Several writers, including West Country Voices’s Tom Scott and Sadie Parker, have drawn attention to the disturbing parallels between the anti-democratic activities of Trump in the USA and Johnson here. Many, however, are reluctant to accept that Johnson is in effect Britain’s Trump, despite the fact that this dubious accolade was bestowed by none other than Trump himself. Those not wishing to see the similarities hide behind the fact that Johnson can recite passages of schoolboy Latin and Greek, whereas Trump can barely make a coherent sentence in English; so here’s a different way of looking at it.
Instead of arguing about what a British Trump would look like, let’s just assume one found his way into Number 10. If we did face such a threat, how well would our democratic institutions protect us from tyranny? I suggest: not very well.
It has been frightening to see just how close the USA came to a coup d’état, but at the end of the day its institutions held firm. One critical feature was the written constitution. For all its faults (like the deadly anachronism of the right to bear arms), it enabled leaders of the armed forces to emphasise that their loyalty was to the constitution, not to an individual.
“We are unique among armies. We are unique among militaries. We do not take an oath to a king or a queen, a tyrant or a dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual. We do not take an oath to a country, a tribe, or a religion. We take an oath to the Constitution”: General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Joe Biden underlined this message when selecting his Attorney General: “Your loyalty is not to me. It’s to the law, to the constitution, to the people of this nation.”.
We, of course, do not have a written constitution. The loyalty of our armed forces is owed to the Crown, and the powers and privileges of the Crown– the Royal Prerogative – are exercised by the prime minister. Those defending democracy here against a British Trump could simply not appeal to an authority above and beyond the prime minister. It is a reminder that we are subjects, not citizens.
A second element of democratic resistance in the USA came from the judiciary. Courts across the land struck down Trump’s confected reasons for disputing the election – even the Supreme Court which he had packed with his own nominees! Now it is true that our Supreme Court overturned Johnson’s illegal prorogation of Parliament; but his response has been to threaten to change the law to prevent judges ever acting in the same way again. Egged on by a despicable campaign in the right-wing press – “enemies of the people” – and a docile House of Commons, there is nothing to stop Johnson, or a British Trump, doing just that.
Neither is international law a barrier to a British Trump. Johnson was able to legislate to set aside elements of the Good Friday Agreement even though they were enshrined in a binding international treaty. The rights enjoyed by the inhabitants of Northern Ireland were only protected by pressure from European and American democracies, not by any aspect of the British system.
An important check on presidential tyranny in the USA is the separation between the executive and legislative branches of government. Elections to Congress provide an important counterbalance to the presidency, dramatically highlighted by the Democrats’ capture of the two senate seats in Georgia. A British Trump would have no worries about losing an election to the House of Lords. The UK is alone in OECD democracies in having no direct elections to its second chamber. Even worse, a British Trump could appoint as many of his cronies as he liked to the House of Lords, to legislate on his behalf.
At least we elect members of the House of Commons. The independence of the Commons is compromised, however, by the fact that over 130 MPs are currently on the government payroll; ie they hold ministerial offices and would be obliged to resign were they to oppose government policy. Although the numbers on the payroll are currently limited to 15 per cent of MPs, the prime minister can also appoint an unlimited number of trade envoys who are similarly constrained; and besides, a British Trump could easily amend that rule.
Even outside Parliament our civil society seems in a weaker state than that of the USA. We have nothing quite so venal and toxic as Fox News (yet!), but on the other hand we have no broadcaster as fearless as CNN in calling out the lies of the government. Johnson and his cronies have shown how to cow the BBC by threatening its income and packing its leadership with supporters. Most of the press, owned by offshore billionaires, is only too happy to support the undermining of democracy as long as the privileges of the elite are not threatened.
So let’s not worry about what a British Trump might look like, but ask what one might have to do to gain unrestricted power. All he (or she, but probably he) has to do is win over a majority of the 160,000 mainly elderly white male members of the Conservative party, purge it of all those potential MPs who might oppose him (as Johnson has done), and, with the help of a fawning press and a docile media, win an election.
That election would be our one and only chance to stop him.