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Boris Johnson tried to chip away at Britain's checks and balances — he failed

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

By some measures, democracy has been in decline around the globe for more than a decade. Today, we offer a glimmer of hope from across the pond, where former Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried to chip away at Britain's checks and balances during his time in office. The system fought back. Frank Langfitt, NPR's global democracy correspondent, reports from London.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: As crowds gathered for King Charles' coronation last month, protesters began to unload a van filled with hundreds of signs that read, Not My King. Before they could hand out a single sign, police arrested them. Many Britons cherish their right to protest, and some politicians condemned the arrests. Among those detained was Graham Smith, leader of the anti-monarchy group Republic. He spoke to Piers Morgan.

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GRAHAM SMITH: This was a direct attack on democracy because democracy requires the freedom to dissent.

LANGFITT: Police were using a controversial new law that allows them to detain people based on the mere suspicion that they'll lock themselves together or to things to cause disruption. Here's Smith speaking to Britain's Times Radio.

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SMITH: If they wanted to advertise how awful and draconian this legislation was, they couldn't have picked a better target than us. We have a very good, strong track record of being a peaceful, law-abiding campaign.

LANGFITT: Shami Chakrabarti serves in the House of Lords with the opposition Labour Party. She sees the new law as a sort of thought crime.

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: You can imagine how dangerous it is in a democracy for the police to have blanket powers to stop and search people without even a reasonable suspicion that that person is going with criminal intent.

LANGFITT: Police couldn't prove their case, and Smith was released without charge. But the government defended the law, which was introduced under Boris Johnson. During his three years as prime minister, Johnson targeted various checks on his power - tried to shut down parliament, sell off a public TV network and weakened the country's electoral watchdog. William Wallace is a lawmaker with the Liberal Democrats, another opposition party.

WILLIAM WALLACE: He was behaving as if he was world king, as he used to describe himself, and that the conventional constraints of the British Constitution didn't apply.

LANGFITT: Soon after taking office in 2019, Johnson tried to close down the legislature, which would have prevented lawmakers from scrutinizing his Brexit bill. Britain's Supreme Court overruled Johnson, called the move unlawful. The prime minister responded with populist rhetoric and cast the dispute as an us-versus-them conflict.

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PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: We will not betray the people who sent us here. We will not. We will not. That's what they want to do. We will not abandon the priorities that matter to the public, and we will continue to challenge those opposition parties to uphold democracy.

LANGFITT: In his telling, Johnson represented the will of the people to push through Brexit, against judges, opposition politicians and lawyers, a sort of liberal British deep state. Sam Fowles is an attorney who helped argue for Parliament's reinstatement before the Supreme Court. Fowles recalls stepping into a cab after the ruling and hearing news of the verdict on the radio.

SAM FOWLES: And we were kind of nudging each other and very smug and very happy. And the cabbie turned round to us and looked me dead in the eye and said, the British people will never forgive you for what you've just done. And that brought home to me that there is such a disconnect in this country between what is actually required for democracy and what is actually going on.

LANGFITT: Britain's democratic system is particularly vulnerable to attack by those who simply ignore the norms.

TIM TARRANT: We don't have a constitution in the U.K. We don't have formal written rules about a lot of these things.

LANGFITT: Tim Tarrant works at the Institute for Government, a London think tank.

TARRANT: There is this phrase that the U.K. system relies on good chaps. It relies on people who are willing to behave. And if someone is willing to misbehave, then there is very little that the system can do to curtail that.

LANGFITT: Johnson continued to attack checks on political power. Last year, he called for the government to sell off Channel 4, an aggressive, editorially independent broadcaster. The government argued Channel 4 could better compete with the help of private finance, but many saw the move as pure revenge. During the 2019 election campaign, Channel 4 embarrassed Johnson during a debate on climate change. Jane Bonham-Carter of the House of Lords explains.

JANE BONHAM-CARTER: It was a famous incident when Boris Johnson did not turn up to a Channel 4 program, and he was replaced with a block of ice. It was an attempt at showing that he didn't understand about global warming. And there is a theory that Channel 4 was never forgiven for doing this.

LANGFITT: Bonham-Carter says Johnson's government wanted to cripple the broadcaster.

BONHAM-CARTER: They saw it as a channel that was intrinsically opposed to them.

LANGFITT: The House of Lords had major problems with the plan, which eventually died. While in office, Johnson did succeed in undermining some forms of public accountability. For instance, the Electoral Commission was stripped of its power to file criminal cases over election law violations. Many also saw this as political payback. In the past, the Electoral Commission had hit the Conservative Party and Johnson's pro-Brexit referendum campaign with huge fines for violating campaign finance laws. But overall, the British system has proven resilient. Tony Travers is a professor of government at the London School of Economics.

TONY TRAVERS: In the end, in a mature democracy, these institutions think, well, unless we stand up for ourselves, it doesn't really matter. There's no point in existing, so we might as well do it anyway.

LANGFITT: Johnson ultimately failed due to self-inflicted wounds. Last summer, lawmakers in his own Conservative Party pressured him to resign as prime minister. They feared his lies about government get-togethers that violated COVID restrictions would cost them at the polls. A committee report has ruled that Johnson did lie to Parliament, and he resigned last week from the legislature. Brian Klaas is a political scientist at University College London.

BRIAN KLAAS: There's been erosions of democracy in the time I've been here in Britain. There's no question about that. But there's been more punch back from the forces of institutional order and from the voters that are punishing those who actually do this.

LANGFITT: And, Klaas says, that's one reason why the Conservative Party, which Johnson recently dominated, is on track to lose the next election by a big margin.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "KERNEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.