Back in October, following the prorogation of the Westminster Parliament, we were provided with a short, sharp account of the limits of British democracy on this blog – exposing the extent to which it falls short of the ideal and how open it is to abuses. With little over a week to go until the General Election, we are now being left in little doubt as to the extent to which the Tories are willing to entirely hollow out the system, rendering it a democracy only in name. Whilst the previous election in 2017 carried with it the threat of permanent damage to the Labour Party, this time the wider electorate must acknowledge – with desperate haste – the threat of wider, more comprehensive and more permanent damage carried by the present election. The Tories are killing democracy.
This claim is most straightforwardly articulated with reference to the recent work of Levitsky and Zeblatt in their book How Democracies Die, which in response to the election of Trump argues that it is the erosion of norms – the unspoken rules and conventions of politics – that does the most damage to democratic culture, and endangers its longevity. In particular it is ‘mutual toleration’ and ‘institutional forebearance’ that are discarded by politicians of Trump and Johnson’s ilk. Not only do they pay mere lip-service to the constitution whilst blithely ignoring its strictures; they also undermine the reciprocal habits and commitments that have always been the mainstay of democracy, deriding their opponents, showing contempt for critics, encouraging conspiracy theories and questioning the legitimacy of votes that do not go their way.
In truth, of course, this process has been in train in Britain for some time now, with Theresa May’s administration taking a dim view of the ‘traitors’ who stood in her way, and bringing into question the legitimacy of parliament holding her to account. However, whereas one always felt that May held some remnants of respect for conventions and some sense of albeit misdirected moral correctness, with Johnson in power the Tory mask has slipped to the extent that such concerns for conventions, morality and even the truth more generally are made to feel extraneous to the everyday business of politics.
Indeed, a contempt for norms has exuded from Number 10 ever since Johnson took up residency and appointed Dominic Cummings, who seems to have ridden roughshod over any persons or rules that have stood in his way – the writing of his political blog during purdah being the latest example of his ‘law-unto-himself’ approach. The entire prorogation episode, their alleged incredulity at the actions of parliament, and the flippant attitude to the High Court ruling capture in particular their disregard for their opponents and the attempt to undermine the legitimacy of any decisions or votes that go against them. In this respect, it should come as no surprise that there has already been speculation in the media about whether Johnson might try to subvert a result that could see him ousted as an MP.
The derision aimed at Corbyn and the Labour Party has of course been a long-standing theme, but Johnson’s regime has managed to take it to another, slightly deranged level. The parallels drawn between Corbyn and Stalin are – for a person with any vague historical understanding – preposterous at best, but the manner in which the Tories have held to this line as if it were a serious claim is disconcerting. This is particularly the case when considered in light of what has been the most striking aspect of their campaign so far, namely the contempt shown for their critics in the media, in particular their handling of Channel 4. The not-even veiled threat to the channel, when they replaced Johnson with a block of ice after his refusal to take part in the climate change debate, was a breathtaking attack on a beacon of an albeit compromised democratic culture.
It has only been surpassed by the frankly bizarre and ominous behaviour of Michael Gove in dealing with the same channel. His attempts at gaslighting have taken us into a new realm of propaganda with Orwellian undertones. Firstly there was the outrageous attempt to present Ciaran Jenkins questioning of him on straightforward facts as pedalling a ‘left-wing perspective’, which Gove, presumably in public service, emphasised time and again, in an apparent attempt to enlighten the unsuspecting viewer as to the dark ways of this allegedly ideologically-charged news service. This was followed with a trip down to their studios – with Johnson’s dad in tow – on the night of the Climate Change debate, and a subsequent Twitter attack on the channel and opposition politicians, insisting that they were the ones who had ducked a challenge.
Eroding the public sphere
Gove’s performances are of course just the most high profile cameos in what in any other age would have been considered a surreal, embarrassing performance. However, today’s ‘automated public sphere’ that runs off digital platforms where metrics and profits reign, provides in the words of Adrienne Russell a ‘playground for bad actors and a breeding ground for bad information’ where these japes are now the norm. Witness the excruciating interview of Nicky Morgan, derided by Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid (and the Gogglebox regulars) when she tried to run with the idea that 50,000 new nurses included 19,000 already employed in the NHS.
Public accountability is seemingly a thing of the past, proof of which is a Prime Minister who can apparently say anything he likes, or avoid any debates he chooses, without being brought to account. Disheartening and dangerous in this respect has been the capitulation of the BBC, in particular the failure to make good Johnson’s promise to appear in front of Andrew Neil. To where on earth has the much heralded British norm of good old-fashioned fair play disappeared? Here in Wales, the fact that Alun Cairns is still running as a candidate, despite his support for a man who sabotaged a rape trial, is a damning indictment of the depths to which we have sunk.
What we must fear, of course, is the consequences of the Tories winning a majority off the back of this façade. It is difficult to imagine how they could not interpret such a victory as carte blanche to do whatever they want. The spectre of a hard Brexit will reemerge from the shadows, and who knows where we will go from there. Deepening inequality will be the thin end of the wedge. The overtures from Trump are ominous. It may be pessimistic to suppose that the hate, violence and poverty that typifies society today will deepen, but such grim realism is merely common sense by now.
Some might see this as quickening the break up of the UK, but caution is required. For is an emboldened Tory party, under the leadership of a potential demagogue, outside the EU, likely to offer up another referendum for Scotland, let alone Northern Ireland and Wales? If a left-wing PSOE government in Spain has acted with impunity with regard to Catalunya, within the EU, should we not ponder the possible behaviour of a hard-right British government, outside the transnational structures that have previously functioned as a normative restraint? Fancying himself a Churchillian moment, one can imagine Johnson ‘sending in the troops’ if he thought he might profit from it. If he can’t fight a war elsewhere, why not open up a conflict on the home front in the name of Britain?
The last week of campaigning must reflect the desperate times we live in, and the minds of the electorate must be focused on the pain we will face. Whilst a formal anti-Tory coalition has not been achieved, local campaigning has to embrace the realities of tactical voting and provide the hope of ensuring a hung parliament, which will carry with it far more radical potential for positive change and a reconfiguration of our politics. And in this context of course, those marginal seats in Wales could potentially be those that deliver us from the possibility of disaster. This is no longer about a coalition for remain, it is a coalition for civilised life on these islands. Save for a few disaster capitalists and their cronies, victory for a Tory party – apparently intent on killing democracy – will not end well for anyone.