Constitution

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The F word is already on the way..

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 20/05/2022 - 6:56am in

Mhairi Black speaks for just over four minutes on why our current givernment is so dangerous – because that F word is fascism:... Read more

Constitutional Culture Wars: Johnson’s Next Divide-and-Rule Campaign?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 19/05/2022 - 8:53pm in

AV Deggar considers how the Vote Leave coalition may react to emboldened separatist forces in Scotland and Northern Ireland

This month’s local elections left Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party with a bloody nose, losing almost 500 seats across the UK – their worst performance in a quarter of a century.

As well as losing symbolic English councils like Westminster and Margaret Thatcher’s beloved Wandsworth to Labour, across the border in Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) romped to victory, adding a further 22 councillors to their record 2017 total.

The shockwave became seismic a few days later, when Sinn Féin was confirmed as the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly – becoming the first Irish Republican party to top the polls in the history of the nation.

Mid-term malaise, the ongoing ‘Partygate’ saga, the cost of living crisis and disenchantment with Boris Johnson have all been mooted as contributing factors to the Conservative Party’s local election collapse. While all are valid contributors, it is the Brexit effect that has intensified discontent in the regions where Remain majorities persist.

Johnson’s hardest-of-all possible Brexits has galvanised the independence movement in Scotland and has aided the cause of Irish reunification. In the process, the Conservative and Unionist Party has nurtured its ideal bête noire in the ongoing culture war – the treachery of the separatists.

Nationalist Flashpoints

Before the counting had finished in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, the President of Sinn Féin, Mary Lou McDonald, stated that her party would seek to hold a border poll on the integration of Ulster with the Republic of Ireland by 2027.

Although Unionist parties still represent the largest bloc within the legislative assembly, the biggest single Loyalist presence, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), experienced a decreased vote share in every constituency in Northern Ireland.

A major part of the DUP’s fall from grace was its confidence-and-supply partnership with Theresa May and later Johnson’s governments, which propped up successive Conservative regimes at Westminster but ended with the Northern Ireland Protocol and a border down the Irish Sea.

Seen as a dislocation of Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, the DUP opposes the Protocol, which protects the integrity of the EU single market without the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland, but does not allow goods to move unrestricted from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.

While 54 out of the 90 newly-elected members to the Stormont Assembly are pro-Protocol, the DUP has confirmed it will not enter into power sharing until there is “decisive action” on it – meaning radical modification or total repeal. 

Obligingly, the UK Government has been threatening to renege on its responsibilities under the Protocol since September 2020, admitting that it would break international law in the process.

The sabre rattling has become deafening in the past few days, with the UK Attorney General approving a withdrawal from large chunks of the Protocol, and the Foreign Secretary and Conservative leadership hopeful Liz Truss threatening to scrap it altogether – possibly precipitating unrest in Northern Ireland and a wider trade war with the EU.

Similarly in Scotland, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon backed by her Scottish Green partners in government, has committed to holding a second referendum on independence by 2026, and preferably before the end of 2023.

After 15 years in power and winning 11 elections at Holyrood and Westminster, the SNP’s grip on power is unassailable. With a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament, another plebiscite on independence is inevitable. Granting IndyRef2 is within the gift of the UK Government at Westminster alone, and denying Scots a second vote would be unjustifiable.

Outside of the ongoing cost of living crisis, the biggest headache for whichever flavour of Conservative administration fights the next election will be constitutional – and could be cynically weaponised to become their best asset at the ballot box.

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A Wedge Strategy

What we know today as ‘culture wars’ have existed as a fixture in the US political mainstream since the Richard Nixon era as ‘wedge issues’ – social sticking points that have the potential to split or enforce a polarity of opinion. ‘God, guns and gays’ is a perfect example.

Typified by Ronald Reagan advisor Lee Atwater, and practised to this day by Johnson stalwart and on-off Conservative election consultant Lynton Crosby, wedge strategy has been rebranded for the digital age, where a largely unregulated social media and compliant client press permits contentious issues to be extruded to their most sensationalist apogee.

Wedge strategy found its ultimate expression in UK politics in the build-up and aftermath of the Brexit referendum in 2016, when polemic issues like immigration melded with British hyper-nationalism and Europhobia – largely confected and driven by right-wing voices in the conventional and digital media.

As Byline Times has shown on numerous occasions, the pernicious role of the media in the EU Referendum result cannot be overstated.

In 2015, pollster Ipsos MORI showed that just 1% of the British population believed that the EU was “the most important issue facing Britain today”, alongside the likes of “overpopulation” and “morality”. A month before the Withdrawal Agreement was signed in 2019, 57% believed that Brexit was the country’s largest concern. People who hadn’t given a passing thought to the EU were now burning blue and gold flags in the streets. The politically disaffected and unengaged had become radicalised.

Cutting across traditional ideological lines and the broad-church coalitions of Westminster parties, internecine hostilities fractured party and populous alike. Allegiances and priorities were reformatted to align with Leave or Remain tendencies, exacerbated by the parliamentary gridlock that meant Brexit sucked in all the political oxygen for three and a half years, exhaling only toxins into an already poisonous political atmosphere.

The Brexit wedge became a coverall for the damage that was being wrought on wider society – five years of swingeing austerity became 10 before Brexit was “done”. Health inequalities rose, the wage gap increased, state spending per child sank, general poverty skyrocketed, homelessness soared, the public sector shrank to its smallest size since World War Two, libraries and youth clubs were replaced by foodbanks and community kitchens. The fabric of the nation was shredded, only noticed by those whose lives were ripped apart at the seams.

Whether sought or unsought, wedge strategy and populism based on cultural mores had acted to mask the socioeconomic rot setting into British life, as well as creating a valuable new adversary, an ‘othered’ target for the basest forces of jingoism. In the shared enmity for the EU, a powerful new reactionary coalition was formed that could be periodically reactivated with the same Pavlovian inputs, and for similarly destructive ends.

A Rhetoric of Betrayal

In the coming years, the ‘treason of separatism’ may well become the primary wedge issue around which to reassemble Brexit’s reactionary core, reuniting a cross-party consensus against a common foe and papering over the cracks of economic hardship.

Whichever moniker is used to describe those advocating Scottish independence and Irish reunification – separatists, secessionists, mutineers, insurrectionists, traitors – it is likely that these nationalists will be painted as wreckers and turncoats, Confederates seeking to implode the Union from within in an act of self-harm that strikes at the very heart of British identity.

The mode of attack is already tested, and the precedent has been set for the rhetoric of betrayal to pervade public discourse. Boris Johnson’s repeated use, and defence in 2019, of calling a law that would compel him to seek further time to agree a Brexit deal “The Surrender Act”, was the perfect trial balloon for inflammatory speech. While he was implored to moderate his tone, a Parliament with no punishment for intemperate language relies on self-censure – something that has not been forthcoming.

With multiple once-in-a-generation crises unfolding concurrently, a Government which occults its failings behind the blame of others, needs both an enemy and scapegoat – with the casting of Scottish and Irish nationalism as treason, it can have both, with all of the collateral damage that demonising an enemy within could entail for British society.

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‘Partygate’ and the Excuse that Doesn’t Excuse a Thing

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 28/04/2022 - 12:24am in

David Renton explores the concerning and increasing number of laws made by ministers, circumventing the scrutiny of Parliament, during the Coronavirus crisis and Brexit

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Speaking in the House of Commons this month, Boris Johnson apologised for the fixed-penalty notice he had received for breaching Coronavirus lockdown rules. Explaining how he had come to be fined, the Prime Minister said that “it did not occur to me then or subsequently, that a gathering in the Cabinet Room... could amount to a breach of the rules”.

His excuse was met with widespread scepticism, but it is worth taking it seriously as it sheds light on how the business of government has been conducted during the COVID-19 crisis and Brexit.

Johnson is right to say that the Coronavirus rules were complicated, chaotic and hard to understand. Polls show that only 13% of people surveyed said they “fully understood” the rules. Part of the reason for this could be that the rules were being made by ministers – without the usual scrutiny of Parliament before they were passed.

Between March 2020 and January 2021, the Government introduced 66 sets of Coronavirus regulations. All of these documents were lengthy, some were complicated. Together, they constituted a constantly-changing regime of thousands of pages of law. 

In the UK’s unwritten constitution, in principle, only Parliament can legislate to create a criminal offence; and any criminal offence must be both accessible – so an individual can know from the wording of the law how they could break it. During the pandemic, both of these conventions were ignored. Ministers made laws themselves, relying on the Crown’s unlimited power to make regulations, in a way no peacetime government has done in centuries. 

The regulations and guidance published by civil servants repeatedly diverged. Ministers stopped addressing Parliament at all, instead providing briefings to the press – quite a few of them intending to justify seeming breaches of the law, whether by senior government advisors such as Dominic Cummings, or by ministers, including Johnson himself.

The practice of making criminal laws through secondary legislation offends deeply-held constitutional principles going back to the 1640s, and the principle of the separation of powers. Parliamentary sovereignty is based on the premise that if ministers are able to make up rules just as they please, they will do so recklessly and thoughtlessly.

It was under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government that the first tentative move were made towards ministers replacing Parliament as the author of the most contentious rules. The 2010 decision to increase university tuition fees to £9,000 a year was achieved through secondary legislation, at a time when there was no clear parliamentary majority in favour of the rise, and its sustained discussion had the potential to tear apart that government. 

But what in 2010 was a piece of opportunism has since become routine – particularly under Boris Johnson's administration. The two judicial reviews, brought by the businesswoman Gina Miller, were both about attempts to let ministers take decisions on matters of primary importance. First, that ministers not Parliament should trigger Article 50 to trigger the UK's withdrawal from the EU; and secondly, that ministers could prorogue Parliament to conduct Brexit negotiations with the EU without its interference.

Both of those attempts were found to be unlawful by the UK's Supreme Court. Yet, rather than be troubled by those defeats, the creation of legislation outside of parliamentary scrutiny has continued. The Brexit legislation, for instance, repeatedly made use of 'Henry VIII powers' that enabled ministers to amend even primary legislation as they saw fit.

This continues with bills which are before Parliament now. If laws are made without scrutiny, the danger is that they will be made in a heavy-handed and authoritarian way. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is one such piece of legislation – which includes giving the Home Secretary the powers to decide what level of disruption would enable a protest to be banned. 

Leaving the Coronavirus rules to ministers meant that laws came into being which were poorly understood and had discriminatory consequences. A 2020 survey by the Crown Prosecution Service found that every one of the 232 charges made under the Coronavirus Act had been wrongly brought. Young black and Asian men were twice as likely to receive fixed penalty notices for supposed COVID breaches as their white counterparts.

The Prime Minister claims that the Coronavirus rules were so complex and difficult to understand that he should be forgiven breaching them. To which the short answer is: yes, the rules were badly drafted – but who wrote them?

David Renton is a campaigner and barrister. His latest book, 'Against the Law: Why Justice Requires Fewer Laws and a Smaller State’, is published by Repeater in July

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Risking Our Democracy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 26/04/2022 - 8:16pm in

Former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall argues that the time has come for serious discussions about reforming Britain's political structures

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A new Commission on Political Power was launched in the UK last month to review the state of our democracy and make recommendations on how it might be strengthened. Convened by Baroness Frances d’Souza and Frances Crook, the organisation includes a range of politicians from across the political divide, academics, journalists, analysts and commentators, including myself.

There is always a risk when such a body is convened that critics will argue that we are just a bunch of 'sore losers' who don’t like the current Government or its policies. Having allegedly failed to see our preferred politicians or policies gain favour with the electorate, we are now just claiming it is because 'the system is faulty' or because 'voters are deluded', and are looking for ways to change it more to our liking. 

This objection fails on its face, because the Commission includes politicians from both the left and the right, including from the governing Conservative Party. 

But, while I can’t claim to speak for its other members, I certainly acknowledge that I am not a fan of Boris Johnson's administration. I had such grave concerns about the way Brexit was implemented that I resigned from my role at the Foreign Office. 

I never actually publicly challenged either the legitimacy or the outcome of the 2016 EU Referendum, or the UK’s right to leave the EU. What I did challenge was the dishonest and, in my view, undemocratic way in which Brexit was delivered – including the Government’s wilful misrepresentation of the implications, the unfounded claim that it had a mandate for the very hardest form of Brexit, its attempts to close down legitimate scrutiny of its approach, and its abusive slandering of Brexit opponents as 'enemies of the people'.

I regard all of these as examples of how the guardrails of our democracy are being eroded – and why there is a need for reform now, to prevent future governments from being similarly able to abuse their powers. 

Nevertheless, I accept that, given my history, my own impartiality might be called into account. It’s important to check our own biases.

I believe a good way to do this is by comparing the state of our democracy with that of other countries. In particular, I can draw from my own direct experience as a diplomat to review what our own governments have said or done about alleged flaws in other countries’ systems, and then consider if the same criticism might be applied to the UK.

Head of State

In the UK, the Head of State is the Queen, whose role has largely become ceremonial, yet in whose name the government still possesses many prerogative powers.

In many other countries, the Head of State acts as a kind of bulwark against executive overreach or constitutional abuse.  There have been times when the UK has actively encouraged, or praised, a foreign Head of State for intervening in such a way. When I was the British Ambassador to Georgia, acting in the name of the UK government, I sometimes lobbied its Head of State to do so. 

But in our system, the Queen cannot do that – as dramatically proved when she had no option but to approve Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament in September 2019, a move later ruled unlawful by the UK's Supreme Court.

Given that the Queen has no inherent elected legitimacy of her own, there would have been a justifiable outcry if she had sought to prevent the prorogation. Yet, given that the prorogation was in fact deemed to be unlawful, this event also exposed the lack of constitutional utility of the monarch’s current role. 

Critics will say that, since the Supreme Court did intervene to overturn the prorogation, this shows that Britain does still have a strong check against executive overreach, via the judiciary. Yet, as we do not have a written constitution, the courts can only make rulings based on current laws – which the government can seek to rewrite at any time.

Under our current system, Parliament is sovereign. Indeed, taking full advantage of these powers, the Government is currently proposing legislation to restrict the use of judicial review, in what senior Conservative MP David Davis critiqued last year as “an obvious attempt to avoid accountability”. 

This is despite the fact that British governments regularly raise concerns about the strength and independence of the judiciary in other countries.

Judicial independence was, for example, a regular topic of discussion during human rights dialogues I participated in as head of the Foreign Office’s Human Rights Department from 2004 to 2006 with Iran, Russia and China. We also used to criticise threats and intemperate language towards judges overseas, though some members of the Conservatives appear to have no such qualms attacking British judges who make rulings they dislike. 

Houses of Parliament

In some countries, the second chamber of the legislature is another way to counter-balance the executive. But, in those countries, its legitimacy derives from the fact that it is also an elected body – unlike our House of Lords, which is comprised purely of hereditary or nominated peers, plus a few ex officio members of the clergy.

In view of its limited legitimacy, the House of Lords can scrutinise, amend and delay legislation, but it cannot ultimately override the votes of the House of Commons. 

Moreover, the process of nominating peers has been exposed under this Government to be widely open to abuse – with peerages up for sale to the largest donors to the Conservative Party, or other cronies, such as friendly media or business barons. This is a system of political patronage which in other countries we might label 'corruption'. 

Previous British governments have indeed condemned similar such political cronyism or stacking of chambers in other countries. In the country of my first posting, Thailand, we regularly criticised efforts by the authorities to rewrite the constitution after military coups in order to ensure a disproportionate role for unelected military officials in their upper house. More recently, British ministers criticised the regime in Myanmar for rigging its constitution in favour of the military.  

But even our elected chamber, the House of Commons, has limited ability to check our executive, since by definition, under our parliamentary system, the government has an in-built majority in the House.

It is true that the Commons can try to bring down a government through a vote of no confidence – but this is only likely to succeed when members of the prime minister’s own party have turned against their leader. It is therefore not truly in the gift of the opposition, let alone the electorate, but in the hands of the members of the ruling party, who may have their own reasons for wanting to avoid an election. 

A vote of no confidence does not actually automatically trigger a new election, but sometimes only a change of leader – which, again, is something entirely in the hands of the ruling political party. While the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act created its own problems, the absence of fixed terms also gives the incumbent government an advantage in being able to call an election early, if the timing seems opportune. 

This problem of an over-powerful executive is exacerbated by our 'first past the post' electoral system, which has resulted in successive governments since World War Two achieving disproportionately large majorities in the House of Commons, despite never winning a majority of the popular vote.

Neither of our two main political parties has wanted to change this system, as it works to their benefit, even as it crowds out many people whose votes for third parties rarely make a difference.  

But this has not stopped British governments from recommending that some other countries should consider adopting proportional systems as a way to ensure 'fairer' electoral outcomes. This was an issue while I was in Georgia. A case of do as I say, not as I do?

Devolution

Devolving more powers to state or local authorities, as is the case in many federal systems, could provide greater democratic balance – and is a model we have sometimes commended to other countries with significant regional differences or diverse populations. 

When I was in Bogota, for instance, we used to lobby the government to be more inclusive and sensitive to the needs of its indigenous communities and Afro-Colombians, who were under-represented in Government. 

By contrast, the UK system is highly centralised, with only limited powers granted to most local authorities. They are also very reliant on the Treasury for funding, which is often allocated with restrictive mandates attached. 

In the 2019 General Election, only six Conservative MPs and one Labour MP won seats in Scotland. Ironically, both parties would have done meaningfully better under a proportional electoral system. The Conservatives won more seats in Wales, but were still outpaced by Labour. At present, the UK government could really be more accurately described as a largely English one. 

Various devolution initiatives have at least resulted in the creation of the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly of Wales, and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Yet Brexit was driven through against the wishes of the majority of voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The UK Government retains the power to dissolve the Northern Ireland Assembly and take over administration of the province – a power it used most recently in 2017. The UK Government also remains opposed to letting the Scottish hold another independence referendum in the near future, despite the Scottish National Party holding a clear majority of seats in its Parliament.

Despite this, Britain has supported aspirations for self-determination in other parts of the world – even in India, where successive UK governments have trodden extremely carefully given Britain's colonial legacy. Taking into account the deep sensitivities over Kashmir, UK ministers have called on India to take into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people in seeking a lasting political resolution to the dispute with Pakistan. In a debate as recently as September 2021, MPs from both sides of the House expressed concern over the decision by Narendra Modi's Government to revoke the special status of Kashmir in 2019 and called for India to recognise Kashmir’s right to self-determination.  

Executive Power

There are numerous other examples of where the UK’s democracy is vulnerable by comparison with that of other developed nations. 

We have no method of scrutiny, for instance, to determine the aptitude and fitness of nominated Cabinet ministers for their office – unlike in the US where Cabinet nominees have to undergo a rigorous confirmation process in the Senate. Even in the EU, lambasted by some Brexit supporters for its alleged democratic deficit, there is now a process for EU commissioners to be approved by the European Parliament. 

Cabinet membership in the UK seems to be as much about personal loyalty to the Prime Minister – or perhaps a method of keeping potentially difficult backbenchers onside – as it is about the knowledge and experience of the minister for the job. If there is no suitable MP available for a particular position, the government can simply confer a peerage on an associate. 

Another weakness is the lack of any mechanism for upholding the Ministerial Code. As has been graphically revealed by the 'Partygate' scandal, the code is non-binding; the advisor on ministerial standards is nominated by the prime minister; and only the prime minister gets to decide whether to implement the advisor’s recommendations, or to censure ministers found to be in breach of the code. 

This brings us to the problem of the enormous power granted to the prime minister and his government, acting in the name of the crown, to make appointments to various public watchdogs and quangos – including those overseeing important public services and the media. It is all too easy to imagine the temptation to appoint sympathisers to these important positions, who might then in turn be inclined to be lenient towards the government which appointed them. 

While we have a strong tradition of freedom of expression, the ownership of parts of the media by government cronies can mute its criticisms of government policy – as can the government’s ability to grant privileged access to favoured journalists and media outlets. Boris Johnson’s Government famously boycotted Radio 4’s flagship Today programme, as well as Channel 4 News, on the alleged grounds of bias. It has also introduced legislation to circumscribe some rights of public protest. 

Reform

No system is perfect and every democracy has its flaws. Each system is also unique to its country’s own traditions, culture and history. There is no perfect blueprint which can be applied. What works in one country may not work in another. The UK’s system has evolved over time, and despite its many quirks and anomalies, has generally seemed to work well enough, and commanded the consent of voters. 

We have avoided the messy processes of coalition-building and fragile governments which have bedevilled governance in some of our European neighbours. We have avoided the never-ending round of elections which consume vast amounts of time and money in America, as well as its worst excesses of gerrymandering and influence buying. We have been blessed with a Head of State for the past 70 years who has been meticulous in her observance of the constitutional niceties. 

I am not contending that we have become a full-blown autocracy or that there are not some good aspects of our existing system. However, we cannot afford to be complacent.

Given the limitations on our Head of State and second chamber, the skewed nature of our electoral system, the in-built majority which the government enjoys in Parliament and its ability to rewrite laws at will, our system relies heavily upon the government adhering to certain unwritten rules and conventions, and effectively restraining itself.

The trends in this regard in recent years are not encouraging. Whether it was Tony Blair’s overreach and misuse of intelligence in the Iraq War, or Johnson’s misuse of information and overreach in delivering Brexit, it has become evident that relying on self-restraint is no longer enough. 

One of the most infuriating arguments used by Chinese diplomats during our human rights dialogues was to dismiss the UK's concerns by saying that, just like Britain, they believed in the rule of law and were merely 'applying the law' to whatever human rights situation we mentioned. But the law is whatever the Chinese Government chooses it to be, interpreted by judges in its pocket. It was a classic gaslighting tactic.

I feel the same sense of gaslighting, when our current Government justifies its actions by saying that it is representing 'the will of the people', and demonises critics as out of touch, anti-democratic, elites. This is the dangerous rhetoric of demagogues. 

Local elections can provide a bellwether indication of public opinion mid-term, which may encourage governments to course correct, if necessary. But under our current system, there is no sure-fire way to rein in an overreaching executive or to compel a change of course until the next election, by when it may have further corrupted the system to its advantage. 

Perhaps we can continue to count on there always being enough decent politicians in Parliament to uphold standards. But looking at the trajectory of our politics in recent years, I have to ask: why take the chance? It is time to fortify our democracy and reduce the risk of further abuse before it is too late. 

Alexandra Hall Hall is a former British diplomat with more than 30 years experience, with postings in Bangkok, Washington, Delhi, Bogota and Tbilisi. She resigned from the Foreign Office in December 2019 because she felt unable to represent the Government’s position on Brexit with integrity

Hardeep Matharu, Editor of Byline Times, is an independent research consultant for the Commission on Political Power

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Boris Johnson’s Lies are Pushing the UK Constitution to Breaking Point

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 21/04/2022 - 9:04pm in

The former Conservative Solicitor General believes 'good chaps' in his party should remove the Prime Minister from office

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Boris Johnson is a liar and should resign as Prime Minister. That is the overwhelming view of the British public, according to polling conducted in the aftermath of his fine for breaking Coronavirus laws.

It is also the view of the Prime Minister himself – or at least it was when he signed his own Ministerial Code.

According to that code, any member of the Government who knowingly misleads Parliament should stand down. It is now abundantly clear that the Prime Minister did knowingly mislead Parliament.

His repeated denials that any parties took place in Downing Street fell apart as soon as it was confirmed that he had attended them. His police fine for doing so merely confirmed what the vast majority of the public has already worked out: the Prime Minister broke the law and then lied about it.

And yet, far from standing down, Johnson on Wednesday committed to remaining as Prime Minister right up until the next general election. An attempt by opposition parties to force a parliamentary investigation into his conduct could also fail today due to his large Commons majority. 

However, not only do opposition parties have little means to hold the Prime Minister to account for his actions, they are not even allowed to explicitly state what those actions are.

Over the past week, multiple MPs have been ordered by the House of Commons Speaker to withdraw their statements labelling, or even implying, that Johnson is a liar.

It is therefore clear that the checks and balances which are supposed to protect against a rogue prime minister lying to the country, have failed. Not only can Johnson lie to Parliament with impunity, but his political opponents are not even allowed to mention it.

“One key problem here is that there is practically nothing to enforce a Prime Minister – or other minister – to answer questions either honestly, or at all," legal commentator David Allen Green told Byline Times. “It is always 'a matter for the House'. And, with a majority, the matter for the House is a matter for the Government's supporters.”

The defence against this apparent flaw in the UK system has often been defined as the so-called 'good chaps' theory of government. As the historian Peter Hennessy has set out, the UK's constitution relies on having 'good chaps' in power who respect the network of conventions and unwritten codes that were established in order to place checks on their powers.

The problem is that this entire theory falls apart with a Prime Minister who holds all such checks and balances in contempt.

'Good Chaps Must Deal with Johnson’

One effective check on the Prime Minister’s conduct in recent years has been the British legal system. The successful High Court challenge against Boris Johnson’s attempt to suspend Parliament, along with other similar challenges, is the one obvious area in which his contempt for convention has been effectively challenged. 

However, the former Conservative Solicitor General, Lord Edward Garnier, told Byline Times that it is far from clear that a similar challenge could be effective in this case.

“As we saw in the prorogation cases, it is possible if there's a breach of these conventions... to apply to the High Court to challenge that conduct," he said. "It would be interesting to see whether the courts would be prepared to monitor the Prime Minister's supervision of the Ministerial Code.

"However, by and large, we're talking here about a Prime Minister with a political majority in the House of Commons and that's probably the end point unless the House of Commons loses faith in the Prime Minister.”

Some have suggested that the UK should instead move to a more formalised, written, codified constitution which could in theory explicitly state when a Prime Minister should be forced to resign. However, Lord Garnier is not in favour.

“I don't think a written constitution would improve matters and, indeed, there's a degree of flexibility in our system which has its advantages," he added.

For the peer, the issue of dealing with Johnson is purely a “political problem” rather than a constitutional one.

“If good chaps behave badly, or if bad chaps are caught behaving badly, well then it takes other good chaps to rise to the occasion and deal with it", Garnier told Byline Times. “It’s not impossible to do that and we've seen Prime Ministers, not necessarily quite like this one, who have been brought down by hubris, carelessness, misconduct of one sort or another."

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So will his Conservative colleagues ultimately move to get rid of the ‘bad chap’ in Number 10?

“As soon as they think that the Prime Minister is no longer an electoral asset I suspect that they will very quickly change their mind", Lord Garnier said. "I'm afraid it's as simple and as basic as that. As soon as he stops looking like a winner, and starts looking like a weight around their neck, then they’ll take a different view. We don't need to get too sentimental about it or look for intellectual purity. This is politics.”

Lord Garnier is highly critical of Johnson's dishonest behaviour. However, he gives short shrift to the idea that changes are required to allow MPs to explicitly label Johnson a liar in the House of Commons chamber.

“The facts are well known to the public and speak for themselves”, he said. “You don't have to be so blatant as to call somebody a liar in the House of Commons in order to get that point across, it just requires a degree of dexterity. And I don't think there's anybody in the House of Commons, or outside of it, who thinks that the Prime Minister has the same view of truth, or falsity, as other people.”

Asked who in his party should replace Johnson as Prime Minister, Garnier was blunt. 

“I'm almost inclined to say anybody rather than this one. But I can assure you the right person will emerge at the right time.”

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Resigning Matters: By Failing to Step Down, Johnson has Put Democracy on Standby

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 14/04/2022 - 10:34pm in

Rachel Morris catalogues the history of government resignations, explaining why it’s such an important feature of British democracy

Last June, then Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock resigned after images were released of him kissing a non-executive director in his department. In many workplaces, this is inappropriate behaviour and its potential for abuse of power would be a matter for disciplinary measures or dismissal, though it’s not unlawful. In 2019, the McDonalds CEO was made to resign because of a relationship with an employee.

In Hancock’s case, which ended his marriage, his resignation was tendered because he had broken Coronavirus social distancing restrictions while being the minister responsible for overseeing them.

Six months later, Downing Street aide Allegra Stratton resigned after a clip of her emerged laughing in a mock press conference about law-breaking Government parties during lockdown.

Boris Johnson accepted both of these resignations. Now, he has been fined for his own breach of COVID laws, but has chosen not to resign.

Most Conservative MPs and ministers have rallied behind the embattled Prime Minister with a series of identikit tweets, citing the war in Ukraine and other domestic challenges.

The Chancellor has also been fined but has refused to step down. Rishi Sunak has been embroiled in a series of scandals in recent weeks, involving his financial interests and those of his wife. None of these stories have prompted the Chancellor to hand in his notice.

This is arguably the first time in British political history that Cabinet ministers have clung to power after such a slurry of scandals, when previously one alone would have been enough to bring them down.

Indeed, the three prime ministers prior to Johnson all resigned. Resignations are normal, and they matter. There are normally at least as many changes of office holders due to resignations and reshuffles as elections.

Herbert Asquith resigned early in the First World War over failures to provide adequate munitions to the front. Winston Churchill was a member of the Cabinet during that war, but resigned after the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. Having become Prime Minister following Neville Chamberlain’s resignation at the start of the Second World War, Churchill himself resigned in 1945 – before the war’s end – as his government lost an election to the Labour Party and its leader Clement Attlee.

Margaret Thatcher resigned after losing the confidence of her party. Tony Blair resigned in 2007 to allow Gordon Brown a chance to govern. In 2016, David Cameron resigned within hours of losing the EU Referendum. Theresa May resigned in 2019 after failing three times to push her Brexit withdrawal deal through Parliament.

When Stratton resigned, she was visibly upset – she will have known that many others ought to have stepped down, but to date the only further resignation over ‘Partygate’ has been that of Justice Minister Lord David Wolfson, who said that the “scale, context and nature” of COVID breaches in Government was inconsistent with the rule of law.

But, as in Donald Trump’s era as US President, trampling norms is the new normal. It is customary for a Prime Minister to resign when they believe that they no longer 'have the confidence of the House'. In other words, if they can’t guarantee they have the ability to pass legislation in the House of Commons. With a large majority in there, Johnson is only at risk from the seditious instincts of members of his own party.

Dictator in Disguise

Yet, the public evidently wants Boris Johnson to resign. Omnisis conducted a poll for Byline Times on 27 January showing that a clear majority of voters wanted the Prime Minister to step down. The war in Ukraine has somewhat changed this arithmetic, but the polls continue to show rock-bottom levels of public trust in Johnson.

The Profumo Affair, during which Secretary of State for War John Profumo was found to have lied to the Commons, damaged the credibility of the government overall. Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan resigned on grounds of ill health, but the affair contributed to that Government’s electoral defeat in 1964.

It seems as though there will be several more years before an election – it’s only in the gift of the Prime Minister to call one sooner. There is no trigger in our political system for a Prime Minister who has lost public trust – and who has broken the law – to be held accountable. Johnson can only be removed by his own moral conscience, a parliamentary vote of no confidence, or if his own MPs organise a leadership contest. None of these options seem likely.

It is hard to imagine any previous Prime Minister refusing to resign after breaking their own laws. But, looking at his history of lies, scandals and errors – including lying to the Queen – it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Johnson believes he is beyond reproach.

The ability of our constitution to enforce the norms of democracy is reliant on respect from those in power. The Ministerial Code, governing the conduct of ministers, is only advisory – and is enforced by the Prime Minister. Democratic order relies on the self-governance of ethics and standards by those in power.

The court of public opinion – the shame and dishonour applied to ministers for their wrongdoing – has often spelled the end of ministers. But Johnson has no shame – while his reputation is carefully guarded by his allies in the right-wing press.

The nation still awaits the full Partygate report from civil servant Sue Gray. This is expected to catalogue all the misdemeanours in one place, triggering a potential political maelstrom. On 8 December, Johnson assured the House that he would “place a copy of the report in the library of the House of Commons” – un-redacted, unedited and unabridged.

For the sake of democracy, it is essential that the Gray report is made publicly available. Whatever your political views, our democracy is held together by the rule of law – the principle that laws apply to all equally. But it’s also held together by conventions demanding fair play – requiring ministers to recognise when they have lost the confidence of Parliament and the nation.

Without the full facts, the people still cannot declare their judgment, and thus democracy is on standby.

The Ministerial Code states that ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament must resign. Johnson told Parliament that he knew of no parties in Downing Street and that – if events had been held – all the rules were followed. “All the guidance was followed completely in Number 10,” he told the House on 1 December 2021.

Pressed by Labour Leader Keir Starmer during Prime Minister’s Questions on 26 January, Johnson said that he would resign if found to have broken the Code and misled Parliament over the lockdown parties. No resignation has been forthcoming from Johnson – the dictator in disguise.

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Conservatives’ ‘Partygate’ Impunity for Johnson Shows the Entire British Constitution is Now At Stake

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 14/04/2022 - 7:37pm in

If the governing party proves that those in power can get away with anything, the essential contract between leaders and their people will be ruptured for good, says Jonathan Lis

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Four months after the story of lockdown parties in Whitehall first exploded, two months after Sue Gray’s initial summary of the events, and seven weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine suspended much of Britain’s everyday politics, we have at least one definitive answer: at this country’s most dangerous moment since the Second World War, the Prime Minister broke the law he said was there to save people’s lives.

It was the most significant law of his premiership, which he insisted that people must follow, and he himself had no interest in doing so.

Having been fined by the Metropolitan Police for attending a gathering for his birthday in June 2020, Boris Johnson now becomes the first British Prime Minister to receive a criminal sanction in office. There is every possibility that he will receive more fines for larger and more substantial gatherings.

The facts on their own are stark enough. In normal times, they could easily force a sufficient number of Conservative MPs to remove the Prime Minister from office. But these are not normal times. And yet, the problem is that Johnson is facing no normal consequences – and this is the greatest danger.

The failure of the British political system to respond to Johnson's transgressions could prove more damaging than the initial offence. What began as the moral disgrace of one man, could now be the death spiral of a national constitution.

Arrogance and Luck

Our extraordinary political situation is neatly encapsulated by a new Savanta ComRes poll, which reports that 61% of voters believe Boris Johnson should resign, with only 10% thinking that he will. The public, in other words, has the exact measure of the man. His moral and public obligation is in direct opposition with his personal lack of shame.

As so often with this Prime Minister, it is difficult to know which is worse: the fact that he thinks he can get away with anything, or the fact that he actually can. Neither should be possible.

Just as the fine demonstrates that nobody is above the law, nobody should be above basic standards in public life. Any rules of fairness and decency dictate that the Prime Minister must go – not simply because the man responsible for creating and upholding the law has been found to have broken it, but because of what that law was.

Contrary to the preposterous arguments of Conservative backbenchers, the fine was not on the level of a parking or speeding ticket. These were unique peacetime regulations to combat a once-in-a-century pandemic killing thousands of people. By prohibiting unnecessary gatherings, the laws were designed to save lives. They formed the sum total of the Government’s public messaging for more than a year.

These laws dominated every bit of our lives until barely a year ago. The ban on two people from different households meeting indoors only ended in May. It is inconceivable that Johnson did not know that a birthday party – or the other gatherings he attended – would be illegal. He was lying then and he is lying now.

This is not simply a question of law but moral authority. Millions of people suffered lifelong trauma in order to follow Johnson’s rules – staying away from relatives who later died, curbing funerals, eschewing personal contact and touch over long months of isolation. These were not simply written laws but personal sacrifices – and the Prime Minister considered himself exempt from both.

As ever, Johnson has been incredibly lucky. If this fine had been announced two months ago he could easily be facing a no-confidence vote. But his luck runs deeper still: if these stories had emerged at the time, he could not have survived the wave of public anger.

This also speaks to Johnson's arrogance. The party for which he has been fined took place three weeks after Dominic Cummings’s Barnard Castle revelations and dramatic press conference in the Downing Street rose garden. The public mood was unmistakeable. People were enraged that the Prime Minister’s chief advisor had broken the rules by travelling across the country during lockdown and then taking a brief leisure trip to 'test his eyesight'.

Johnson must have known how the public would react to something much more serious and dangerous – hosting family and colleagues indoors to mark a social occasion. But he did it anyway and continued to. He did not, does not, and will not care.

A Toxic Party

This, of course, goes far beyond Boris Johnson. It is only possible for him to exercise such naked entitlement thanks to his backbenchers. Indeed, if it was simply a case of one toxic narcissist, the situation would be swiftly resolved. The real problem is a toxic party and political culture.

Since the fines issued to the Prime Minister – and Chancellor Rishi Sunak – were announced, Conservative MPs have been scrambling to debase themselves for a man who would sacrifice any one of them.

We have heard that it was ‘only cake’; that the gathering only lasted 10 minutes; that Johnson didn’t know the party was illegal; that there was ‘no malice’ involved. In one of the most egregious defences, Michael Fabricant declared that nurses and teachers had done the same.

These people know that all of this is irrelevant. Ignorance and ‘lack of malice’ do not make a crime legal – as the party of 'law and order' has made clear for decades. 

Perhaps the most offensive element has been to invoke the war in Ukraine.

Numerous backbenchers have declared that they could not possibly remove the Prime Minister at a time of war. Not only is this a reprehensible defence – using the suffering of the Ukrainian people as a shield – but it is also a lie. Any candidate for Prime Minister would continue the same policy and few people in Kyiv would even notice. It will have no impact on Vladimir Putin’s decision-making. The people of France are electing a new president right now.

For most of Johnson’s defenders, this is nothing to do with Ukraine. They decided long ago that the Prime Minister can do whatever he likes, provided that he stands the best chance of retaining their seats for them. Their motivation is not rooted in ethics but a raw calculation of self-interest.

For the first time in modern history, both the Prime Minister and his MPs are wilfully obstructing the national interest in order to save their careers.

A Constitution in Crisis

In some ways, the invocation of Ukraine highlighted something important. The backbencher Sir Roger Gale, a fierce critic of Boris Johnson, declared that “now is... not the moment to give... Putin the comfort of destabilising the Government of the country... leading the coalition in support of Ukraine”.

Gale’s conclusions are wrong: removing Johnson would not destabilise the Government but almost certainly strengthen it. A new Prime Minister, free of the scandal of lockdown parties, would command far greater moral authority both here and abroad.

Moreover, Britain is not at war and Johnson is no kind of war leader. He has neither the judgement nor the integrity to take decisions affecting other people. If the situation did deteriorate, he would be the least suitable candidate to command the response.

More significantly, however, this is about values. Changing leaders is the hallmark of a democracy – it is what separates functioning democracies from purely nominal ones. It is unthinkable that Putin might leave office through democratic means. It should be reasonable to expect that Johnson might.

If the Conservative Party is really interested in drawing a distinction with Putin, it should consider its own actions. Democracy means holding power to account and that necessitates following democratic norms. The worst way to showcase Britain’s values is to grant its leaders freedom from moral and political consequences. The only thing that might really give Putin ‘comfort’, is showing him that our country, too, considers democracy a sham.

The Conservatives have, in effect, granted Boris Johnson total constitutional impunity. At his party’s discretion, the Prime Minister is free to commit any crime, or tell any number of lies to Parliament, and remain in office. There is no individual or independent institution that can force him from power. If it suits Tory backbenchers, he stays – enabling political patronage and electoral success to trump the demands of moral probity and standards in public life.

There is no longer any credible oversight of Johnson’s actions. He is the ultimate arbiter and judge of the rule-book governing his conduct. If an advisor determines that he has broken the Ministerial Code – a resigning offence – it is the Prime Minister himself who has the discretion of responding. This charming, period-drama constitution of old school ties and gentlemen’s conventions in fact represents carte blanche for all-pervasive corruption, in which one individual can fully capture the levers of state without any checks or balances.

The ramifications of this are immense. If the Prime Minister doesn’t know the law and cannot be entrusted to follow it, how can anyone? What is the point of the Ministerial Code if not to police the conduct of the most senior minister? If neither basic standards nor accountability apply to the person at the very top, how can the public have any faith in its leaders or institutions? It is hard to imagine anything more corrosive to the body politic. 

This is a profoundly dangerous moment for our democracy; one which goes far beyond one grubby narcissist. If the Conservatives prove – and the public sees with its own eyes – that those in power can get away with anything, the essential contract between leaders and the people they govern will be ruptured for good.

This was not about birthday cake then and it is not about Ukraine now. Britain’s entire constitution is at stake.

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Putin will be pleased

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 14/04/2022 - 7:21am in

What I can only suggest as a certain family frailty* is currently preventing any comprehensive sort of commentary on the current democratic deficit (wasn’t that actually what we were told was the problem with the EU?) that comprises Johnson’s lying to, and misleading of, Parliament – never mind to everyone else… The main reason for... Read more

Above and Beyond the Law: ‘Partygate’ has Fatally Exposed Britain’s Political System

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 13/04/2022 - 3:21am in

In a succession of scandals, Boris Johnson has opened the floodgates to wrongdoing and impunity by politicians like never before – aided by his lawless friends in the British press and a sclerotic constitution 

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They were born into lawlessness, and lawlessly they won and ruled. 

The Vote Leave administration’s coup against the rule of law began when it broke electoral law over-spending limits during the 2016 EU Referendum. Though it took three full years for Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings to march into Downing Street, one of their first actions was to prorogue Parliament, a move later struck down as unlawful by the Supreme Court.

Due to their deliberate failure to strengthen democratic safeguards, allowing dark ads to proliferate on social media, we do not know if other laws were broken during the 2019 General Election. But we do know that, just a few months later when the Coronavirus pandemic began, the first instinct of Boris Johnson’s administration was to break more laws. 

First there was ‘Wallpapergate’. Lord Geidt, the independent advisor on ministerial interests (who Chancellor Rishi Sunak has just referred himself to over questions surrounding his financial interests and those of his wife), chided Johnson for acting “unwisely” over the lavish refurbishment of his Downing Street flat. The Conservative Party was fined £18,000 by the Electoral Commission for failing to properly declare the donations. But getting away with that infraction didn’t stop the occupants’ penchant for breaking the rules – it just encouraged them. 

The scandal of crony contracts followed. The High Court ruled last February that Matt Hancock, while Health and Social Care Secretary, had acted unlawfully in failing to publish details of multi-billion-pound Government COVID contracts within the 30-day period required by law. Justice Chamberlain ruled that the failures of Hancock and his department had breached the “vital public function” of transparency over how “vast quantities” of taxpayers’ money was spent. In January this year, the High Court ruled that the Government’s ‘VIP lane’ – which awarded personal protective equipment contracts to firms with links to ministers, MPs and officials – was also unlawful.

But that was just the beginning. Though the Byline Intelligence Team calculated that the total value of all the contracts awarded during the crisis amounted at that time to £54.2 billion – more than the GDP of 140 countries and territories – cronyism wasn’t Hancock’s downfall. He breached COVID restrictions when he was filmed kissing ​​his aide Gina Colangelo. In a rare resignation, the married minister admitted the game was up – a move lauded by Johnson’s spokesperson “as the right decision”.

Meanwhile, the rest of Johnson’s Government was enjoying a riot of unlawful parties on Government premises.

When these first came to public attention late last year, and as the Prime Minister’s then spokesperson Allegra Stratton was caught on camera joking about lockdown parties, Johnson pleaded ignorance. “I understand and share the anger up and down the country of seeing Number 10 staff seeming to make light of lockdown measures,” he told Parliament. “I can understand how infuriating it must be to think that the people who have been setting the rules have not been following the rules, because I was also furious to see that clip.”

His language was revealing. It was “infuriating” for the public, but he was personally furious about the clip. No wonder – the cat was out of the bag. The revelations about parties continued. Photographs emerged of a ‘bring your own booze’ event, quizzes with tinsel and prosecco – while the rest of the country isolated and locked down, leaving loved ones alone as they died and mourned.

Still, Johnson insisted that no laws had been broken. This was part of his habitual, almost reflexive, deceptions – an escalation of the ‘hypernormalisation’ of untruths seen in Johnson’s early days in Downing Street, when fast and loose was played with facts about Brexit and the Coronavirus: or, more recently, on Keir Starmer’s role in the prosecution of Jimmy Savile, on post-pandemic jobs, on sanctions against Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, on falling crime.

Lies have been repeated flagrantly to Parliament without consequence, and there is a sense of impunity throughout the highest offices of state.

On lockdown breaking lawlessness, though, there is no way out.

It is only thanks to persistent legal pressure on the Metropolitan Police by the Good Law Project and others that we now know that Boris Johnson and his wife, as well as the Chancellor – along with some 50 others – have been fined for breaking the very rules that they put in place, and have spent a year insisting they did not break. 

So the Prime Minister has, to a criminal burden of proof, lied to the public. He has lied to Parliament and civil servants. And, though it may aid his survival in the short-term, he has co-opted so many senior ministers in his lawlessness that we now have an entire administration compromised in a disturbing new kind of collective Cabinet irresponsibility. 

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Help to expose the big scandals of our era.

Enabling the Johnson Government every step of the way – until now – has been the crisis in British journalism. 

While under David Cameron and Theresa May, the country’s influential tabloid newspapers were right-leaning and encouraging of those in power, under Johnson a fusion has occurred of the media and political classes. This process began when, during the phone-hacking and police bribing scandals, the press was in the dock during the Leveson Inquiry, following dozens of convictions and the threat of tighter regulation. 

Johnson, a Telegraph columnist himself, battled in defence of his friends in the press and its wealthy proprietors. The subsidies and favours flowed both ways – so did the defence of lawlessness on both sides. The result has been a Government led by a journalist, fed by journalists – and vice versa – with the press picking and choosing when it wants to hold the Government to account and when it doesn’t.

While the work of the Mirror and ITV News in revealing the scale of the lockdown-breaking parties should be rightly praised, it should also be noted that ‘Partygate’ isn’t the first Johnson scandal which has been in need of exposing, nor is it necessarily the most egregious. 

Nonetheless, the fact that the Partygate stories have dominated the pages of the established media shows it still has collective power in acting as a fourth estate and holding politicians to account – when it wants to. This, in turn, has shone a light on all the times that this has been desperately needed but badly lacking – from the consequences of Britain’s hard Brexit to the Government’s reckless approach to the Coronavirus crisis, Russian interference and the dangers of Vladimir Putin.

But the media (if it so chooses) can only expose. It is our political system that must possess the mechanisms to hold politicians to account when they refuse to play by the rules. Checks and balances wielding real power over elected politicians can be effective tools if they are built into the structures of our democracy.

With the Partygate scandal, Boris Johnson’s Government has progressed from norm-breaking to law-breaking – and the very idea of the British political system now hangs in the balance.

It has, once and for all, laid bare the vulnerabilities and dangers of a system lacking a written, codified constitution, reliant on checks and balances in the form of honourable customs, precedent and convention. One that is not equipped to deal with the unprecedented, or to move with these dark times.

When Labour MP Dawn Butler was asked to leave the House of Commons last July after calling the Prime Minister a liar, the incident showed the absurdity of a system which enables those in the highest positions of power to lie with impunity, while sanctioning those calling out the lies – all in the name of archaic procedures supposedly still in place in the facilitation of honour.

Surely, now is the time for all those who care about democracy to recognise that fundamental change – including to the workings of the head of state, the checks on the executive and a presidential-style prime minister and our constitution – must be considered. But burgeoning inequalities, fuelling a dangerous disengagement with democracy among the public, continues.

What happens to our ‘good chaps’ democracy when bad actors come to power? 170,000 people have died from the Coronavirus in the UK – every one of them deserving accountability. As things stand, there’s nothing but a ballot box down the line and the consciences of Conservative MPs, worried for their careers, that could give them that.

If Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak remain in office despite unassailable evidence that they broke the law, the values the Conservative Party used to claim it is most proud of – the rule of law, civil liberties and good old British fairness – will mean nothing. With our ‘mother of Parliaments’, “world-beating” institutions and supposedly second-to-none justice system, Britain has for so long wrapped itself in myths about itself – while a different reality is now loudly speaking for itself. 

If the Chancellor and Prime Minister survive, this will surely be a coup against our country and the British public: our law-makers taken over by law-breakers. 

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Guarding against ‘Pathocracy’

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 04/04/2022 - 5:08pm in

In an article in the journal of the British Psychological Society ‘The Problem of Pathocracy’, Dr Steve Taylor, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Leeds Beckett University, draws on the term ‘Pathocracy’ created by the Polish psychologist, Andrzej Lobaczewski, who endured what he called Pathocracy under both the Nazis and the Soviet Regime. He defines Pathocracy... Read more

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