Pin It
Boris Johnson Stop The Coup Protest Parliament Square
A placard at London’s #StoptheCoup protest against Boris Johnson, who has suspended parliament in the run up to a No Deal BrexitVia @dazed Instagram

Boris Johnson is stealing our democracy and we must resist

As parliament is prorogued weeks before the Brexit deadline, Ash Sarkar writes on the importance of civil disobedience against a cowardly, arcane government

Boris Johnson, having secured the permission of a hereditary monarch, announced the government would prorogue – meaning to suspend without dissolving – parliament from the second week of September until October 14, narrowing the window in which MPs could introduce legislation to block a No Deal Brexit by the time we crash out of the EU on October 31 by default. But don’t let the parliamentary esoterica and arcane jargon lull you to sleep: what happened this week is that a prime minister selected by only 0.13 per cent of the population just stole our democracy.

In any other country, we’d call the suspension of the legislature by a weak government – Boris Johnson only has a working majority in the Commons of one MP – a coup d’etat. Because we don’t have a codified constitution, the rules dictating the limits of a prime minister’s power are a matter of politely abiding by an unwritten set of norms. It’s a bit like throwing a party, and hoping that no one will shit on your carpet because, in general, the expectation is that shitting on carpets is not the done thing. It’s only when a guest actually drops trousers and really goes for it that you realise that the pressure of social niceties isn’t actually going to save your carpet when someone 100 per cent wants to take a shit on it.

To be fair, Johnson’s administration is not the first government in British history to suspend the legislative process in order to circumvent the trickier bits of parliamentary democracy. John Major did it in 1997 to get out of having to face a damning report into the ‘cash for questions’ scandal. Clement Attlee went for prorogation back in 1948 to force through a bill restricting the power of the unelected House of Lords to delay bills being turned into laws.  But Johnson’s use of prorogation here is the most craven and cowardly attack on representative democracy by the executive since Charles I dismissed Parliament in 1629. And we all know how that turned out.

Leaving the EU might have a mandate, but No Deal doesn’t. In an alternate universe, the narrow win for Brexit in 2016, and the fact that Theresa May lost her majority in 2017 when putting her vision of a hard Brexit to the people at a General Election, would have been interpreted as a mandate for compromise. Working out what Brexit actually meant would have been hammered out in citizens assemblies and a deal put together through cross-party cooperation, had it not been for the determination of the Conservative party to placate its own headbangers by demolishing the possibility for consensus. And now, half a million UK jobs are at risk, just so Boris Johnson can keep his. 

“Johnson’s use of prorogation here is the most craven and cowardly attack on representative democracy by the executive since Charles I dismissed Parliament in 1629. And we all know how that turned out”

We are where we are because it was in the interest of the establishment to never develop a framework for reconciling direct democracy with the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. The arrangement of our constitution has always left open the opportunity for unscrupulous despots to engineer a crisis and perform a smash-and-grab on power, claiming to speak for the people by robbing us of our representatives voice in parliament. In design terms, this is what you’d call a feature rather than a glitch.

But democracy doesn’t start and end at the ballot box. From the poll tax to the Peasant’s Revolt, the Miners’ Strike to Extinction Rebellion, this country has a long and proud history of civil disobedience. The dominant image of what protest is about – walking around a bit, chanting, waving a placard – is a neutered one. Protest isn’t simply getting together to express a point of view. It’s the collective leveraging of people power against the organised force of establishment interests. Just because something is non-violent doesn’t mean it’s not disruptive: effective forms of direct action are about fundamentally disrupting the flow of money, the functioning of state institutions, and the feeling among the establishment that it may operate in safety. If the government wants to shut down democracy, than the country must shut down the government. That means surrounding Downing Street, blocking roads and bridges, and going on strike if need be. If the MPs who oppose the suspension of their legislative powers are serious, they should occupy the Commons, and remind Boris Johnson that democracy doesn’t exist at his and Dominic Cummings’ pleasure. Though our constitution is bizarre, arcane, and dysfunctional, there exists a single unspoken truth at the heart of it. We cannot be governed if we commit to being ungovernable.