When, in the spring of 1789, Louis XVI of France recalled the Estates-General, he had no idea of the political forces he was unleashing. With France’s drift towards absolute monarchy throughout the early-modern period, the country’s parliament had not met since 1614 and was regarded by the crown as a redundant medieval institution. Only the pressing need to reorder the kingdom’s public finances - and to win acquiescence from wealthy interests in order to do so - prompted the king and his ministers to assemble leaders of the aristocracy, clergy and commoners in Versailles.
This congregation, far from shoring up the power of the monarch and his ministers, triggered the rapid unravelling of the ancien régime. When, after months of fruitless deliberation, the stubborn resistance of the representatives became too much for Louis to bear, on 20 June he ordered the chamber where the Estates-General had been meeting to be closed. Uncowed, the commoners reconvened in the Versailles tennis court and declared themselves to be the new National Assembly of France, swearing not to part ways until the country had a new constitution. Less than a month later, working-class Parisians stormed the Bastille prison, marking the start of the French Revolution.
Something similar is happening today, across the Channel in Europe’s longest-standing parliamentary democracy. Having been elected as prime minister with a mandate from considerably less than 1% of the adult British population - the 180,000 members of the Conservative Party - Boris Johnson is attempting to remove the primary check on his power by breaking up the UK Parliament.
On 28 August 2019, Johnson announced that he would suspend Parliament from sitting for several crucial weeks in September and October, ostensibly to prepare a new legislative programme, but with the effect of minimising scrutiny from MPs ahead of the 31 October 2019 Brexit deadline. The unintended effect has been a surge in support for Britain’s unwritten constitution as MPs refuse to budge and citizens take to the streets.
There is, on the surface, nothing unconstitutional about a ‘prorogation’, the process by which Parliament is intermittently suspended. This is normal practice ahead of a general election, as well as between parliamentary sessions when the sitting government plans to introduce its next package of legislation. The problem is that the 2016 referendum on EU membership lobbed a grenade into the heart of the UK constitution. There is no precedent in British political history for something like the Article 50 process, with a clock ticking down to no-deal Armageddon irrespective of the electoral or parliamentary timetable. Johnson’s attempt to prevent MPs from debating Brexit and possibly seizing control of the government in the lead-up to Hallowe’en is a tremendous assault on the spirit of the constitution, if not on its letter.
While shocking, there is no real cause to be surprised at this latest manoeuvre. For one thing, Johnson’s journalistic and political career thus far has proven him almost uniquely unfit to hold the office of prime minister. He has a long track-record of promulgating both ambiguous untruths and outright lies, from his time as an opportunistically Eurosceptic columnist in Brussels to his misleading promises during the 2016 Vote Leave campaign. He has a grotesquely inflated estimation of his own ability coupled with catastrophically poor attention to detail, which during his time as foreign minister left a British citizen imprisoned in Iran at the hands of the Revolutionary Guards. Most of all, he has demonstrated no loyalty whatsoever to any individual or institution other than himself. His careless manipulation of constitutional practice for his own short-term ends, in direct refutation of the Conservative Party’s best traditions, is just the latest act of extraordinary egotism and self-promotion.
Secondly, Johnson is operating in an environment in which liberal-democratic norms are under threat of erosion by populist discourse. Since the beginning, the Brexiteers have sought to paint anyone expressing sympathy for the EU, or even for a close future relationship in lieu of full membership, as a part of an unpatriotic liberal elite. (This ‘elite’ has variously included parliamentarians, human rights activists, judges, environmentalists, journalists, trade-unionists, artists, immigrants and pretty much any female public figure with the wrong political views.) Pro-Remain MPs have received death threats and one, Jo Cox, was murdered in public by a fascist during the referendum campaign. Right-wing newspapers have attacked senior judges as “enemies of the people” and encouraged the government to “crush the saboteurs”. Theresa May, although a very different prime minister from her successor, failed to distance herself from this rhetoric and announced the 2017 general election with a speech that implied parliamentary scrutiny of her Brexit plans was illegitimate. The anti-constitutional foundations had already been laid for Johnson.
Granted, MPs too must shoulder some portion of the blame for allowing events to reach this point. After pro-Remain activist Gina Miller won a Supreme Court ruling that obliged the government to trigger Article 50 through legislation rather than executive discretion, MPs voted to start the two-year countdown without imposing any constraints on the government’s negotiations. Similarly, while Parliament has valiantly voted down any withdrawal agreement that would compromise social and environmental standards, MPs have failed to coalesce around a single alternative proposal. However, regardless of the severity of the situation, it is not unreasonable to expect the sitting prime minister to play by the same constitutional rules as his forebears.
In another sense, however, the comparison with Louis XVI and the French National Assembly should be reversed. It is the Brexiteers who present themselves as the 'true revolutionaries', and a tragic irony of many revolutions - as commentators have repeatedly observed since the 1790s - is that they often degenerate into the same tyranny they originally proclaimed to overthrow. In France, jubilant declarations of the inviolable rights of man soon gave way to the Jacobin Terror, the guillotine and a military dictatorship under Napoleon. Today, erstwhile defenders of the British constitution are now mercilessly denigrating the institutions which underpin it in their crusade for an ideologically pure Brexit.
For decades, British Eurosceptics railed against the assumed subjection of the country’s sovereign parliament to EU law. In rhetorical echoes of the Protestant Reformation, “shadowy deals” struck among continental elites in Brussels and Strasbourg were ostensibly imposed on the nation from above and reinforced by the pre-eminent position of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) over English common law. Traditions of government acting to the comparative advantage of other European states - Roman civil law, Catholic corporatism, social democracy - were according to their presentation preventing the UK from exercising its own strengths in market liberalism. Only by breaking its European shackles could Britain reassert its independence and reclaim its status as a global power.
Now, like revolutionaries almost everywhere, the Brexiteers have instead decided that the end justifies the means. Parliament must be made sovereign once more, but the present parliamentarians are according to them mere functionaries of the old order and so must be overcome. They now argue that the judiciary must be restored to independence from the ECJ, but the present crop of judges are bleeding-heart liberals who do not comprehend the struggle for national liberation. The will of the people must be enacted, but to ask for clarification as to what that will actually is would invite sabotage from latent Remainer forces, so we cannot risk another referendum. In their view only once Britain has left the EU - and ideally, to guard against any future interference, in the harshest way possible - can the institutions of British democracy be restored and allowed to thrive.
If you are a true believer in the cause, then such a course of action poses minimal risks. After the event, the infallibility of a free British polity will naturally correct for any revolutionary excesses. This is the same justification used by Robespierre to behead the enemies of the First Republic, as well as by generations of Leninists for whom capitalist exploitation could only be expunged by violence. All too often, however, normal service never resumes. There is always a further threat to be overcome, always more saboteurs lurking and awaiting the opportunity to derail the revolutionary process. The suspension of democracy becomes indefinite, the final revolutionary victory only ever visible on the horizon.
It might seem alarmist to speak of the suspension of British democracy, in a country that enjoyed uninterrupted universal suffrage through a century blighted by fascism and Soviet communism in continental Europe. Yet there is no reason to think that one country can remain safely unaffected by the authoritarian tremors shaking democracies across the world, especially when an issue like Brexit has splintered the population into two fundamentally opposed factions. It in this wider international context that Westminster MPs, like their forebears in Versailles 230 years ago, have responded so robustly to Johnson’s attempts at prorogation.
On 3 September, with the blessing of the irrepressible chamber speaker John Bercow, MPs voted to take control of the parliamentary timetable from the government. The following day, they voted through a bill to constrain Johnson’s handling of the Brexit negotiations: if there is no withdrawal agreement in place by 14 October the prime minister will be obliged to seek a further extension to the Article 50 deadline from the EU27, delaying Brexit Day further until 31 January 2020.
The government responded by expelling 21 rebellious MPs from the Conservative Party (including two former finance ministers and Winston Churchill’s grandson) and attempted to trigger a general election, which was again blocked by Parliament. Johnson was left fuming at the impotence of the executive as massed protestors chanted ‘stop the coup’ outside Downing Street.
In effect, a majority of MPs have made their own version of the Oath of the Tennis Court: they refuse to allow Parliament to be either prorogued or dissolved for an election until the government is legally prevented from ramming through a no-deal Brexit. It is no coincidence that this is the moment at which the opposition parties - including Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the Celtic nationalists - have reached an unprecedented level of cooperation with each other and pro-Remain Conservative rebels. Ironically, the Machiavellianism that allowed Johnson to manoeuvre his way into the top job has galvanised MPs to resist him more than they would another prime minister. They are well aware that he bears as little regard for parliamentary democracy as for any other obstacle on his path to power.
In dark times such as these, the tenacity of Britain’s parliamentarians is inspiring. With a general election now highly likely within weeks, what happens next will be determined by the ongoing power struggle between the executive and legislature. The government claims its democratic mandate from the 2016 referendum and will present itself, in a mode of authoritarian populism reminiscent of Donald Trump, as the guardian of the will of the people against a remote elite of MPs. Parliament, meanwhile, takes its mandate from the enduring tradition of representative democracy and is keen to be seen as the custodian of the democratic process.
The coming weeks in UK politics will have ramifications for a long time to come. Whichever way British citizens voted in 2016, for the sake of the country’s democracy we must hope that it is the elected parliamentarians who triumph over unaccountable power.