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As the U.S. and democracies worldwide face threats, Britain shows how to fight back

Britain's Boris Johnson, pictured in 2021, resigned as prime minister last year, but his policies are still felt. He resigned his seat in the House of Commons last week after receiving a draft of a report excoriating his behavior as prime minister.
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Britain's Boris Johnson, pictured in 2021, resigned as prime minister last year, but his policies are still felt. He resigned his seat in the House of Commons last week after receiving a draft of a report excoriating his behavior as prime minister.

By some measures, democracy has been in decline around the globe for more than a decade and a half, but there are encouraging signs in places you might not expect. One is the United Kingdom, where former Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried to chip away at checks and balances during his time in office.

The system, however, fought back, most recently in a 106-page parliamentary committee report out Thursday that said Johnson had lied to Parliament over parties that violated his government's own COVID restrictions. Johnson resigned his seat in the House of Commons last week after receiving a draft of the report. In a resignation letter that may sound familiar to Americans, the former prime minister painted himself as a victim and called the committee a "kangaroo court."

"Their purpose from the beginning has been to find me guilty, regardless of the facts," Johnson wrote.

He added: "I am not alone in thinking that there is a witch hunt underway, to take revenge for Brexit and ultimately to reverse the 2016 referendum result."

The committee called Johnson's response "vitriolic" and an "attack on our democratic institutions."

In fact, polls have shown that the vast majority of British people think Boris Johnson is untrustworthy, and the parliamentary report was just the latest shot in a battle over the country's democratic system. It is a story that feels relevant to the U.S., where another norm-busting former leader faces potentially more serious consequences for his behavior.

"Behaving as if he was world king"

During his roughly three years in office, Johnson tried to erode limits on executive power. He sought to restrict public protests, shut down Parliament, sell off a public TV network critical of his government and weaken the country's electoral watchdog.

"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," says Baron William Wallace, a member of the House of Lords with the Liberal Democrats, an opposition party. Wallace is referring to the oft-reported anecdote that when Johnson was asked as a child what he wanted to be, he replied "world king."

Johnson did not try to weaken democratic norms as severely as, say, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has packed the courts and increased control over the media. But Benjamin Ward, a deputy director in Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division, says smaller attacks can have a cumulative effect.

"When you fray the democratic fabric, it actually has a very long-lasting impact," says Ward.

Police arrested peaceful protesters at coronation

Johnson left No. 10 Downing St. last summer, but his policies are still felt, most recently during the coronation of King Charles III in May. As crowds gathered along the parade route in London, protesters arrived in a van filled with hundreds of signs that read "Not My King." Before they could hand out the signs, police arrested them.

Police stand in front of demonstrators during an anti-monarchy protest at Trafalgar Square during the coronation of Charles III on May 6 in London. The protest was organized by Republic, a group agitating for the monarchy to be replaced with an elected head of state.
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Police stand in front of demonstrators during an anti-monarchy protest at Trafalgar Square during the coronation of Charles III on May 6 in London. The protest was organized by Republic, a group agitating for the monarchy to be replaced with an elected head of state.

"This was a direct attack on democracy, because democracy requires the freedom to dissent," said Graham Smith, leader of the anti-monarchy group Republic, when speaking to Piers Morgan on Britain's TalkTV.

Police were relying on a controversial new law that began with the Johnson administration that allows them to detain people based on the suspicion they will lock themselves together or to objects and cause disruption.

The evidence? Police found luggage straps in the protesters' van. Smith says they planned to use the straps to attach the signs to a pushcart so they wouldn't fall off.

"If they wanted to advertise how awful and draconian this legislation was, then they couldn't have picked a better target than us," Smith told Britain's Times Radio. "We have a very good, strong record of being a peaceful, law-abiding campaign."

A "huge risk of abuse of power"

Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, a member of the opposition Labour Party, who serves in the House of Lords, sees the new law as a form of thought crime.

"The police now have a blanket power to stop people on the day of a protest and search them to look through their rucksacks ... to see whether there are bicycle chains or glue or tape or whatever," she told NPR. "What you've really done is just to hand this huge risk of abuse of power over to the police."

Smith says he spent 16 hours in jail. Police acknowledged they couldn't prove the case and released him without charge. But Prime Minister Rishi Sunak defended the new law, which authorities said had been drafted to thwart protesters' recent, aggressive tactics such as super-gluing their hands to rail cars.

"It is ... the right of the British public to be able to go about their ordinary day-to-day life without undue serious disruption," Sunak told the House of Commons last month, adding, "that's why it's right that the police have extra powers."

"The British people will never forgive you"

Boris Johnson challenged the British system soon after taking office in 2019. He tried to close down Parliament, which would have prevented lawmakers from scrutinizing his Brexit bill. Britain's Supreme Court ruled Johnson's move"unlawful" and reinstated the legislature. The prime minister responded with populist rhetoric, casting it as an us-vs.-them conflict.

"We will not betray the people who sent us here," Johnsonsaid. "We will not abandon the priorities that matter to the public and we will continue to challenge those opposition parties to uphold democracy."

Anti-Brexit protesters from "Stop the Coup" protest outside Downing Street in London on Aug. 31, 2019. Political opposition to Prime Minister Boris Johnson's move to suspend Parliament  resulted in protests around Britain and a petition to block the move.
Vudi Xhymshiti / AP
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Anti-Brexit protesters from "Stop the Coup" protest outside Downing Street in London on Aug. 31, 2019. Political opposition to Prime Minister Boris Johnson's move to suspend Parliament resulted in protests around Britain and a petition to block the move.

Johnson presented himself as the champion of ordinary Brexit voters against the opposition politicians and lawyers who, he said, were conspiring to sabotage Brexit. Sam Fowles is an attorney who helped argue for Parliament's reinstatement before the Supreme Court. Fowles recalls stepping into a cab after winning the case and hearing news of the verdict on the car radio. He and his fellow lawyers were smug and happy.

"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,'" Fowles said. "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."

The British system relies on "good chaps"

Britain's political system is particularly vulnerable to attack by someone who simply ignores norms. The United Kingdom has no written constitution or formal written rules.

"There is this phrase that the U.K. system relies on 'good chaps,'" says Tim Durrant, a program director at the Institute for Government, a London think tank. "It relies on people who are willing to behave, and if someone is willing to misbehave, then there is very little the system can do to curtail that."

Johnson continued to attack institutions that tried to hold him to account. Last year, he called for the government to sell off Channel 4, an aggressive, editorially independent network. The government argued that Channel 4 could better compete with the help of private finance.

Many saw the move as revenge. During the 2019 election campaign, Channel 4 embarrassed Johnson during a debate on climate change. Johnson refused to participate, and Channel 4 replaced him with a melting block of ice.

"There is a theory that Channel 4 was never forgiven for doing this," says Baroness Jane Bonham-Carter, a member of the House of Lords with the Liberal Democrats who once worked at Channel 4.

Bonham-Carter says Johnson's government wanted to cripple the broadcaster because they saw it as "intrinsically opposed to them." She says the House of Lords had major problems with the plan, which eventually died.

How the system fought back

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 campaign finance violations.

Many saw this as political payback. In the past, the Electoral Commission had hit the Conservative Party and Vote Leave, the pro-Brexit referendum campaign led by Johnson, with huge fines for violating campaign finance laws.

But, overall, the British system has proven resilient.

"In the end, in a mature democracy, these institutions think, well, unless we stand up for ourselves, it doesn't really matter and there is no point in existing, so we might as well do it anyway," says Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks off after delivering a farewell address before his official resignation at Downing Street on Sept. 6, 2022, in London.
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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks off after delivering a farewell address before his official resignation at Downing Street on Sept. 6, 2022, in London.

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 during the pandemic would cost them at the polls.

Brian Klaas, a political scientist from Minnesota who teaches at University College London, says Britain's political institutions did a pretty good job of standing up to Johnson.

"There has been an erosion of democracy during the time I've been here in Britain. There's no question about that," says Klaas, the author of Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us.

"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."

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.

NPR London producer Morgan Ayre contributed to this story. The audio for this story was produced by Monika Evstatieva. It was edited by Barrie Hardymon.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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