There is a great risk that the government’s decision to suspend parliament until 14th October is seen as little more than the latest round of political gamesmanship as we come to terms with the vexed issue of Brexit, or the latest indication of parliamentary incompetence.
Of course, it is both of these things, but it is so much more. The RSA has long campaigned for democratic reform precisely to avoid the kind of parliamentary impasse that has led to the government’s decision and there can be an opaque line between politics and democracy. But a line there is, and on this occasion the prime minister has crossed it.
The right to representation
At a fundamental level, we all vote for members of parliament whose job it is to represent our views on legislative affairs. There are already concerns about the amount of time MPs spend at Westminster, not to mention the little time they spend in the debating chamber, and so reducing the number of days they are sitting means less time they have to do what we elect them to do.
Similarly, there is currently legislation which has been timetabled that will now be abandoned. As Jess Phillips, MP for Birmingham Yardley, was quick to point out, this includes a Domestic Violence Bill for which many people have long campaigned and the Banking and Financial Inclusion Bill which may have consequences for the RSA’s concerns about a cashless society.
But there is clearly something much more sinister about the timing of the current decision. As parliamentarians from across the political spectrum yesterday joined forces to agree plans to block a No Deal Brexit, there is a strong sense that today’s announcement is the government’s response.
Closing down debate is the opposite of democracy
Closing down debate in the face of difficulty or challenge is the very antithesis of what democracy should be about.
Despite the RSA being a champion for democratic reform, the process of parliamentary debate is one of the best means available to us to find common positions about how we run the country. Although it has been found to be horribly flawed, it cannot and should not be abandoned or sidelined, even for a short time.
If the prime minister really cared for democracy he would set out his “bold and ambitious” programme in a manifesto and put it to a general election.
If anything, to deal with our parliamentary impasse we need more democracy not less – and the democratic toolbox is by no means exhausted. As the RSA has argued in the past, choosing a referendum to decide such a complex and long-term issue as our future relationship with Europe betrayed a level of democratic illiteracy on the part of those who promoted it.
Those calling now for a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit – including the Archbishop of Canterbury – surely have the right impulse. This is something the RSA has advocated and worked with partners in order to draw up detailed plansas to how it might function, but sadly it now seems too late for its effective organisation before 31 October.
Taking back control
If the prevailing narrative behind the Brexit referendum was the people’s desire to “take back control” then one would expect the government’s decision to be treated with some contempt as we watch control being eroded further away. As Matthew Taylor presciently stated in his Chief Executive’s lecture last year, “the hunger to take back control which started as a tragedy is rapidly becoming a farce”.
We would do well to look beyond the illusion of the lovable rogue: this is not quite a coup and it is too soon to judge Johnson a dictator, but the line between high politics and a deliberate attempt to subvert our democratic rights has been crossed.
Whatever our view on Brexit, we must pursue democratic means to resolve our differences.
But if the prime minister won’t answer to parliament and won’t call a general election, then those who care about democracy from any and every political background will no doubt turn now to protest as their only means to hold government to account.
In part two of the Our Way Through essay series, Anthony Painter considers whether our current relationships with money, power and technology are helping or hindering society's progress.