More than at any time since the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump three years ago, I fear for our future.
We are descending into a very dark place.
Where governments cast aside the rule of law as if it is no more than an irritating inconvenience.
Where political leaders stoke up hatred for short-term political gain.
Where lies have become common currency.
And where a former British Cabinet minister, John Whittingdale, can claim, in all seriousness, that ‘There is a judgement which is superior to that of any court … the judgement of the British people.’ In other words, who needs the rule of law when a lynch mob is on hand?
I am not alone in my fears: the front-page headline in today’s Times reads: ‘Deliver Brexit or face riots’, based on what an anonymous Cabinet minister is reported to have told Boris Johnson. And Gaby Hinsliff, in today’s Guardian, writes that Johnson ‘has brought this country to the point where an election is genuinely to be feared, no matter who wins, because of the violence that may follow.’
In Boris Johnson, we have a prime minister who knows no shame. A prime minister who has sold his soul to a reckless schemer, Dominic Cummings, who recognises no rules (he had already been found to be in contempt of parliament for refusing to appear before a select committee, which tells us all we need to know about how little importance Mr Johnson attaches to such matters) and who revels in sowing discord.
In Donald Trump, we have a US president who is so cavalier in his disregard for the law that when he asks a foreign leader, as a favour, to open a criminal investigation into his principal political adversary (Joe Biden, who served as US vice-president for eight years under Barack Obama), he so alarms a member of his own intelligence services that they invoke whistle-blower protection to report their suspicion that Trump is guilty of a criminal act and that the White House has tried to cover it up.
For a brief moment last Tuesday, I felt a flutter of optimism after the UK Supreme Court’s unanimous 11-0 ruling that Boris Johnson’s decision to seek a five-week prorogation of parliament was ‘unlawful, null and of no effect’. At last, I thought: an over-mighty executive brought to heel by a robust, independent judiciary. That’s how democracy is meant to work.
As the Financial Times said in a stonking editorial on Wednesday: ‘When strongman leaders, even in advanced democracies, are attempting to bypass legislatures or due process, the ruling sends a powerful message. In the age of fake news and alternative realities, it is refreshing that judges saw through Downing Street’s skulduggery.’
The president of the Supreme Court, the inspirational Baroness Hale, felt the need to remind Boris Johnson of something that no one, let alone a UK prime minister, should ever have needed to be reminded of: ‘We live in a representative democracy. The House of Commons exists because the people have elected its members. The government is not directly elected by the people … The government exists because it has the confidence of the House of Commons. It has no democratic legitimacy other than that.’ (My italics.)
Contrast that with the disgraceful suggestion from Johnson himself that parliament should ‘stand aside’ to allow the government to ‘get Brexit done’. Study those words carefully: parliament should stand aside. Not the opposition, not anti-Brexiteers, but parliament itself. They were the words of a playground bully: ‘Get out of my way or I’ll smash your face in.’
Rafael Behr in The Guardian also felt a need to teach the prime minister the basics of how representative democracy works: ‘Johnson holds his office by crown appointment on the basis that he governs with the consent of parliament, representing the people. There is no higher channel that somehow transmutes the popular will into the body of a supreme leader. That mystical power is claimed only by charlatans and autocrats.’
As we now know, Mr Johnson accepts none of that. He insists that, even though there is now a law on the statute book obliging him to seek an Article 50 extension before the end of October if he has not reached a withdrawal agreement with the EU, he has no intention of doing any such thing.
According to the former prime minister Sir John Major, he could be planning to bypass the law by passing a so-called Order of Council to suspend the Act – something he could do without involving either parliament or the Queen. ‘I should warn the prime minister,’ said Sir John, ‘that, if this route is taken, it will be in flagrant defiance of parliament and utterly disrespectful to the Supreme Court. It would be a piece of political chicanery that no one should ever forgive or forget.’
And all this while Mr Johnson recklessly ramps up the rhetoric, dismisses as ‘humbug’ the fears of MPs for their personal safety, and insists on using words like ‘surrender’ and ‘capitulation’, words which presumably he thinks make him sound like Winston Churchill in 1940, to paint his opponents as traitors. He brushes aside appeals from all sides to moderate his language, still refusing to accept that what might, just, have been acceptable from the newspaper columnist that he once was is wholly unacceptable – no, worse than that, is despicable – from a national leader.
(Incidentally, his insistence on referring to the ‘Surrender Act’ is based on a blatant lie, Trumpian in its brazenness. Here is the truth, if you’re interested. It might be worth passing on to anyone you hear using the ‘surrender’ phrase.)
So Boris Johnson stands revealed as an unprincipled, amoral, political chameleon, prepared to wrap himself in whatever tawdry covering is required to gain him the prizes he most covets: power and glory. As mayor of London, he pretended to be a social liberal, a man of the metropolis. Now he is a zealot, stirring up hatreds and using the incendiary language of violence.
Which brings us, alas, to the equally appalling vista on the other side of the Atlantic, where Donald Trump now faces formal impeachment proceedings. In response, as you’d expect, he’s gone off the rails again: he has demanded to know where the intelligence service whistle-blower got their information from (the full complaint is here, and it’s well worth reading), and suggested that whoever was responsible was ‘close to a spy – and you know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart?’ (Clue: spies used to be shot.)
I wish I could feel more positive about both the impending US impeachment proceedings and the UK Supreme Court ruling. Both suggest that robust democratic institutions can still function, even when autocrats and bullies seek to run roughshod over them. But what deeply concerns me is the readiness of both Trump and Johnson – and their acolytes – to coarsen political debate and disagreement to such a degree that it soon could spill over into more violence.
Let us not forget: the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered in 2016; Heather Heyer was killed during a ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a year later. Both were the victims of extreme nationalists who took their cue directly from the sort of language now used routinely by leaders on both sides of the ocean. Twenty-two people died in El Paso, Texas, just last month, allegedly at the hands of a gunman who had earlier published online a manifesto redolent with white nationalist and anti-immigrant bigotry.
In the US, a presidential election is due next year. In the UK, an election could be upon us before the end of this year, and a second Brexit referendum could follow not long after that. With emotions running as high as they are, and with reckless political leaders in both countries prepared to say anything at all that they calculate will bring them political advantage, the risks of more violence have never been higher.
And the big question for progressives and liberals who, like me, fear for the future, is how best to confront the danger. So far, no one seems to have come up with a good answer.