What should we make of the recent unusually turbulent weeks in British politics? The picture is not just one of a prime minister under siege and political manoeuvrings. The unusual occurrence is that the prime minister’s behaviour has raised fundamental uncertainties about the United Kingdom’s constitution and democracy – whether it is fit for purpose, and whether it can withstand the turbulence.
The first ripples of constitutional disquiet had started almost as soon as Boris Johnson came to power in 2019, with concerns over his personal honesty, breaches of the ministerial code that is meant to govern the conduct of government ministers and a number of actions that skirted the borders of constitutional acceptability. This was compounded by attacks from his allies on the informal checks and balances in the political system, such as independence of the judiciary and the media, along with threats to breach international law in the tussle over Brexit. Already, by 2021, the Johnson government had forged a reputation of being willing to break rules and conventions.
Over time, those ripples of concern have mounted into a tsunami, with proven corruption, gross breaches of integrity, lying, multiple further allegations of cronyism and corruption around COVID procurement, and a host of other misdemeanours, each of which in normal times might have caused a resignation. The government, and all public servants, adhere to a voluntary code of standards called the Nolan Principles, with an expectation that any significant breaches would be resolved by a removal from office. It has its roots in a longstanding system that now looks glaringly old-fashioned.
As a backlash finally mounted, a senior civil servant, Sue Gray, was directed by the prime minister to conduct an internal investigation. This was to be specifically into the well-evidenced allegations that he had on several occasions broken the COVID lockdown rules to attend parties, despite regularly appearing on television telling the rest of the country to follow those same rules.
With new revelations breaking almost every day, pressure increased for Johnson to resign, but many of the parliamentarians – who have the power to remove him as prime minister – declared they were waiting for the Sue Gray report before making a judgement as to his fitness for office. The constitution would require parliamentarians to take action, as the report itself is delivered to the prime minister, who judges himself whether he is guilty of any wrongdoing, and then decides whether there should be any penalty placed on himself.
On the eve of the report being delivered, there was further drama: Gray had uncovered evidence of lockdown law-breaking that merited bringing in the Metropolitan Police who, until then, had steadfastly refused to investigate the stories and photographs circulating in the media.
It is a heady mixture of wrongdoing, cover-up and lies, that has dragged the civil service and the police into the arena of political debate. What once looked to be a robust democracy now looks surprisingly vulnerable to a populist who can exploit the constitutional loopholes, downgrade the checks and balances, and co-opt the police.
One of the lessons the world has learned over the past 20 years is that liberal democracies are surprisingly fragile. They may be less likely to descend into armed civil war than those traditionally considered to be fragile states, but they can slip easily into illiberal democracy, especially when mistrust in the incumbent political establishment opens the door to the election of populists. Hungary and India, to name but a few, have embarked on this path. Others, like South Africa, went further, into the territory of “state capture”.
By and large, liberal democracies rely on trust and consensus promoted by free speech and free assembly, rather than the exercise of a state power supported by a strong internal security and intelligence apparatus. This has been well-demonstrated in the COVID pandemic, during which public health has relied on citizens supporting lockdowns, wearing masks and getting vaccinated. A loss of trust means either that significant parts of the population will not do what the government wants – as happened in the United States during the pandemic – or the state must use its power to impose the will of the government – as in Hong Kong.
Western liberal democracies, chastened by their experiences in the Middle East, have retreated from evangelising about how their own model of political economy can be adopted elsewhere. Furthermore, the experiences of the UK under Johnson, like the US under Donald Trump, show that the challenge has become one of preserving democracy at home rather than spreading it abroad. Levels of trust by the voters in British politicians are already low, and that to some extent explains the anti-establishment vote for Brexit and the subsequent election of Johnson. But, like so many populists, the breaches of standards and integrity that Johnson has come to symbolise have caused further disillusionment.
This is the context in which to read the UK’s political turmoil over recent weeks. What is at stake is not the end of democracy, but a decline into semi-democracy as Johnson clings to power, or is replaced by someone who takes his assault on the constitution a stage or two further. That would not just be bad for the UK; it would signify to the world at large that there is nothing very secure about liberal democracies and that they can all too easily be compromised or captured.
The Johnson government has been untypical of modern British governments. Without yet being systemically corrupt, there has been more corruption and corruption risk in and around this government than any British government since at least the second world war. But being still a democracy, not all the power, and therefore the scope to abuse the power, lies with Johnson.
There is still a pathway in which the Sue Gray report is published and condemns the prime minister; there is an impartial investigation by the police; and Johnson is removed, to be replaced by someone who moves quickly to prioritise issues of integrity, closing the loopholes in standards and the constitution and rebuilding public trust. For all his misdemeanours, there is no reason to expect that a defeated Johnson would pursue a scorched earth policy like Trump, rallying hardline supporters to assault democracy.
But it could go the other way: there is also a pathway in which Johnson remains, or is replaced by someone who takes the same approach, but is more efficient at it. Britain stands on the edge; not too late to pull back, but all too easy to teeter forward. Watch this space.