By Trevor Busch
Britain’s interminable Brexit fiasco seems to be descending into a dark form of hilarity as the nation, gripped by internal political paralysis, continues fumbling toward a no-deal exit from the European Union. And what’s more, the man now occupying the top job — something of a revolving door in recent years at 10 Downing — looks like he plans to do everything he can to ensure Britain exits without a deal. The UK’s new PM, Boris Johnson, is now the second in a line of Brexiteers — Theresa May threw in the towel after being rope-a-doped around the ring by flurries of lefts and rights from left and right MPs who loathed her oft-tabled Brexit deal. While her position was clearly no longer tenable, Johnson is something of a different breed. For instance — judging by his actions in suspending Parliament last weekend — he isn’t unwilling to eschew the high road if it suits his purpose.
One doesn’t expect this degree of economic and social chaos from the predominantly stodgy and law abiding British, who exported their Westminster Model of Parliament during the long-dead days of empire to dozens of former colonies and protectorates. For the most part — with a few notable exceptions over the years, of course — this system has been a model of peace, order and good governance.
But it has its flaws — just like any other political system — and we’re seeing evidence of some of them written across headlines and flashing across TV screens in the past few months. As the UK’s political leadership continue plowing the ship of state full speed ahead toward a date with the maelstrom, Britain’s entire society seems to be feeding off the negativity as it collectively stumbles toward extinction of the once-popular idea of joining together in an economic-political alliance with its European neighbours.
Today, in our atmosphere of Trump-esque economic and political isolationism, where international co-operation on issues of global importance is reaching staggering new lows and national and personal self-interest has become the new religion — commonwealth-style institutions like the European Union are being increasingly viewed as anachronisms by wider and wider percentages of the population. Together in lock-step with democracy and freedom, many others would argue.
Like big tent politics, a party model which seems to be disappearing in favour of fractured radicalism on either end of the political spectrum, many suggest the EU has tried to be all things to all member nations and their citizens, and its failure to be able to boil the polyglot populations of an ethnically and nationally diverse continent down into a loose sense of melting-pot oneness — a European character and nationalism, rather than the old petty regionalism and sectarianism — has proven to be much easier said than done. Attempting to simply weld the EU’s structure on to the face of a continent was an idea that may have been premature. When the implications of what may have been forked over through EU membership came home to roost — less control over immigration questions looms to mind, for instance — opposition began to grow in certain quarters. Throw in a global attitude drifting toward unilateralism in the 21st century and Britain’s Brexit odyssey may have been written into the nation’s DNA.
What seems puzzling is that most people understand that working together achieves more than always grasping at any cost to secure a competitive advantage over others. Co-operation isn’t a socialist idea. It’s a universal principle, free from tainted labels like ‘left’ or ‘right.’ While our Western societies clearly value the competitive ideal — capitalism doesn’t work very well without celebrating the social Darwinism inherent in its very nature — is a move toward chest-beating nationalism and endless trade wars rather than co-operation on important international issues really what humanity wants?
Who will ultimately be the loser in a world dominated by power elites dedicated solely to increasing their already fabulous wealth? If your whole society, the system under which it functions, drills into you incessantly that greed is good — just like Gordon Gecko in 1987’s Wall Street — many wouldn’t feel a quiver of conscience in believing it, and many don’t. Making anti-values into values, legitimizing what is illegitimate — capitalism hasn’t been a totally impartial observer over the decades on that count. One of the most troubling aspects of capitalist economic systems, and correspondingly the societies they dominate, is they all have a use for poverty rather than an impulse to eradicate it.
Dredging back to Britain’s Brexit nightmare, the term ‘prorogue’ should be one that Canadians are familiar with. After all, it was our former PM’s favourite go-to political lever to silence opposition and debate when things weren’t going his way. Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament twice, in 2008 and 2009 — first to undermine a rickety Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition that threatened to topple his minority government, and secondly to close debate on the Afghan detainees controversy — both of which ended up a resounding political success for the cagey Harper. What’s interesting is that Harper was one of the first Canadian prime ministers to use proroguing Parliament for partisan political effect. In the past, proroguing Parliament was never employed the way Harper saw his loophole — to essentially usurp the right of the people’s representatives to challenge or debate the decisions or actions of government. While he would take a lot of flak on that front, Harper didn’t care, his ends basically justified the means. Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto even wrote of Harper that “no Prime Minister has so abused the power to prorogue.”
That is, until Boris Johnson. While an ocean away in another country, one wonders whether Johnson studied the fallout from Harper’s actions before begging Her Majesty for leave to prorogue the British Parliament. While many UK political luminaries can perhaps not be faulted for not studying too closely what happens out in the former colonies, I think we can be sure that Johnson’s right hand men examined Canada’s experience with a magnifying glass. At the same time, in the kinds of circumstances that Harper or Johnson have chosen to utilize proroguing, it puts an appointed official — or a royal figurehead like Queen Elizabeth II — in the incredibly difficult position of having to exercise actual power in making a decision that could effect the future of the government, or the nation, from a position that is now almost purely ceremonial. Doubly effective for a politician is the ability to point the finger in that figurehead’s direction and say ‘look, I didn’t do it” even though it’s tacitly accepted that for an appointed Governor General or a Queen to refuse such a request from an elected official is almost unprecedented in modern times.
Back in Canada, after our illustrious former prime minister prorogued Parliament twice under less than democratic circumstances, there have since been calls to reform the practice and put limits on the powers of the PM to advise the prorogation of Parliament, but not much has actually been achieved.
There seems to be little question that Johnson is abusing the practice — at least, in the eyes of his political enemies, both inside and outside his party. On Tuesday, he faced a critical vote in Parliament on his aim to prorogue, but even members of his own party were pledging to vote in opposition to the government. So while Harper may have achieved success in proroguing the House, Johnson may be facing stiffer opposition to a move many view as fundamentally undermining the democratic process. And while Johnson seems bent on forcing a hard Brexit come hell or high water — without a deal with the EU — he’s also promising to call an October election should his vote in Parliament fail.
So voters in Britain could potentially be facing a no-deal exit from the EU in the middle of an election campaign. Those UK legislators are really earning their incomes here in 2019.