recess was due to end next week (September 3) – at which point a variety of parliamentary games will be deployed – including a possible “vote of confidence”
On Wednesday, however, the Prime Minister asked and received from the Queen a “prorogation” (ie suspension) of Parliament from 9 September until 14 October – leaving only 2 weeks before the country is scheduled to leave the European Union.
The reaction has been outrage – even from Conservative MPs and ex-Ministers. MPs are given only four days next week to hold the government to account…Although I grant you that MPs have not been able to do much with the additional power they have had for the past 2 years (since we got what is called a "hung parliament" ie one without a clear government majority)
The historian, Richard Evans, has an article in the current issue of Prospect Magazine which puts this action in a useful historical context -
It was to Hitler’s advantage that nobody apart from his own followers took him seriously. An upstart from Austria with a comical moustache and a funny accent, he didn’t fit the image of a normal politician.
Trump and Boris Johnson may not be upstarts in the same way—far from it—but it is striking that neither possesses the gravitas the electorate used to expect of its leaders. Many voters are amused by these showmen. And in Britain, many lend Johnson (and perhaps the equally convention-defying Nigel Farage) support because they imagine, as many German voters did in the early 1930s, that they will do whatever is necessary—including breaking the rules of politics—to resolve the crisis into which the nation has got itself, in Johnson’s case bypassing the elected representatives of the people.
But if Hitler’s rise teaches us anything, it’s that the establishment trivialises demagogues at its peril. One disturbing aspect of the present crisis is the extent to which mainstream parties, including US Republicans and British Conservatives, tolerate leaders with tawdry rhetoric and simplistic ideas, just as Papen, Hindenburg, Schleicher and the rest of the later Weimar establishment tolerated first Hitler and then his dismantling of the German constitution. He could not have done it in the way he did without their acquiescence. Republicans know Trump is a charlatan, just as Conservatives know Johnson is lazy, chaotic and superficial, but if these men can get them votes, they’ll lend them support.
Weimar’s democracy did not exactly commit suicide. Most voters never voted for a dicatorship: the most the Nazis ever won in a free election was 37.4 per cent of the vote. But too many conservative politicians lacked the will to defend democracy, either because they didn’t really believe in it or because other matters seemed more pressing.
On a lighter note, Fin O’Toole has an excellent piece in “The New York Review of Books” which catches an important aspect of the Etonian public school fool who is now UK PM
The anthropologist Kate Fox, in her classic study “Watching the English”, suggested that a crucial rule of the national discourse is what she called The Importance of Not Being Earnest:
“At the most basic level, an underlying rule in all English conversation is the proscription (banning) of ‘earnestness.’”
Johnson has played on this to perfection—he knows that millions of his compatriots would rather go along with his outrageous fabrications than be accused of the ultimate sin of taking things too seriously.
“Boris being Boris” (the phrase that has long been used to excuse him) is an act, a turn, a traveling show. Johnson’s father, Stanley, was fired from his job at the World Bank in 1968 when he submitted a satiric proposal for a $100 million loan to Egypt to build three new pyramids and a sphinx.
But the son cultivated in England an audience more receptive to the half-comic, half-convincing notion that the EU might be just such an absurdist enterprise.
What he honed in his Brussels years is the practice of political journalism (and then of politics itself) as a Monty Python sketch. He invented a version of the EU as a gigantic Ministry of Silly Walks, in which crazed bureaucrats with huge budgets develop ever more pointlessly complicated gaits. (In the original sketch, the British bureaucrats are trying to keep up with “Le Marché Commun,” the Common Market.)
Johnson’s Brussels is a warren of bureaucratic redoubts in which lurk a Ministry of Dangerous Balloons, a Ministry of Tiny Condoms, and a Ministry of Flavourless Crisps. In this theatre of the absurd, it never matters whether the stories are true; what matters is that they are ludicrous enough to fly under the radar of credibility and hit the sweet spot where preexisting prejudices are confirmed.
This running joke made Johnson not just highly popular as a comic anti-politician but, for many of his compatriots, the embodiment of that patriotic treasure, the English eccentric. There is a long tradition of embracing the eccentric (though in reality only the upper-class male eccentric) as proof of the English love of liberty and individualism in contrast to the supposed slavishness of the European continentals. No less a figure than John Stuart Mill wrote in “On Liberty” (1859) that
“precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric.”
Mill associated eccentricity with “strength of character,” but Johnson has been able to turn it upside down—his very weakness of character (the chaos, the fecklessness, the mendacity) provides for his admirers a patriotically heartening proof that the true English spirit has not yet been chewed up in the homogenizing maw of a humourless and excessively organized EU.
For those who want to know more about the constitutional issues involved, the same magazine has this useful note on the issue
For the political junkies who want to know the full story behind the plot to suspend parliament, it’s here
Will Hutton is a respected economics writer who has analysed and mapped the choices open to the British people to bring it into the 21st Century in a variety of books – starting with The State We’re In” (1995), He also has a useful article in today’s Guardian on the constitutional issues behind the suspension.