When the outgoing Cabinet Secretary and National Security Advisor Sir Mark Sedwill confided to a colleague in reference to the Johnson-Cummings duo now leading in Downing Street that “they really want a presidential system”, it was a comment which needed to be taken seriously.
The presidential system operating in the United States is supposed to be a pillar of Western democracy, though the behaviour of the present incumbent of the White House – not least his most recent pronouncement, that the forthcoming US elections should be postponed – can only lead one to wonder just how democratic the US now is.
As Commander-in-Chief, the US President already has huge powers, among them the right to decide whether to take America to war, the power to negotiate or pull out of peace treaties, to appoint the Administration – including thousands of officials, including the Head of the FBI and the Chief Justice – to conduct negotiations with foreign powers, manage the national budget, issue pardons, and much more.
President Trump has abused and extended all these powers, and has in doing so showed himself to be the narcissist and sociopath many feared he would turn out to be: though few knew quite how nasty and disruptive he would become as President, there were abundant early signs – and so ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. All of which is to say that the US presidential system has gone spectacularly wrong, the existing democratic procedures, safeguards and conventional practices have failed to control Presidential excesses, while the world has watched in disbelief as the international order has been upended, to global dismay and lasting disbenefit.
It is against this background that we can see both the similarities and differences between both the presidential system of government in the United States, and the parliamentary system in the United Kingdom, and between Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Of particular interest now is how safe and protected are the systems of democracy in both countries, and how strong and resilient are they in the face of the current strong challenges from the power of the respective Executives?
It was Bill Clinton – in his co-authored political thriller The President is Missing – who wrote: ‘It is impossible to preserve democracy when the well of trust runs completely dry’.
On the basis of such terms, democracy has not been preserved in the United States – and American democracy has not been protected from abuse of power by the current President: senior officials do not trust the President not to fire or contradict them, leaving many of them walking on eggshells so as not to appear to be offending the Commander-in-Chief; many senior officials have left the Administration. This is clear from recent accounts of life in the White House: trust in the justice system has receded as a result of its politicization and abuse of power under Chief Justice William Barr; trust in US foreign policy amongst its allies has collapsed following abrupt pullouts from the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris accord on climate change, and membership of the World Health Organisation.
And the list goes on: Trump’s actions concerning troops in Syria, NATO troops in Germany, highly questionable deals in Ukraine, private and unrecorded discussions with Putin and the North Korean leadership, trade sanctions or the threat of them against various countries – all have hollowed out the system the Trump Administration had inherited.
And going hand-in-hand with this deterioration in the US presence and role on the global stage, trust in the US electoral system is being progressively undermined by both Presidential threats and accusations related to postal voting and electoral rolls, and by Trump’s tacit or deliberate encouragement to foreign powers to interfere with and influence the elections. The American people’s confidence that Trump will use his position to act in the nation’s best interest, has been shattered by the actions he has taken to boost his position and his re-election prospects.
But it is not just the President, it having been the Republican Party, its Senators, Representatives and financial backers who thwarted the process of impeachment, and who have been fully complicit in most of the President’s excesses.
The allure of such power has not been lost on Boris Johnson.
His success in winning a large Parliamentary majority has given him the maximum freedom allowed under our system of parliamentary democracy, to carry out his programme of delivering a ‘Hard’ or ‘No-Deal’ Brexit, as well as pursuing his goal of creating ‘Global Britain’, and reforming the Civil Service, the BBC, Parliament, and a host of other areas of national life. There is also the largely unstated and unpublicized Thatcherite goal of shrinking the state while making it more powerful, reducing the size of the welfare state, reducing taxes, maximizing competitiveness by removing regulations and regulatory oversight, lowering standards and reducing rights.
All of which contrasts sharply with his ‘One Nation’ rhetoric about ‘levelling up’.
And then there is the democracy.
So far – and it is early days, owing to the Government’s need to concentrate on the Coronavirus pandemic – there is no doubt that UK democracy has been abused and de-prioritised. We have had the prorogation of Parliament; the sacking of many senior Conservative parliamentarians, and Conservative MPs and candidates only earning the right to stand at the December 2019 election by signing up to the Brexit agenda. We had the refusal for nine months to publish the Intelligence and Security Committee report on Russian interference in our democracy. We had the attempted power grab involving the EU Withdrawal Act, giving the Government powers to act without Parliamentary approval or oversight.
And there is more: we have had the refusal to sack Home Secretary Priti Patel over bullying, and the refusal to sack Housing Minister Robert Jenrick over his clearly extremely questionable association with Richard Desmond. We have had Jacob Rees-Mogg removing remote debating and voting rights for MPs shielding at home – though this was subsequently reversed after a Tory backlash; we have had the sacking without cause of five very senior and experienced civil servants in the name of ‘Civil Service reform’. And now we have had the appointment of 30 new peers to the House of Lords, some with extremely questionable reputations, some simply for being donors to the Conservative Party, and one for being the brother of the Prime Minister.
This all stinks of the abuse of power.
But it doesn’t end there, as we are currently seeing the centralization of Executive power in Downing Street, by making all Special Advisers responsible not to their Ministers but to the unelected Dominic Cummings – a move made all-the-more effective by the appointment of inexperienced MPs to senior ministerial roles.
It is as a consequence of this latter move that Cabinet government has become a fiction, with all roads leading to Johnson and Cummings.
What has this meant for the conduct of government?
Johnson’s attempt to force Parliament’s supposedly independent Intelligence and Security Committee to accept the supine Chris Grayling as its chair was a rare failure for Downing Street – but one which incurred Johnson’s wrath and the expulsion from the Tory party of the successful candidate.
But most Johnson-Cummings initiatives have been rushed through unimpeded: the appointment without competition of the Brexit negotiator David Frost to the post of National Security Adviser for which he is completely without qualification, has placed a loyal crony of the Prime Minister into one of the most senior and important roles in the country. Meanwhile, the award without a bidding process of high-value contracts to private firms – in defiance of normal rules, and in some cases to associates of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings, under the guise of the health emergency – has been conducted with impunity.
Thus, the list of anti-democratic activities is long and growing – and the Government has only been in office for eight months.
Such practices show every sign that accepted democratic standards have been and will continue to be removed: daily press conferences about coronavirus soon deteriorated into exercises in government spin, while the planned, White House-style press conferences will merely increase the opportunity for Downing Street to reduce transparency and control the narrative. The selective and unattributable briefing of chosen and preferred media – to the exclusion of outlets such as Newsnight and the Today programme on Radio 4 – all point to the Government taking every step to avoid scrutiny and increase favourable media coverage.
Where is this leading?
It was Priti Patel who said recently that ‘this is a Government of the people delivering the people’s priorities’. This is just a populist slogan, and could not be further from the truth, the Johnson Administration appearing to be an anti-democratic cabal which has hijacked government with the intention of increasing its powers to a Presidential level. Achieving this will be at the expense of our democratic rights and principles – and will bring with it the highly damaging ‘Hard’ or ‘No-Deal’ Brexit which exemplifies the isolationist and exceptionalist English nationalism from which it derives.
This is the antithesis of democracy as we know it, and if we are not careful, these will become just the first steps in the descent to autocracy and dictatorship – as is being discovered in the United States.
The best remedy to all this is not just to elect a different government, but to strengthen our institutions and procedures, to make them more robust, democratic and fit-for-purpose, and less vulnerable to corruption, disruption and take-over. The Conservative Party will never do this – it is too deeply embedded in the corruption we now see. The Labour Party, with a new team, now has a huge task and a huge responsibility to bring our country back from the brink. It deserves our support.
Paul Ryder is a retired civil servant