More years ago than I care to remember, I was a very young school head appointed by what seemed to me a very experienced and, frankly, old board of governors: with hindsight, they were probably about the age I am now. When, at one meeting, I proudly announced that one of my school’s subject departments had, for the second successive year, helped 100% of its students’ to achieve the (then) top A grade, there was general rejoicing.
Later one of them took me aside. For many years he had travelled the world, frequently behind what had been until recently the Iron Curtain, selling valves (made in the Black Country) for vital water, oil and gas installations. “Tell me about that 100%, Bernard,” he said. “In the countries where I mostly work, whenever I hear about 100% anything, whether votes or 100 successes, I assume there’s been some cheating going on.”
I was able to reassure him that the exam results were kosher. Nonetheless, his wise words stuck with me, and frequently come to mind whenever I see something dodgy going on in government. And something is certainly doing so right now.
As Matthew D’Ancona wrote in The Guardian this week, the former Vote Leave campaign committee has been reassembled at the heart of Boris Johnson’s cabinet, with even Dominic Cummings, the architect of the campaign’s victory, brought back as special adviser. D’Ancona observed that Cummings’s mantra was that victory much be achieved “by any means possible”. The same sort of language is now emerging in relation to the “no ifs, no buts” Brexit promised for 31stOctober.
This isn’t about my personal conviction that a Boris Brexit will cause spectacular harm for our country and its economy. It’s about our politics, whose fragility is currently becoming all too apparent. “Any means possible” currently includes the administration defying any possible vote of no confidence and seeing Brexit through without a functioning Parliament, calling a General Election only afterwards, a poll sure to be dubbed in the media as “the people versus Parliament”, Boris’s election platform based on the boast, “I got Brexit done: that’s what you wanted, and what I promised.”
Parliament, our elected body of representatives, will not collectively consent to a no-deal Brexit. It seems likely that even some Tory MPs will vote to bring down the government (through a Labour-led no confidence motion) if it tries to force it through. Under normal circumstances, you might feel that’s as it should be. We elect our MPs not to follow our instructions (how can they, given how diverse the electorate’s views are), but to exercise their judgment and act on principle. Yet these are not normal circumstances. So right now, if you are a keen supporter of a no-deal Brexit, you may applaud the adoption of any tactic that bypasses attempts by Parliament to block it.
Believe it or not, I understand that. It would “get the job done”. Who cares if it’s done “by any means possible”? Well, I do, and I think everyone should.
That’s just how dictatorships invariably start. A strongman [sic] centralises power in his hands with the caveat that it will be “only until normality has been restored”. Meanwhile, they get things done. Mussolini famously made the Italian trains run on time. Present-day China drives through colossal engineering, industrial and housing scheme at great speed, with none of the feeble shilly-shallying that bedevils projects like HS2 here.
Normality (at least, democratic normality) is, however, never restored. Dictators, whether in name or hiding behind a sham government elected with “100% support”, change the rules by suspending or rewriting their country’s constitution. Thus China has removed its previous limit on how many periods of office its leader may serve: President Xi has the job for life. Meanwhile, in Russia, Vladimir Putin is currently closing down any pretence of real democracy (he recently derided liberal democracy as weak) through violent intimidation and trumped-up criminal charges against his opponents.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that Boris Johnson is setting out to become a dictator. But he is manoeuvring this nation, albeit unwittingly, to the top of that slippery slope. He allows suggestions to grow of manipulation of our democratic system to force through Brexit, a no-deal if necessary, always claiming to follow “the will of the people”: yet even that will was expressed as only a 52/48% majority, one so slim that, in any sensible vote, it wouldn’t allow you to change the rules of your golf club.
Theresa May’s cabinet, riven by disagreement, was fatally flawed. Each time she pushed in one direction, some ministers would jump ship in the other. By contrast, MPs couldn’t join Boris Johnson’s government without first putting hand on heart and swearing fealty to their Leader’s vision of Brexit.
So that’s better, surely? Strong government, led by a united cabinet, all of the same mind? Perhaps so – except that in this administration all disagreement, dissent, even healthy challenge are, as far as one can see (and to use a favourite Brexiter word), verboten. No alternative views in cabinet. Parliament sidelined or prorogued if it dares to disagree. MPs routinely harassed and threatened via social media, and even directly by protesters outside Westminster.
I’m not laying the blame for intimidation at government’s door, by the way: but if you add that recent problem to Team Boris’s mind-games, it becomes hard to avoid the impression that our democratic freedoms and protections are currently at risk. The bitter divisions caused by the single issue of Brexit have exposed the weakness of our parliamentary system: if MPs refuse to bend or compromise in Westminster’s time-honoured way, as they are at present, it ceases to work.
Ardent, unswerving No-Dealers appear ready to countenance a new model of “strong”, less accountable government that will circumvent Parliament and play whatever political or constitutional games it deems necessary to achieve Brexit by any means possible, at any cost. “No ifs, no buts: just do it.”
If that is the outcome, that camp will be rejoicing. But the danger of irreparable damage to our democracy will remain – and grow. We shall have begun to slide down that slippery slope.
In 1739, Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole was forced by popular clamour to declare war on Spain: the announcement was met with general rejoicing, but he was deeply unhappy. “They may ring their bells now,” he commented, “But before long they will be wringing their hands.”
He was proved right. I hope and pray my dire predictions aren’t similarly accurate.