There was no coup d’etat. Nothing illegal happened. The British state is doing exactly what it was designed to do.
In Britain’s unwritten constitution, there are no rules, only conventions. What Boris Johnson did certainly feels wrong. A Prime Minister from a party that hasn’t won an election in Wales since 1885, winner of an internal party election only, getting permission from the Queen to prorogue the Westminster parliament for over a month. And all this in service of forcing through a no-deal Brexit on October 31st. Wales voted to leave the European Union, but no-one voted for this.
And yet, every one of Johnson’s actions are legal and constitutional. The Crown in Parliament is the sovereign authority, the Queen invites the leaders of successful parties to form governments, and laws can only be passed with royal assent. By convention Prime Ministers don’t act like Johnson. But what good is a convention if no-one respects it anymore? In Britain, an entrenched oligarchy chooses to act in a semi-democratic way. Most of the time. When they choose not to, there’s no law, no rule, nothing solid to stop them.
In 1972, Australia elected its first Labour government in 23 years. Gough Whitlam’s government ended conscription and passed laws to establish universal healthcare and free university education. But without a majority in the upper chamber, and in the face of constant obstruction from opposition parties, a political deadlock developed. Whitlam turned to the Queen’s representative, Governor-General Sir John Kerr, for permission to call a new election. Instead, Kerr dismissed Whitlam and invited Malcolm Fraser, leader of the opposition, to form a government instead. There was nothing illegal or unconstitutional about this, in a parliamentary system based on the British model. The same could happen to any unacceptably left-wing government in the future. And if the government in London decided to abolish the parliaments of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland – so what?
We should oppose what Boris Johnson did – not in order to defend democracy in Westminster, but as part of acknowledging that there is no real democracy in Westminster. If we want real democracy we have to create it, here in Wales and everywhere else.
By “real democracy” I mean a deep, participatory, deliberative democracy, democracy that is part of the social fabric, rather than a performance staged every four or five years. Ireland and Switzerland’s effective referendums, and participatory budgeting in Brazil, offer examples for us to emulate and further develop in Wales. Democratic culture should mean “more than casting a vote,” as J. R. Jones put it. But in the British system, our only contribution as subjects (not citizens!) is to cast a vote every now and again, in order to send representatives to Westminster or Cardiff Bay to do our reasoning and deciding for us. We have barely any chance to reason and decide for ourselves, and when referendums do happen, they’re badly managed and ineffective. Everything is focussed on Parliament. At its best, the British model of representative democracy suffocates deep democracy, flourishing, participatory, democracy.
Of course, there were possible turning points, lost opportunities for change. Abolishing, instead of “reforming,” the House of Lords. Establishing a federal system with a parliament for England, instead of lukewarm devolution for Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Getting rid of the first past the post electoral system. 1997, 1999, 2011, 2014. It’s possible to dream about Britain as a slightly less superficial democracy, supposing you want to dream of something so commonplace.
That Britain never came, and that Britain never will come. Boris Johnson’s reckless action has revealed the true nature of Westminster’s democracy – a convention, a performance that’s apt to be cancelled if it truly interferes with the interests of our real governors.
You can’t fix Britain. But we can build something better in Wales.