Why is Boris Johnson suspending Parliament?
It’s a trap…
Londoners have seen plenty of Boris Johnson’s nasty authoritarian streak; we remember him blowing over £1million on water cannons he couldn’t use as a symbol of power over his capital.
This is a first strike in what will be a pattern of behaviour that we need to get used to. Johnson’s attempt to normalise his decision today by sending colleagues to the airwaves with lines such as “it’s been done before” or “this session of Parliament has gone on too long” is not really about convincing anyone. We all know it’s not normal to shut democratic institutions down during points of frenzied national debate.
He’s winding us up. There are people assuming parliament is being suspended for five weeks (rather than a few days plus the existing recess for party conferences) and people who seem to think we are one step away from tanks rolling down Whitehall.
Johnson’s gambit is (obviously) unusual and extreme, and we should draw attention to this within the context of his record of (and plans for) selling off our country and degrading our rights in the interests of the class he represents and embodies. Mass social action to defend what democratic rights we have is imperative.
But overreacting or reacting badly is as dangerous as failing to react at all. Johnson’s Brexit chief Dominic Cummings knows (and obsesses) over strategic theory. This is a Clausewitzian move, one of several disjointed attempts to disorient and draw us out within the context of an overall Schwerpunkt (leading goal). This is not so much Brexit as the leaner, meaner society they want to build after Brexit. It hopes to produce panic and perhaps an early vote of no confidence or some other counter-move that will discredit opponents of no deal further. It does this against the background of the last few weeks of highly public confusion among Johnson’s opponents (much of it caused by the fact that the anti-no deal camp is divided on both Brexit outcomes and whether they think no deal Brexit or the Labour leadership are a bigger enemy).
And this is happening for older reasons than Brexit…
Why is this even a debate? Why are serious contemporary questions about our politics having to be resolved through abstruse legal arguments derived from Erskine and May? Because our institutions are built in a similar image to our legal system, on adding each new adaptation and precedent to their sum total of knowledge and power which form an ever-increasing sediment.
These institutions can be useful because they build in tried-and-tested problem-solving mechanisms. The most obvious escape route from a political crisis is a general election — it took two in 1909–11 and two in the mid-1970s to break deadlock. But the current balance of political forces is just too deadlocked and the stakes seen as too high for the institutional path of least resistance to be followed. Instead people reach into the darker, more cobwebbed recesses of our ancient store of instruments and come up with ideas like proroguing parliament. The monarchy starts to reassert its importance. As the power of the present recedes the past becomes more powerful.
Democracy is relatively new to our institutions, and they are poorly set up to resolve a direct clash of two ugly visions of what democracy is. We have the hard Leavers who imagine a democracy without checks and balances and discussion, in which a simple plebiscite allows an authority figure to steamroller all dissent. We have the hard Remainers; who really don’t care about the result of the vote at all because they believe that those who are ‘better qualified’ than the electorate should make decisions. Each side rails against ‘elites’ while genuflecting to the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg or Tony Blair.
The problem lies with the elites which created and were created by the institutions.
Because Brexit is happening for much older reasons than Brexit…
Our nobles and our early capitalists avoided the bloody birthing pains of the industrial age elsewhere in Europe. The moulding of shared friendship and worldviews through elite education, the profits of colonialism and the power of our institutions to mediate conflict all had a hand here.
This is no longer the case. When our political order began to break down in the post-war period as working class movements attained more power and Britain lost imperial power, neoliberal conservatives bolted a sticking plaster onto these long term problems. This was, in short, to deal with both longterm social and economic change by forcing market discipline on the state and the people.
Europe entered the story when 1980s Conservatives began to clash over different strategies to achieve this objective. Pragmatic Conservatives accepted the European Community’s baseline of workers’ rights and consumer standards in return for the entrenchment across Europe of lower barriers to unrestricted capital flows, and power moving from states to multinational financial institutions.
Optimistic Conservatives differed. They believed that with help from across the Atlantic, Britain could institutionalise its own ultra-neoliberal model without a European dragnet of social rights. Predictably, the clash took on cultural dimensions and became expressed as a clash between cosmopolitan centrist Conservatives and Churchillian nostalgists. The differences between capitalists that are and are not dependent on European trade added a material dimension. As our economy and politics again entered protracted gridlock and decline following the 2008 crisis, this difference deepened into civil war.
Like every other English civil war, elite fallout has activated other social anxieties (especially since the referendum) and conscripted ordinary people into a war which they will lose whichever side wins. With no-deal still the default option on October 31, this war is escalating.
And as things move very swiftly, we need to keep bigger pictures in mind.
The prorogation row is reflective of three trends. There is the grim authoritarian character of a party which has recently found a renewed sense of strategic purpose (namely using Brexit to sell things that belong to you.) There is a creaking old system to which democracy is a recent add-on. And there is an existential crisis of institutions and elites.
Many of the critics of Johnson’s latest move understand only the first half of the first problem. To most hard Remainers, Johnson is a proroguing rogue to be held in check by the sensible people in the mother of all parliaments. Most voters, on all sides, are more sceptical of our system and most of the people who populate it — not without good reason. This is another part of the reason why they risk skewering themselves by reacting in exactly the way Johnson and Cummings want them to; by looking like they are pulling even more of an elite stitch-up than Johnson is.
Manoeuvrability and a keen sense of where traps lie has to be underpinned by a sense of what our main purpose is — yes, stopping Boris Johnson’s particular vision of Brexit, but as a step on the road to a vast redistribution of wealth and power in this country.
At the same time we need the will to start a serious conversation about how we got here, and how our democratic institutions should be radically reshaped. We do not only want a parliament where a right-wing prime minister cannot suspend parliament because one weird legal trick is found to stop him. We want to go beyond defending a disgraced system or making it even worse.
We need to reimagine what popular sovereignty looks like altogether; before someone else does.