In a general election campaign, language can get heated. But words matter in shaping people’s perceptions, and can alter the public mood.
One worrying recent development is the move by some senior politicians and campaigners towards adopting a rhetoric of ‘parliament versus people’ in narrating the UK’s Brexit drama.
For months, it has been suggested that Boris Johnson wanted a ‘parliament versus people’ general election.
Now that an election is happening, politicians and journalists should resist that narrative. First because such language is dishonest, and more importantly because it could have dangerous long-term effects.
To be fair on Boris Johnson, he did not single-handedly create this framing of events – his predecessor arguably kicked it off.
Having been defeated twice on her Brexit deal in the House of Commons, Theresa May made an ill-tempered statement from number 10 in which she distanced herself from parliament, pledging to the public that ‘I am on your side’. But this language was mild compared to some recent statements.
After the Supreme Court reversed Johnson’s unlawful prorogation, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox told the Commons it was ‘a dead parliament…[that] has no moral right to sit’. Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg has suggested that, by acting to block a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, ‘parliament sets itself against the people’.
Starting with the dishonesty, in calling for an election Johnson has argued that parliament gave him no choice.
In an early campaign video, he stated that ‘it was perfectly obvious… that this parliament is not going to vote Brexit through. There are too many [MPs] who… want to frustrate it’.
But there are two reasons why such claims are disingenuous.
First, MPs approved the second reading of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill to implement Johnson’s Brexit deal: that is, they agreed it in principle, and supported proceeding to detailed scrutiny.
Such a bill – at 115 pages, and full of important detail with major consequences – would normally be scrutinised over weeks or months.
Theresa May’s 62-page European Union (Withdrawal) Bill had 36 days’ parliamentary scrutiny in total, starting with 12 days in the Commons.
While Johnson’s bill clearly needed to move quickly, external experts judged the government’s proposed three days of Commons scrutiny to be grossly inadequate. MPs’ rejection of its ‘programme motion’ was hence reasonable – the government simply needed to offer additional time.
Instead, Johnson demanded an election (as he had done on two previous occasions in September).
As former Conservative Chancellor Philip Hammond commented, ‘the government is trying to create a narrative that parliament is blocking Brexit and therefore we need an election. But that is simply untrue’.
The second difficulty with Johnson’s statement is the implication that ‘remainer’ MPs caused the Brexit delay.
In fact, Johnson himself and various Conservative ‘hard Brexit’ supporters voted repeatedly against Theresa May’s Brexit deal, helping to scupper the original exit day of 29 March. Several of those people now sit in Johnson’s Cabinet.
Theresa May battled to get MPs to support her deal over months, but Johnson withdrew his after just three days. As Father of the House Ken Clarke, suggested: ‘following the ordinary principles of government, we would be well on our way to leaving in the middle of November’ had the bill not been dropped.
So the ‘parliament versus people’ rhetoric can be seen as opportunistic. This is disreputable, and even sinister: again for two reasons.
A language of ‘the people against the elites’ is the hallmark of populism – a divisive approach, which seeks to sow discontent with political decision-makers for electoral gain. The global rise of populism has been widely noted by academic and media commentators.
A populist approach is in essence antipolitical, making it difficult to reach the kinds of agreement necessary in complex societies. The diversity of views among ‘the people’ is glossed over, as are the challenges for politicians in meeting these complex demands.
Instead, political actors and institutions are demonised, driving out compromise and mutual understanding.
As democratic theorist Nadia Urbinati has put it, ‘the trajectory of the populist leader starts with the attack against the political establishment… attacking the checks and balances and independent institutions that limit his power’.
Despite being written by a US political scientist, this seems to describe exactly Boris Johnson’s strategy, including his attempted five-week prorogation of parliament. Such approaches have clearly alarmed many Conservatives (and former Conservatives).
As Rory Stewart has suggested, ‘If this great party stands for anything, it stands for respect for parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law… [Johnson] is pitting… people against the parliament’.
A significant threat of populism is that it ultimately leads to the dismantling of democratic institutions – as seen in regimes such as that of Viktor Orban in Hungary, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. The UK may yet be some distance from that.
But an immediate concern is that a populist language of ‘people versus parliament’ will further drive down trust in our core political institutions.
The populist twist in the language of Jeremy Corbyn, who launched his election campaign with a rhetoric of ‘people versus elites’ is also worrying – as some commentators have noted. But it has at least not yet aimed its fire at core bodies such as the courts or parliament.
The legislature lies at the heart of any democratic system.
It is, fundamentally, impossible to be a democracy without a functioning legislature. And any such body, as a representative institution, needs the consent of the public to be able to do its job. In the UK system, parliament can be seen as even more central than that.
As the Supreme Court judgment set out, most agree that parliamentary sovereignty is the core principle in our system of government.
For the executive to pit itself against parliament in such a system, where it has no independent electoral mandate and gains its authority from parliament, is to put its own legitimacy at risk.
Parliament may not be perfect, but public support for our entire system rests on acceptance of its authority.
A rising antipolitical sentiment and declining attachment to political parties have already been coupled with low levels of trust in political institutions.
The Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement has seen a steady increase in the number of respondents saying that the present system of governing Britain could be improved ‘quite a lot’ or ‘a great deal’ – a figure which reached 72% in the 2019 Audit.
The same survey found that 57% of respondents claimed the Brexit process had reduced their confidence in MPs. Another poll in September 2019 suggested that only 12% agreed ‘parliament can be trusted to do the right thing for the country’.
Evidence such as this offers great temptation to populists. But the proper reaction by responsible politicians is instead to work to maintain, and indeed enhance, trust in our political institutions.
Johnson may hope to exploit the Hansard Society Audit’s most worrying headline finding – that 54% believe ‘Britain needs a strong leader willing to break the rules’. But that would be a disreputable and dangerous path.
For the short-term gain of winning an election, further undermining of the long-term stability of British democratic institutions is far too great a price to pay.
By Professor Meg Russell, Senior Fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe and Director of the Constitution Unit, at University College London. This piece was originally published on the Constitution Unit blog.