By Sir Ronald Sanders
(The writer is Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own)
Had a government of a developing Commonwealth country suspended parliament to stop the opposition introducing a bill, British High Commissioners would have publicly lectured it, proclaiming that representative democracy had been stifled.
Yet, this is precisely what happened in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) on August 28 when the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, advised the Queen to prorogue Parliament for five weeks beginning September 11.
The present UK government is estopped by its own unprecedented behaviour from moralizing to any other government. Its representatives, who remained in their posts without protest, are equally precluded from preaching to the governments to which they are accredited.
What has transpired in the UK is a blatant disregard by the Johnson government for the sanctity of the UK Parliament, long regarded as the ‘mother of all parliaments’ for its reputation as a forum in which the voice of the people, through their representatives, is given free and full expression, including to disagree with the government of the day.
Were it not for members of his own Conservative party, including his brother Jo, deciding to put “the national interest” first, the voice would have been ripped from the throat of the mother of all parliaments, leaving it silent as Mr. Johnson carried out a controversial scheme to hold a snap general election on October 15, just sixteen days before he planned to withdraw the UK from the European Union (EU) with no orderly arrangements for doing so.
As it turned out, the Conservative Party’s one-seat majority was lost on September 3 – eleven days before the scheduled 5-week suspension of parliament. While the Prime Minister was speaking in the House of Commons, Conservative party member, Dr. Phillip Lee, dramatically crossed over to the Opposition side.
In explanation, Dr. Lee said: “This Conservative Government is aggressively pursuing a damaging Brexit in unprincipled ways.” “It is putting lives and livelihoods at risk unnecessarily and it is wantonly endangering the integrity of the United Kingdom”.
Twenty-one other members of the Conservative Party, including two former Treasury Ministers, shared Dr. Lee’s view though, they stopped short of leaving. They opted for open rebellion on September 4, giving their support to a bill, introduced by Labour opposition member of parliament, Hilary Benn, mandating the Prime Minister to seek an extension of Brexit beyond October 31. The bill was adopted by majority vote.
Thus, was representative democracy restored and with it the sovereignty of parliament over the plans of an unelected Prime Minister and a government without a majority in parliament.
In this sense, the dignity and credibility of ‘the mother of all parliaments’ was regained. But, not without even more unprecedented behaviour from a British government and a British Prime Minister. Boris Johnson immediately exiled the 21 members who stood up for “conservative party values”, deselecting them as party representatives for the constituencies that elected them. If the thought had crossed his mind to consult with the party’s constituency branches before doing so, he seems to have dismissed it immediately.
He referred to the rebels’ action as “collaborating with Brussels”, the headquarters of the EU, and some sort of treason.
Mr. Johnson and his supporters might not like to hear it, but this behaviour is very similar to that of autocratic leaders of developing countries that the UK government has lambasted in the past.
The shame is not that the UK government was wrong to condemn such undemocratic behaviour elsewhere; the shame is that the UK government has lost the moral standing to decry it. In this regard, the Johnson government has let down the world, but, more importantly, it has let down the UK by violating conventions that lie at the heart of its democracy.
Formerly in the UK, any Prime Minister who had so glaringly, obviously and publicly lost the majority in parliament would have resigned immediately. Instead, Mr. Johnson brazenly tabled a measure to hold a general election on October 15 with him still leader of the Conservative party, claiming that it would let the public decide if they prefer him or Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, to conclude Brexit negotiations with the EU.
He could not succeed with the measure, and he knew it. To succeed, the measure required the support of two-thirds of the members of the House of Commons, or 434 votes. Even had the 21 rebels supported the measure, it could have received only 309 votes in favour. As it turned out, It received only 298 votes. Why then did Mr. Johnson table the measure? He did so because he continues to appeal to a section of the UK population that he believes want Brexit almost as an article of faith.
His intention was to consolidate the vote of that significant section of voters by casting Mr. Corbyn and the Labour Party representatives, who abstained from the vote, as collaborators with the EU and, therefore, unable to negotiate tough and beneficial terms for the UK in Brexit.
As this commentary is being written, Mr. Johnson is reported to be contemplating reintroducing, next week, the measure, setting a general election for October 15. By then, the bill mandating him to seek a delay in Brexit would have been adopted so that would not be a cause for parliamentary members to vote against an election. Mr. Corbyn and the Labour Party would have little choice but to support a general election that Mr. Johnson feels he can win, given the general unpopularity of Mr. Corbyn for reasons unrelated to Brexit.
If Mr. Johnson and his Conservative party – now run by its English nationalist wing – win a parliamentary majority at the election, they can repeal the bill adopted on September 3, mandating him to delay Brexit. They will be free to part company with the EU without a deal or to get a deal that they will proclaim to be a magnificent win for Britain, whether or not it is so. That is the cynical purpose for which UK representative democracy had to be bludgeoned with all its unfortunate consequences.
The example is not one other representative democracies should follow.
Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com
5 September 2019