In memoriam: The British parliamentary system

Published 24.07.2019 21:56
Updated 25.07.2019 00:12

So the cycle has been completed. Boris Johnson has been "elected" prime minister of the United Kingdom, through the votes of a very limited number of Conservative Party militants. He will have to preside over the destiny of the former British Empire, which is trying to get out of the EU, and which is not capable of carrying out such a performance in an orderly way. This sounds like a low-budget political movie scenario. Alas, this is the crude reality. Boris Johnson, who has a sulfurous political and professional reputation, will replace Theresa May as premier. He obviously does not have any strategy regarding an orderly exit; he opposes everything that would bind the U.K. to the EU after Oct. 31, 2019, and he believes that the existing international rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO) would be more than sufficient to help the U.K. economy once EU membership is over.

The reality is very different. Almost everyone agrees that Brexit will be a very difficult endeavor for the U.K., except a tiny part of British society that thinks, against all odds, that getting out of the EU will heal any problem.

How did a totally discredited political party, who obtained less than 10% of the votes during the last European Parliament (EP) elections, manage to monoplize power in such a dire and dangerous period for the British parliamentary democracy? How is it possible that the world's oldest and best functioning parliamentary system has come to such a dead end?

There are a variety of different explanations, whose interactions have shaped today's situation. The first is the use of a referendum process in a parliamentary democracy. This is a very intricate instrument, to be used only when necessary. When David Cameron, to get rid of the europhobic opponents within the Conservative Party, offered them the result of a "nationwide" referendum he was pretty convinced that a "remain" vote would prevail; so were all the bookmakers and analysts in Great Britain. Woe! The result was negative. Nobody expected it, so much that the government did not prepare diligently the referendum beforehand. It was "not to be binding" and it did not encompass the more than 3 million voters living outside of the U.K. who were directly concerned by the issue.

An ill-prepared referendum can become a lethal weapon in a representative democracy. So has become the Brexit vote, any attempt to reorganize it creates a terrible outcry, and it has become almost as revered as the Magna Carta for all the Brexiteers.

The second issue is the wave of anti-EU sentiments and populism. The terrible political turmoil created by the Brexit process has prepared very fertile ground for the populist currents, whose brightest product remains to date Johnson, the former mayor of London, former media phenomenon, a charismatic and much-debated public figure. He has obviously positioned himself as the standard-bearer of the Brexiteers within the Conservative Party, since the very beginning. He has distanced himself from demagogues as Nigel Farage, by keeping a wise silence over problematic issues.

Theresa May, after David Cameron's resignation, tried for almost three years to forge out a workable deal for a U.K. exit from the EU. This has proven to be extremely intricate and difficult, once the details were opened to negotiations. Something that was not foreseen by Cameron or May has surfaced: The "Irish problem." The Republic of Ireland did not have any envy to leave the EU in the wake of the U.K. Therefore, the free circulation of goods, capital, labor and services would either be diminished, if not put totally under control. That would create the necessity to establish border controls between the Republic and Northern Ireland, an issue that creates huge outcry within the population of this island, which has spent three centuries to establish a workable peace between Catholics and Protestants.

A "backstop," meaning a transitional period of the free circulation of goods (and people, eventually) in Ireland, was envisaged to freeze this problem, but obviously the election of Boris Johnson, who is against such kind of "transitional periods" can complicate this thorny issue further.

A third factor that has catapulted Boris Johnson to the premiership is the incredibly wrong and shortsighted policies of the Labour Party (which lost enormous votes during the EP elections too), concerning the Brexit process. Once the deal concocted by the EU and Theresa May's government was rejected by Westminster, the Labour leadership opted for a vote of no-confidence for the Tory government. This was a step taken in haste, without considering the attitude of the small parties in the Parliament. As a result, the vote of no-confidence was rejected, no swap elections were possible for at least a year, and thus the Conservative Party was comforted in power for 12 more months. The Labour Party, under Jeremy Corbyn, still does not have a coherent position, oscillating between a new Brexit referendum and a full-fledged customs union with the EU.

A simple perusal of international media over the nomination of Boris Johnson as prime minister would easily show that there is not a single positive article or analysis on his capacity to handle this very responsible job. Therefore, nobody expects a good performance on his part, which might be his real chance to succeed where others have failed. Why?

He is a pure populist politician, to begin with. He tells the British people what they want to hear, and nothing else. Better models of such political strategies have been seen already in Italy, with Berlusconi (who stayed in power for almost 14 years as a whole) and with Donald Trump in the U.S., who has been elected against incredible odds. They tell the voters what they want to hear (let us make "America great again"), without hinting at how they would be able to achieve such objectives. Matteo Salvini is the last phenomenon in Europe, but other more dangerous versions exist in Brazil and the Philippines.

In that sense, Johnson's very stubborn position to take the U.K. out of the EU at all costs in three months could become a real destabilizing policy. Where he has a strong chance to handle this whole intricate operation resides in the fact that nobody, neither in the U.K. nor in the EU, really wants this process to create a major economic and political crisis.

The British economy is strong, developed and functioning well; the EU does certainly not want to create a precedent by making things further difficult for an outgoing country, which remains the third-biggest economy in Europe after Germany and France. Therefore, things can go sour for a certain time but it is nobody's interest to make out of the Brexit a Dunkirk retreat. That could be Boris Johnson's only chance to save the day.

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