracy

The crisis of Boris Johnson is about more than Johnson.

The UK is in the midst of a fundamental political, democratic, constitutional crisis. Boris Johnson is the embodiment of some of the worst excesses of this, but this set of crises is not just about one individual.

The constitutional historian Peter Hennessy at the weekend was indignant with rage at the state of Britain commenting that: ‘The Queen’s First Minister is now beyond doubt, a rogue Prime Minister, unworthy of her, of Parliament, her people and her kingdom. I cannot remember a day where I’ve been more fearful for the wellbeing of the constitution.’

What Hennessey did not address is how this crisis has come to pass, and how someone as inept and lacking in any principles as Boris Johnson not only ended up as Premier, but is having such a destructive impact. The wider point is that Johnson cannot be understood without taking cognisance of the constitutional and democratic degeneration of the UK, the rise of the neoliberal state, and particularly the collapse of traditional Toryism and its morphing into a venal, self-interested politics of entitlement, exploitation and expropriation.

Pivotal to this is how political power is concentrated and exercised. One of the central myths of the UK is that it is a parliamentary democracy – which is not fundamentally how the UK is governed. Rather it is a constitutional democracy – with the power of the Crown for all the folklore of ‘the Crown in Parliament’ (actually a Victorian invention like many things by A.V. Dicey from 1885) sitting in the executive and increasingly in the post of Prime Minister.

The right-winger and predecessor of Thatcherite ideology Enoch Powell archly observed that: ‘I slightly bridle when the word ‘democracy’ is applied to the United Kingdom … If you put us in the jar labelled ‘democracy’, I can’t complain. I can only tell you that you have understood very little about the United Kingdom.’

Yet this is a fallacy that Labour and Tory, mainstream left and right have consistently fallen into, attracted as they are by the allure of unchecked central power and the mythology of the Whig version of British history and the nature of the British state.

Boris Johnson can only cling to office by what academic Tim Bale calls a kind of ‘magical thinking’ – in essence a belief that he operates to a different set of rules and morals compared to other leaders. Such self-serving delusion has got him far. But as Bale points out this is the story that all leaders tell themselves and those who are defining ones – such as Churchill, Thatcher and Blair – cling to as the political tide turns against them. And eventually they run out of mileage and are brought down.

One dimension in this sordid state is the hysterical nature of the Tory cheerleading press – the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Daily Telegraph. The Daily Mail last week went into full scale warmongering on Ukraine to save Johnson claiming: ‘As the left howls for resignations over Met’s £50 Covid fines … Don’t they know there’s a War On?’.

The right-wing press have steered fully behind the Johnson-Patel Rwanda deportation scheme as a desperate attempt to pillory domestic enemies such as human rights lawyers and identify Labour and Keir Starmer with defending asylum seekers. Such has been the Mail’s fury it even tried to invoke national outrage about Nicola Sturgeon’s not wearing a mask for six seconds, giving it front page fury: ‘Sturgeon The Mask Hypocrite’ and trying to equate with Johnson’s serial irresponsibility.

We can expect more of this over the coming days, weeks and months. It is unlikely to save Boris Johnson or stop Tory MPs eventually moving to protect that highest of political principles to themselves namely their jobs and livelihoods and maintaining the Tory Party as the party of power and patronage.

Tory Prime Ministers are rarely ejected from power by voters such is the restricted, atrophied system of what passes for British government and democracy. In the seventy plus years since the end of the Second World War in 1945 only three Tory Premiers have been evicted by the voters – Alec Douglas Home in 1964, Ted Heath in 1974 and John Major in 1997. The rest – Churchill in 1955, Eden in 1957, Macmillan in 1963, Thatcher in 1990, Cameron in 2016 and Theresa May in 2019 – have either been removed by the party or realised in between elections that their time is up.

Such is the limited nature of British democracy, one which has served the Tory Party and the interests of the British establishment well over the past century plus. It is a culture that will call time on Boris Johnson, but which ultimately treats the rest of us, the public, as powerless spectators with no real say in how Britain is governed and treated with contempt by the political classes.

Boris Johnson is an amoral, unprincipled, shameless individual who should never have been let anywhere near any public office. But he is representative of the degeneration of British Toryism, the supposed checks and balances of the ’unwritten constitution’ and the manipulated undemocracy of the UK. Much worse is to come from what is left of the Tory Party until the entire rotten, corrupt political edifice is brought down and its support systems and numerous apologists defeated and driven into the margins of public life where they belong.


Comments (17)

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  1. Elizabeth Lynch says:

    The current generation accused of expecting to get everything they want effortlessly. Who can expect anything else when our country is governed by people who share their view. Boris Johnson cannot even comb his hair let alone recognize the state of the nation. Mr Hassan has put it in a nutshell.

  2. Bill says:

    I refer you yet again to the speech by Aneurin Bevan, Manchester July 4 1948 ” What is Toryism but organised spivvery…..”

    They opposed the NHS then, they have destroyed it now. Their economic policies – unsubstantiated assertion. And as for the policy of the less than Priti Patel? What can be said – the daughter of Ugandan Asians – delivering hate and death to the refugees that in the past we would have helped and welcomed.

    The Tory party led by a lying, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic popinjay. The gene pool of humanity would be improved were Boris removed from it. He should seek the Darwin award and fall on his sword


  3. Axel P Kulit says:

    Given what we see in Parliament, would we be any better off if we had a “parliamentary” democracy rather than a constitutional one?

    Perhaps we need a psychiatric assessment of anyone wanting to stand for public office, and either reject those unsuitable or mandate it be made public well before election day.

  4. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Fair comment, but I wonder about this paragraph: “Yet this is a fallacy that Labour and Tory, mainstream left and right have consistently fallen into, attracted as they are by the allure of unchecked central power and the mythology of the Whig version of British history and the nature of the British state.”

    Mr Enoch Powell was pretty accurate in his opinion that ‘democracy’ in the UK is a fallacy, but I do not think that Labour and Tory, mainstream left and right have “fallen into” it. I think most of the leadership of these parties went into it with their eyes open fully aware of its fallaciousness and the attraction of ‘unchecked central power’. For the Tories, even before the current crew took over, this was the way they wanted things to be and over the centuries, shaped the state in the interests of the class who bankrolled the Tories. Labour, always having a strand of dirigisme in it, thought that it could use this state to effect change. And, to some extent changes were brought about, but eventually the financial markets and the actors for the state ensured Labour governments fell and the Tories were returned. Really, Labour’s influence on the lives of the majority were enacted by the Attlee and Wilson Governments in the periods between 1945 and c1976. The Blair/Brown governments did have some redistributive achievements, but they accepted the Thatcherite hegemony and, eventually, it undid them and the subsequent Tory administrations very quickly reversed these changes. Brown had the opportunity to make a change in 2008, but instead he provided ‘socialism for the rich’ and shifted shedloads of public money to the private sector. Blair had really always been a Tory, but Brown tried to give the impression that he was somehow on the left, but, when the crunch came, he acted like Quisling.

    Undoubtedly, there are and have been many decent Tory and Labour parliamentarians, who had some sense of ‘the common good’ over the years, but the ruthlessly power hungry have taken over.

    Undoubtedly, the UK is rotting and falling apart, but, sadly, as Mr Hassan indicates, it will be ‘eventually’.

  5. 220420 says:

    Gerry’s right to identify the ‘Boris’ phenomenon as a symptom rather than a cause of our current malaise, which is systemic rather than moral. Our current constitution of limited monarchy only goes so far in preventing the misuse of power to advance special interests over and above the general will. We need far greater checks and balances in the organisation of our political community to ensure that no particular thinking – magical or otherwise – can comprise a majority and thereby claim a privileged position of power over others.

    At present, of the three branches of government, only the legislative is democratic, and that’s ‘democratic’ only indirectly through a flawed system of elected representation that’s evolved to produce majorities rather than expressions of the general will of society. And even so, with the executive sitting in and controlling the legislature in the person of the Crown, there’s a lack of separation between those three branches (notwithstanding the 2005 Constitutional Reform Act, which went some way towards increasing the independence of the judiciary vis-a-vis the executive).

    There’s currently no indication from the Scottish government that this constitutional arrangement would change with independence. We hear that, with independence, the Scottish government would in principle be able to reform itself to make itself more democratic and less vulnerable to ‘capture’ by special interests (insofar as it would have the power to do so), but there’s no programme and little prospect of democratic reform coming out of the institution that it would do so in practice. The work of building the bureaucratic infrastructure of an independent Scottish government – its real constitution – is already well underway at St Andrew’s House, and it doesn’t involve more democracy.

    The prospect of its independence is only of ‘more of the same’, except with a saltire branding. It will do nothing to cure the systemic malaise that’s given us ‘Boris’.

    1. Paddy Farrington says:

      “There’s currently no indication from the Scottish government that this constitutional arrangement would change with independence.”

      This is irrelevant, or at best a limp excuse to keep the status quo. The experience of other countries that became independent from the UK is that the choices they made evolved. For example, Barbados became independent in 1966 but retained the Queen as head of state. It then changed its mind and in November 2021 became a republic. You could say the same for Ireland: its status, constitution, and international profile are now totally different from what they were back in 1922. Independence opens the road to choices which would otherwise not be possible, even if these are not set out by the government in power at the time independence happens.

      In fact, that’s the whole point of independence.

      1. 220420 says:

        As I said, no doubt the Scottish government, if it were to become independent of the UK government, could in principle reform itself to make itself more democratic and less vulnerable to ‘capture’ by special interests. It would certainly have the power to do so. But the fact remains that there’s no prospect of democratic reform coming out of the Scottish government that would indicate it would do so in practice. The bureaucratic infrastructure that will comprise the real constitution of an independent Scotland, which the Scottish government has been building over the past fifteen years (rather laboriously, it has to be said, and at eye-watering expense), isn’t premised on an expansion of democracy. It’s premised rather on our having (like Barbados) our own wee Westminster.

        I’m demanding more from the Scottish government in return for my vote in any future referendum.

      2. 220420 says:

        ‘Independence opens the road to choices which would otherwise not be possible…’

        This is the key claim that the independentistas make.

        And the critical questions are: What is this ‘independence’? How does it ‘open the road’? And for whom does it open it?

        These are the questions that the independentistas either dodge or give only uninformative answers to.

  6. George Gunn says:

    I do not agree. The new Scotland will have a constitution and it will be written by the people for the people. That is democracy.

    1. 220420 says:

      That would indeed be democracy. But what’s the likelihood that it will be written by the demos?

      And in any case, it matters not a jot what’s written. It will be the actual apparatus of bureaucratic systems that are currently being developed by government officers in St Andrew’s House in advance of Independence that will define how this ‘new Scotland’ will be governed.

      This whole ‘Independence’ thing is an establishment stitch-up that will leave the whole matrix of social relations within which power is exercised in Scotland (a.k.a. ‘the system’) more or less intact.

  7. Ewen A Morrison says:

    Mr Gerry Hassan, thank you for your concise and accurate piece; while I’m Scottish and not supportive of the so-called UK, I can sum it up as follows: The United Kingdom? More accurately, The Undemocratic Kingdom!

    Thanks again,


  8. Wul says:

    ” Don’t they know there’s a War On?’. ”

    Hasn’t there been “a war on” for pretty much every day of the last 200 years? Most of them involving British adventuring overseas.

    One thing that isn’t mentioned much when Boris Johnson’s rotting premiership is discussed is the profoundly depressing effect of having such a low-life for a Prime Minister. It creates a deep sadness, embarrassment and nausea within me to see such a being hold power over us.
    It sets a very poor example for the people of this country. If Boris and chums are helping themselves why shouldn’t I? If the PM is a bare faced liar who gets away with it, why not me?

    I’m sure there must be a measurable economic cost to the torpor engendered by Alexander De Piffel’s reign.

  9. florian albert says:

    ‘The UK is in the midst of a fundamental political democratic, constitutional crisis’ ‘Boris Johnson is an unprincipled, amoral, shameless individual’

    The second of these quotations in true. The first is not,

    There is no constitutional crisis, despite what Baron Hennessy thinks. Parliament is functioning as it should and Boris Johnson is being held to account. It is in the nature of representative democracy that voters sometimes pick unsavoury characters. Haughey in Ireland, Berlusconi in Italy and Trump in the USA come quickly to mind. In a functioning democracy these individuals are incapable of seriously damaging – let alone destroying – the constitutional order. Those three have gone and Johnson will follow them in due course.

    Missing from Gerry Hassan’s narrative is the single event which propelled Johnson to Downing Street; the 2016 Euro-referendum. This was won – narrowly – by those favouring leaving the EU. Unhappily, a significant section of the political elite refused to accept this verdict. Johnson, being an opportunist, seized on this to gain control of the Tory Party and – much more significant – win a clear victory in the 2019 General Election.

    There is much that is wrong with British politics, though Westminister holds the executive to account far more successfully than Holyrood does. The idea that the UK is ‘an undemocracy’ is fantasy.

    1. 220422 says:

      It’s another example of ‘the sky is falling’ hyperbole. Clearly, if the state had suffered a constitutional crisis, it would no longer be able to function, and the state is just as clearly continuing to function.

      The current constitution doesn’t produce democracy and is inefficient when it comes to imposing effective checks and balances on the power that government can exercise over us, which is why it needs to change. But it still functions ‘normally’ to support the matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised throughout its jurisdiction. Only when it can no longer perform this normal conservative function will it be ‘in crisis’.

      1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

        The fact that ‘the state … is continuing to function’ does not imply that it is providing a good service to the majority of the population. A car with a flat tyre can ‘continue to function’, but it provides an uncomfortable ride for the driver and any passengers and presents a hazard to other road users; but, still, it ‘continues to function’.

        The state in the UK functions principally in the interests of the narrow landowning and financial class, which has controlled it for most of its existence. However, for the bulk of the population the experience is of a deterioration in services, particularly for the increasing proportion of the population who are in poverty. For many sections of the population the state is increasingly hostile towards them.

        The bulk of civil servants are competent and committed to the concept of public service and the common good, but, at the higher levels – where the power lies – there is increasingly an exchange of personnel with large businesses, often international, who are located in the UK, to a fair extent because of the money laundering services provided by the City of London – an incubus which happens to be located in London, the most unequal city in the UK. However, the ranks of the civil service has been winnowed and increasingly politicised. Of course, the civil service always carried out political decisions, but it is more explicitly targeted towards the aims of the current Conservative Party, as part of the ‘culture wars’.

        My state pension gets paid, I get my prescriptions, my taxes are collected – so the state is functioning, but my wife and I are relatively affluent and are confident in navigating our way around the state. Many are not.

        The ‘state’ is part of the ‘constitution’ (as it is imagined to be in the UK), but do not reify it. It is operated by people, many of whom are empowered to make decisions. They have to be able to make decisions, but there has to be a framework within which these decisions are made and there has to be transparency and accountability. These are the ‘checks and balances’ which most constitutions entail. Large sections of the work of the state in the UK are not transparent and often only become partly transparent as a result of protracted legal action. And, when plaintiffs are successful, the government often changes the law. Accountability has always been a partial process. The lower ranks get their jotters or even jail, whereas the higher echelons get pensioned off and are found ‘billets’ in the Lords, on company boards, in Universities, etc. However, with this egregious government and monstrous Prime Minister, accountability has become farcical.

        So, in conclusion, I think your distinction between the ‘constitution’ and the ‘state’, is, to a fair degree, a false dichotomy, although I concur with your comments regarding the ‘constitution’.

        1. 220422 says:

          The state [of public affairs – a.k.a. ‘res publica’ – and their governance] is what the constitution constitutes. So, you’re right; there is no dichotomy between the two. In classical republican terms, the former is the institution of the latter while the latter is an abstraction of the former.

          And of course, the current state/constitution (a.k.a. ‘the establishment’, the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is currently exercised) doesn’t work for the benefit of everyone. But it does work for those who currently exercise power in society; namely, the bourgeoisie or those who are affluent in cultural financial and capital. Insofar as it does continue to work for them and keeps them in power, it’s not in crisis but is functioning ‘normally’, as it should.

          We could get all moralistic and complain that, while it’s functioning normally, as it should, it’s not functioning as it ‘ought’, as we – with our particular historical values or norms – would like it to. But that it isn’t functioning in a manner that suits our particular normality doesn’t constitute ‘a crisis’.

          1. 220422 says:

            ‘…those who are affluent in cultural and financial capital.’

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