By Colin Talbot
The UK has not suffered a coup. No tanks on the streets. No martial music from the radio stations. No seizing of the presses. No curfews. No coup.
Because that is not how democracy is dethroned these days. At least, not in well-established democratic systems, or even in some less long-lived ones. No. The process of establishing authoritarian rule is far more subtle, prolonged and insidious.
The global rise of authoritarian populist and nationalist leaders is a well-established fact. Bolsanaro, Duerte, Modi, Erdogan, Orban, Putin and of course Donald Trump all, to varying degrees, have or are trying to, establish authoritarian rule.
What is notable in all these cases though is that they rarely involve the classic coup, the military-led overthrow – the coup in Chile, 1973, with Allende being bombed in the Presidential Palace and tanks on the streets?
Some have proceeded much further than others, but the neo-authoritarian play-book is now clear to see. Not every creeping dethroning of democracy occurs in the same way, at the same pace or in the same order. But most of the elements of the process are common and it’s notable how they – the nationalist authoritarians – seem to be learning from one another across national boundaries.
CONCENTRATION OF POWERS
The “Funding Fathers” of the USA famously sought to avoid the possibility of a monarchy (authoritarian ruler) emerging through the ‘separation of powers’. In reality the US Constitution produces an overlapping of powers. But it still one in which it is hard for any one branch of government – Presidency, Congress, the Courts – to dominate the others. Hard, but as we are learning, not impossible.
Other modern democracies – whether based around presidential systems or the more common parliamentary type – have some form of this ‘separation of powers’ as a protection against what John Stewart Mill famously called the “dictatorship of the majority” or Lord Hailsham later famously called an “elective dictatorship”.
So the first priority of would-be authoritarians is to weaken the ‘separation’ of powers and concentrate them in the ‘executive’ branch of Government.
That means undermining, or otherwise subordinating, the other two branches of Government: the legislature and the courts.
In the case of the UK undermining the power of the legislative branch – Parliament – is relatively easy because of the immense imbalance between the Executive and Parliament resulting from our monarchical heritage. Many powers once held by the Monarch have simply been transferred, in practice, to the Prime Minister.
The arbitrary power of the PM to Prorogue parliament is a case in point.
There are others: such as the usual dominance of the House of Commons agenda by ‘Government’ business. Or the sole right of the executive to propose spending or taxation increases.
The UK has one of the most ‘executive dominated’ systems in the democratic world.
The recent exercise of these Prime Ministerial “prerogative powers” to suspend Parliament for 5 weeks shows just how imbalanced the system already is. It doesn’t take much – just the ignoring of usual conventions – to push it either further in the direction of executive dominance.
The other key device which undermines the power of the representative democracy is a referendum.
Superficially more ‘democratic’ they have often been used by would-be authoritarians to consolidate some aspect of their power through “the will of the people”.
This overrides the other expression of the plural “wills of the people” through elections and representative democracy. A handy device for would be despots.
Political parties in a representative democracy play an important role as “democratic linkage” between elected representatives and the sections of the people. But how this linkage works depends on the nature of the democratic system.
In a constituency-based representative democracy like the UK the traditional link has been between elected representatives and the constituency and local parties.
MPs represent their whole constituency as well as being supported by their local Party branch. This creates an inevitable tension – MPs must exercise their own judgement as well as listening to both their constituents and their local members.
This system is breaking down. It used to mean that Prime Ministers were mainly accountable to their MPs in Parliament (and eventually to the whole electorate). But both the Labour and Conservative parties have changed their own ‘rules of the game’ so now their Leaders are more beholden to their Party memberships – nationally – than they are to MPs.
The contrast was most marked within Labour when Jeremy Corbyn lost the confidence of his MPs in 2016 but was reinforced in his role as leader by the Party membership. But the Tories are also now dominated by their Party members. Whilst Boris Johnson may have won a majority of Tory MPs in 2019 it is pretty clear this was under immense pressure from rank and file members.
This shift from accountability to elected representatives (MPs) to accountability to Party members fundamentally undermines representative democracy. MPs become delegates, or “deployees” as the quasi-Leninist African National Congress in South Africa openly terms it, rather than representatives of their constituency with some freedom of judgement.
Centralising power within the would-be authoritarians own Party is only one aspect of undermining the Party system. The other is to delegitimise all the other parties.
In most authoritarian power grabs this is done through nationalism – characterising all opponents as unpatriotic, traitors, agents of foreign powers, etc. This is different from the usual casting of opponents as incompetent or ‘unfit to govern’. It is an attempt to totally remove any legitimate claim to be an alternative government.
The Brexit debate in the UK has veered strongly in this direction. At its most extreme, parliamentary candidates from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party have called for opponents to be sent to prison or even executed for “treason”. More worryingly the actual Prime Minister has used incendiary language such as accusing opponents of promoting a “Surrender Bill” in Parliament.
We have not, yet, seen attempts to ‘pack’ the Courts with political appointees as has happened in Turkey, Hungary and even the United States.
But there are clearly moves to restrict and undermine the independence of the judiciary on constitutional and public administration issues. Crude attacks on judges as “enemies of the people” by government supporting media are self-evident. More insidious are attempts to say the courts have no role in politics at all and should keep out of “high policy”.
UK courts have traditionally had a very weak role in interpreting constitutional matters, or even some administrative ones, because of the UKs imbalanced constitutional setup. The neo-authoritarians are clearly seeking to further restrict the courts and give themselves a free-hand to ignore previous conventions (on the length of prorogations, froe example).
Much worse could be about to happen with the Johnson Government now openly threatening to ignore the Courts and the law and smash the UK out of the EU. His chosen image – Marvel comics The Incredible Hulk who’s main characteristic is out of control rage and destruction – HULK SMASH.
In other examples of the creeping dethronement of democracy far more extreme tactics have been deployed. Restriction of civil liberties, attacks on civil society organisations, capture of state and independent media organisations, and at its most extreme extra-legal ‘direct action’ have all been employed to further authoritarian rule.
The UK is not there yet – although there are some worrying signs. An MP has been killed and others intimidated out of office. This has a corrosive long-term effect.
The incremental nature of the new authoritarianism is both a strength, and a weakness. It means it is often harder to recognise when boundaries have been crossed and critical changes introduced.
But is also means it is easier to challenge if democrats are aware of what is happening and can mobilise and unite opposition. Recent weeks have shown that the majority of MPs in the current Parliament can be roused to oppose these authoritarian moves. But there is no room for complacency.
Even in an incremental erosion of democracy there are flash points – lines that are crossed that are critical but where opposition is still possible.
If the Johnson Government tries – as now seems increasingly likely – the crash out of the EU on October 31 against the wishes of Parliament, the law and the Courts it will not just mean leaving the EU. It will be a massive step towards dethroning democracy in the UK. It is that serious.