Boris Johnson is a clear and present danger to the UK political system and to everyone’s democratic rights. Yet the man who is set to become prime minister next week is having a clear run at moving into 10 Downing Street.
The Islamaphobe and misogynist – on record encouraging a physical attack on a journalist – who is prepared to shut down Parliament to force through a kamikaze-style, no-deal Brexit, is a Trump-like populist who cares little for democratic conventions and traditions or his own pledges.
In 2016, he promised that Britain would “take back control” if it departed the European Union. By his refusal to support the UK ambassador to the United States, forcing him to resign after his frank assessment of Trump’s regime was leaked, Johnson actually handed “control” to Washington.
Is any of this worrying the political and media establishment? Not really. Most are cheering on the prospect of a regime that could quite quickly morph into a full-blown autocracy, intolerant of dissent, championing “alternative facts” and fake news.
Johnson, taking a leaf out of his friend Trump’s populist playbook, has essentially pledged to “Make Britain Great Again” with all the deeply reactionary, racist politics that comes with this ultra-nationalist slogan.
Ignoring the almost universal opposition to a no-deal Brexit from the business and financial corporations, most of the mainstream media is infatuated with Johnson. George Osborne, the man who brought you austerity and is totally opposed to Brexit, has brought the London Evening Standard on board.
Tories like Amber Rudd have put their political ambitions first and signed up to the Johnson bandwagon. They resemble lemmings running towards the cliff edge, representatives of a political system that is out of options, out of control and is desperately thrashing around for a way forward.
Naturally, Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party are urging Johnson to leave the EU by October 31, preferably without a negotiated deal. Farage sees this as a first step towards tearing down the political system altogether and replacing it with some kind of corporatist model practised by the dictator Mussolini in 1930s Italy.
As this historic, political and constitutional crisis unravels, it is an opportunity for Labour to shout from the hilltops about the coming storm, setting out policies to defend democracy and organise a campaign to stop Johnson and the Tories.
Unfortunately, the running against Johnson is most being made by maverick Tories like Rory Stewart and Gina Miller, the businesswoman who forced the government to seek parliamentary approval for invoking Article 50 to leave the European Union.
Stewart has said he will organise an “alternative Parliament” if Johnson decides to prorogue or suspend the official body to force through a no-deal Brexit irrespective of the views of the House of Commons. Miller is threatening a court case against Johnson if he tries to shut down Parliament.
Labour obviously has internal divisions over a second referendum and how it handles cases of alleged anti-Semitism, both of which are used for ulterior purposes by deputy leader Tom Watson and a large part of the parliamentary party whose aim is Jeremy Corbyn’s ousting.
But campaigning against a no-deal Brexit and taking the fight to Johnson with the aim of bringing down his narrowly-based regime would be a way of uniting the party. Certainly Labour would be making a huge mistake if they think Johnson’s reign will be short-lived and self-destructive, and that an general election will inevitably lead to the removal of the Tories.
We are not living in those kind of times, where the niceties of parliamentary democracy prevail. The political system itself is in deep, constitutional crisis which is why Johnson’s populism seems fresh by comparison and attractive to many who are disenchanted with the status quo.
The state needs the support of the people to remain legitimate and to sustain its authority. But three in five British voters say politics in Westminster and Brussels is broken. A huge three quarters of people think that politicians put the interests of big business before people like them. Just 32% of people say that they feel represented by any of the main political parties, according to recent surveys.
There are other significant reasons why Labour needs to intervene sooner rather than later. Forces within the state are inevitably scenario-planning ahead of the October 31 deadline. The recent outburst by the former MI6 chief, Sir John Sawers, against Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn is more than a straw in the wind. Sawers claimed that they did not “have the standing that we have become used to in our top leadership”.
Insisting there was a “lot of anxiety” about Brexit with its “huge risk to our international standing, to the strength of the British economy”, he added: “It is not surprising that the people who have devoted themselves to serving the interests of this country are concerned about the direction in which the country is going.” [emphasis added]
We can only guess who these “people” are. So what is the state going to do about this as the October 31 deadline for leaving the EU fast approaches? Will there be an attempt to oust Johnson and put together a national emergency government. Liberal Democrat leadership contender Ed Davey is advocating one. Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, has indicated he would serve in one. Its aim would be to block a no-deal by asking for an extension and then calling a second referendum.
If no-deal somehow goes ahead, either by accident or design, you could also envisage a declaration of a state of emergency in the chaos that will inevitably ensue as the UK economy is overnight cut adrift from existing EU trade agreements.
Either way, a national government, a state of emergency or a no-deal Brexit – which would represent neoliberal capitalist madness as its highest point – has to be opposed. But with what aim and purpose?
The political system is clearly broken. Simply trying to make it work again would be an inadequate response, one doomed to failure. Sure, it’s essential to defend the gains made in struggle like the right to vote, to form political parties, to organise, freedom of speech, elections, the rule of law and so on.
Yet these gains in themselves are in danger of being wiped out unless they are placed in a new, more advanced democratic framework that addresses the question of questions – power itself. At present, we have a failing representative system where people lack power to make effective decisions in their workplaces, communities, cities, countries and regions. That has to change. That’s why a real momentum for citizens’ assemblies on democracy and the constitution is building up.
As Johnson prepares to emulate the Charles I of 1642 by attacking Parliament itself – an act that led to civil war and revolution – surely it’s time to move democracy on? A new, democratic constitution that transfers power from the corporations and financiers to the people is possible not to say necessary.
There is a great opportunity for Labour here. Start the campaign to declare Johnson’s premiership undemocratic, call on people to take action to stop a no-deal Brexit (while respecting the 2016 referendum), warn against the threat of a national government and through mass pressure force a general election. At the same time, pledge to launch a citizens’ convention to draw up a new constitution that can take us beyond the present, capitalist type of state.
Taking this approach would put Labour in the driving seat. With time running out, there’s no time like the present.