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.