In an international climate of growing authoritarianism, Theresa May’s statement on Wednesday could hardly have been more incendiary. Her attacks on parliamentary debate are dangerous not only for MPs who receive regular death threats, but also for democracy at home and abroad.
“MPs have been unable to agree on a way to implement the UK’s withdrawal. You the public have had enough. You are tired of the infighting. You are tired of the political games and the arcane procedural rows. Tired of MPs talking about nothing else but Brexit … I agree. I am on your side. It is now time for MPs to decide.”
These were Theresa May’s words on Wednesday, an attempt to position herself as the champion of ‘The People’, above Parliament and squabbling politicians. She accused MPs of obstruction, selfishly refusing the deal she had agreed and thereby blocking ‘The Will Of The People’. These ideas are not only erroneous; they are also incredibly dangerous.
May’s contention that parliament has defied The People in voting against her deal is wrong for two reasons. Firstly, she cannot claim a true popular mandate for her Brexit deal: the last time The People was asked for its supposedly undivided and unchanging view, May lost her majority. The House of Commons mirrors the country it represents: split down the middle, with no clear consensus on how (and even whether) to leave. In this context, for May to describe herself as the undoubted champion of The People is ludicrous.
Secondly, she was also wrong to accuse MPs of obstruction and to attack them for not ‘saying what they want’. The job of the legislature in our democracy is to approve legislation. It is not its job to propose it: that is the job of the executive. This division of powers underpins our constitution. The power of our elected representatives lies in approving or rejecting legislation (along with amending). If they were to kowtow to the whims of the executive, as May seems to want, then they would have no job at all.
Our democracy is representative: we elect MPs to represent our interests, expecting them to consider our views but in the end to vote according to what they think is right for their constituents. We can petition them to vote a particular way, but we must allow them to vote as they think is right without any fear for their own safety. By claiming to be “on your side” and accusing MPs of defying The People’s will, May is seriously undermining the way our democratic institutions are supposed to work. She accuses our representatives of obstructionism and of rejecting The Will Of The People when they have simply been doing their job. This is why such virulent, extreme populism is fundamentally antidemocratic: it replaces reasoned debate with emotional attacks and incites such anger against elected representatives as to prevent our democracy from properly functioning.
So, more than simply being inaccurate, May’s speech is incredibly dangerous. This is beyond populism; this is outright demagoguery, whipping up anger against decent political opponents. Lisa Nandy MP justifiably described it as an “attack on liberal democracy itself” (Peston, ITV, 20 March 2019).
Importantly, May’s authoritarian, anti-democratic instincts should not be seen as anything new – she has past form in this area. She tried everything to avoid MPs having any say on triggering article 50, appealing to the Supreme Court in order to prevent Parliament from exercising its democratic function of approval/rejection. She lost, thanks to the third independent element of our balanced division of powers, the judiciary. But it is worth remembering what had happened after the initial High Court verdict. Pictures of the High Court judges were put on the cover of the Daily Mail under the headline ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE. The Telegraph chose the similar line THE JUDGES VERSUS THE PEOPLE. May said nothing.
She only allowed MPs to exercise their right to approve/reject her deal in a ‘meaningful vote’ because they forced her to do so. She had promised MPs a vote, but left open the ridiculous possibility that that vote could come after we had left the EU. She had also insisted that her government use extraordinary powers to enact the legislation needed to leave the EU, without Parliament’s approval and before they had had their vote. Fifteen Conservative MPs sided with Labour to defeat her, thereby guaranteeing Parliament its rightful power to (approve or) reject May’s deal as it has now done. The day after the vote to confirm that fundamental right, The Telegraph put pictures of the fifteen Conservative MPs on its front cover with the headline THE BREXIT MUTINEERS. The Daily Mail, on the same day, wrote on its front page that the fifteen had voted to “betray. 17.4m Brexit voters”. Again, May said nothing.
So, her speech yesterday should not be surprising; it should certainly not be seen as untypical of her. But that does not make it any less damaging. The fundamental basis of our democracy is representative. But Theresa May does not accept this: it is her view that the 2016 referendum should bind MPs to vote according to what she thinks is right.
With the language of a demagogue, May openly endorses the idea that The People and their elected representatives are mutual enemies. In doing so, she legitimises those who threaten MPs because of their views. Many MPs receive regular death threats from people who do not accept their right to vote according to what they believe. Theresa May gave legitimacy to those who have forced Angela Rayner MP to install panic buttons in her house because she praised an interview performance by Tony Blair. Her words support those who threatened and harassed Anna Soubry MP outside Parliament, calling her a Nazi because she supported a second referendum.
Our Prime Minister’s silence after the ‘enemies of the people’ headline condones those who attack an independent judiciary. In Poland, the executive now controls judicial appointments and has unconstitutionally removed the supreme court president. And her speech yesterday legitimises the rhetoric of dictators across the world, who claim to represent The People against self-serving elected representatives. When she said “I am on your side” in wanting MPs to vote for this deal and end the squabbling, she presented herself as the champion of The People against the representatives they had elected. This is the language of an authoritarian demagogue. It is the language of Egyptian General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who declared that the democratically-elected President Morsi had “failed to meet the demands of the Egyptian people”, then seized power from him in a military coup. Theresa May is not a dictator, but her language is strikingly similar.
Theresa May has gone too far. Her repulsion at any disagreement has been clear for long. But the Prime Minister’s speech yesterday showed her to be inimical to the fundamentals of British representative democracy. She must go.