The Donald Trump Presidency, the US Presidential election and its aftermath prompt thoughts about the UK. How and why have US politics gone this way? Could it all happen here in the UK? How secure is UK democracy?
In the USA there is no doubt at all that rights, freedoms, and democratic norms and expectations have been very badly damaged during the last four years, and severe shortcomings have been exposed in the political fabric of US politics and society. Abusing the independence and impartiality of the judiciary, the packing of judicial appointments and senior administrative posts with Trump nominees, illegal federal prosecutions of demonstrators, the rigging of elections, the fraudulent claims of fraud, the incessant lies and insults, the nepotism, the foreign policy debacles, the misuse of public funds, the racism and white supremacy, and the police brutality are just a few of the outrages committed.
The sorry state of American politics
The list of recent US democratic failures is devastatingly long. Freedom House, the respected Washington research institute, previously awarded the USA 84 marks out of 100 for Political Freedom, and The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index awarded the USA 7.96 out of 10 in January 2020, but both of these indices surely and urgently need revising in a downward direction. The Republican Party have supported, abetted and encouraged the fascist-minded demagogue and would-be dictator Donald Trump all the way, and 74 million Americans voted for him to continue in office in November 2020. Anti-democracy clearly runs very, very deeply in American society, much more deeply than anyone previously thought, and this undermines the USA’s huge potential influence for good in the world, and its perceived reliability as an ally.
Right wing politics in the USA has moved much farther to the right, encouraged by Trump’s brand of intolerant, inhumane and deceitful fake news style of populism and electioneering, and this has found a receptive audience within large sections of the population. Excessive greed for the power to implement extremely harmful racist, undemocratic, unrealistic and divisive policies hit new heights of unreason, which can only be explained by reference to mass indoctrination and a too-readily receptive population. Mary Fitzgerald explains further in her 19 January OpenDemocracy article ‘Trump’s legacy isn’t just violence and QAnon. It’s a broken information system’.
The ‘special relationship’
The UK’s so-called Special Relationship with the USA means that events there have a very considerable influence here. UK Prime Ministers are advised to develop a good personal relationship with the US President so that international events and policies can be well-coordinated quickly when and where necessary. Michael Gove and Boris Johnson made strong personal overtures to Donald Trump, while demeaning Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, which is not a good look now. Trumpism, with all its dysfunction and mayhem, turned most UK opinion away, but the Government, being as right-wing and populist as Trump, hung in there in the hope of a post-Brexit Trade Deal, and continued to make overtures to the MAGA man until the final curtain came down in November 2020.
Brexit was so strongly supported by some parts of the Conservative Party because of this. Europe was too Social Democrat for them, too regulated, and Trump’s America offered them a raw capitalism vision of an economic and social style which was more in keeping with their views on individual freedom, small Government, light-touch regulation, support for entrepreneurship and business interests, and limited Government provision of health, social security, and public service media (BBC). But the problem for the Conservatives now, following the demise of Trump, is that the USA electorate have now rejected this Republican vision in favour of the more socially liberal Democratic Party programme of more taxation and regulation of business to pay for more social and other Government spending. So the US will not be the kind of intellectually close partner for a right-wing Conservative Government that it would have been under a second Trump term.
The even sorrier state of British politics
As the Freedom House analysis shows, worldwide trends in democracy and democratic values are sadly downwards, with some exceptions. In the UK, the London School of Economics’ publication ‘The UK’s Changing Democracy – the 2018 Democratic Audit’, shows a number of serious adverse democratic developments over the period 2012-18, more than outweighing some positive developments. To mention a few of the former, the Audit highlights voting system unfairness, unrepresentative House of Lords, decline of international influence, decline in quality of the Civil Service and public services, Northern Ireland devolution problems, less effective core Executive governance and weak decentralisation.
To these should be added further adverse developments in democracy which have occurred more recently, particularly since the Brexit Referendum, since Brexit became official Conservative Party policy, and particularly since Johnson became Prime Minister. The Referendum itself was of dubious legal and constitutional propriety. The Leave campaign featured serious lies, false promises and was influenced by illegal campaign financing and illegal foreign interference. The Electoral Commission had insufficient powers to monitor or deal with this at the time or subsequently.
The Government shut down Parliament in the autumn of 2019 in order to restrict debate on Brexit, and this was subsequently declared illegal by the Supreme Court. The Conservative Party manifesto now seeks to reform (restrict the powers of) the Supreme Court. The House of Commons Intelligence and Security Select Committee delivered its Russia Report in autumn 2019, which (once published in Summer 2020) made clear that the Government had made no effort to monitor or maintain the security or fairness of the Referendum, or to pursue illegal interference subsequently, but the Prime Minister sat on the report, against all constitutional precedent, until the December 2019 election was safely out of the way, putting Conservative Party interests ahead of the national interest.
During the Brexit negotiations, the Government pursued a hard Brexit or No Deal Brexit outcome even though a majority of opinion in the country, ranging from the devolved Governments in Scotland and Wales, a majority of business and institutional opinion, and opinion polling, urged a more conciliatory approach and a softer Brexit outcome. Hardly consensus or One-nation politics. Not in itself undemocratic but definitely not within the democratic spirit. Government is supposed to govern in the national interest, not its own party interest.
A question of trust
However, democracy is not just about the political institutions, or the conventions and rules and precedents that are supposed to operate, it is also about trust, since almost any rule or law or convention can be bypassed by a Government with a comfortable majority and a cohort of MPs who lack independence. Trust needs to exist, by and large, between the public and the Government, and also between all sectors and institutions of society. This kind of trust is very high in Norway, Sweden and Finland, which each score 100% on the Economist Democracy Index, with Denmark scoring 97%. The UK scored 93%, but that was calculated in 2018, before Brexit and the Johnson Government and the Coronavirus Pandemic.
The present Government and its Prime Minister do not inspire trust. So many serious lies were told and dis-information spread by members of the present Government during the Brexit process, and so many false promises were made about Brexit, and management of the Pandemic, that trust has been badly undermined. A sample Brexit lie: ‘There will be no border in the Irish Sea’. We were told the Pandemic would be over by Easter, then by the summer, then by the autumn, then by Xmas. We were repeatedly told that testing would be a game-changer, and that the Moonshot would deliver millions of tests, none of which happened. Confusion reigned when we were told that the Government was following the science, then that the Government was striking a balance, then the scientists were ignored in October and the second wave struck. Then we were told that Xmas could go ahead for five days, then that was reduced to one day, then we were told not to mix at Xmas. Lies, broken promises and confusion do not a trusted Government make, and democracy suffers.
The chumocracy at work
The Prime Minister tried to arrange that Chris Grayling MP should be appointed to chair the House of Commons Select Committee on Intelligence and Security, despite the tradition that the members of the Committee select their own chair. The Prime Minister declined to sack his senior adviser Dominic Cummings after it was clear he had broken Lockdown rules and then lied about it in a cover-up speech. The Prime Minister declined to sack the Home Secretary Priti Patel after being advised to do so by his own ethics adviser, even though she had broken the ministerial code, following an internal report into claims of bullying.
The Prime Minister declined to sack the Secretary of State for Housing and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, following a clear case of corrupt practice. The Prime Minister refused to sack the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, following many examples of incompetence affecting the lives of students. In any other walk of life, these actions by the Prime Minister and his senior ministers would have resulted in serious repercussions, but the Prime Minister regularly abuses the powers of his office, reduces trust in the Government, and democracy suffers.
Cronyism, corruption, chumocracy and sheer idiocy rage throughout this Prime Ministership. Conservative Party donors and failed election candidates get rewarded with seats in the House of Lords, favoured people and companies with connections to the Conservative Party get rewarded with large Government contracts without competition, chums without experience get appointed to high office without competition, while companies and people with real skills and experience to offer are ignored. A cross-party agreement to restrict membership of the House of Lords to 600 is totally ignored by the Prime Minister, and over 50 new appointments were made within one year.
Government accountability is dire. Johnson waffles, distracts, diverts, jeers, insults, avoids hard interviews, and never provides a straight answer to a straight question. Priti Patel doesn’t turn up in the House of Commons to answer questions about deleted police databases. The Brexit Deal is rushed through in a few months and debated and voted on in one Parliamentary day. Leader of the House of Commons Rees Mogg abolished the vital Select Committee scrutinising and monitoring the operation of the Brexit Deal.
The House of Commons Select Committee on Standards in Public Life has recently turned its attention to the importance of the Nolan principles to maintaining public trust… in politics. The principles are a guideline in the ministerial code and involve: Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty and Leadership (The Canary, 17th January 2021). All trashed by Johnson. TV Chef Nigella Lawson is reported recently as saying ‘They have no shame’, sentiments with which we could all agree.
A strong, impartial, independent Electoral Commission is essential to ensure elections are conducted fairly. But according to Tom Brake, former Liberal Democrat MP, ‘When the vice chair of the Conservative Party submits evidence that says there are circumstances in which we will abolish the Electoral Commission if it doesn’t do what we say it should do, then that means there is a threat to the Electoral Commission. And we know that even though the Electoral Commission has acted impartially and it has fined all the political parties, not just the Conservative Party, for their breaches of the rules…it seems to be the Conservative Party in particular that has an apparent grievance against the Electoral Commission’ (quoted in The Canary, 17 January 2021).
So, could it happen here?
To answer the original questions. Could it happen here? Yes, especially if the Electoral Commission is abolished or watered down, rather than strengthened, though strengthening it greatly is a necessary rather than a sufficient requirement. How secure is UK democracy? Not very secure at all, and it is currently and knowingly being watered down ‘at pace’ to use one of the Government’s favoured expressions, by a very right-wing Government which barely knows what it is doing, has no strategy for future national success beyond a few tired and vacuous slogans, is trashing our democracy in the process and has lost the trust of the nation.
The Labour Party is establishing a Constitutional Commission under the leadership of ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown. It should probably be called ‘Save Our Democracy from the Tories’. Let us hope that he finds some good solutions and that Labour gets a chance to implement them soon.