The Mammoth Stress Test of British Democracy

John Wight reports on the hard-fought constitutional battle over whether the country is to be ruled by executive fiat or parliamentary democracy. 

By John Wight
in Edinburgh, Scotland

Special to Consortium

A measure of just how tumultuous and fast moving politics has now become in the U.K. is that a Labour Party conference in Brighton that had taken on the character of a Shakespearean drama — complete with a challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership over Brexit and an aborted attempt to unseat his deputy, Tom Watson, over his unending plotting and scheming – was quickly overshadowed by the Greek tragedy that unfolded at the same time in the country’s Supreme Court in London.

Johnson’s Judicial Caning

For it was here that Boris Johnson, who’d flounced into Downing Street with no mandate and a Churchillian flourish just a few weeks ago, pledging to “finally deliver Brexit” for the British people and free them of their EU chains, received a judicial caning that has placed him on course to being the shortest serving prime minister in the country’s history.

Euripides himself could not have imagined such a vertiginous fall from grace.

Presiding Judge Lady Hall, Sept. 24, 2019. (YouTube)

With the astoundingly unanimous approval of all 11 Supreme Court justices, presiding Judge Lady Hale described Johnson’s actions in suspending (proroguing) Parliament for five weeks with the consent of the Queen as “unlawful, void and of no effect.”

Not since Oliver Cromwell went toe to toe with King Charles I in the mid-17thcentury has there been such a hard-fought constitutional battle in Britain over whether, in the last analysis, the country is to be ruled by executive fiat or by parliamentary democracy.

We all know how Cromwell’s struggle with Charles I turned out, but if they should ever forget (hard Brexiteers here take note) all they need do is go down to Westminster in the heart of London and find Cromwell’s statue outside the House of Commons.

In upholding the primacy of Parliament over the executive, Lady Hale with her Supreme Court did what Cromwell did with a sword and an axe. She did so much to the consternation of Johnson and his hard Brexit acolytes, whose response was on a par with Kenneth Williams’ immortal line in the 1964 British comedy romp Carry On Cleo. To wit: “Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!”

Johnson’s Defiance


Johnson and company responded with stridency and defiance to the ruling, continuing their People vs the Establishment shtick as a way to try and force through a hard, no-deal Brexit with destination disaster capitalism in mind. In New York for the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Johnson spoke glowingly of a U.S.-U.K. trade deal to replace EU membership.  Johnson’s ability to leave the EU at the current Oct. 31 deadline, with or without a deal with the EU, is anybody’s guess. 

Leaving without a deal would be in defiance of a law passed earlier this month requiring Britain seek an extended deadline if no deal is in place. However, Johnson’s willingness to even try to leave without a deal reflects the extent to which democracy in Britain is undergoing a stress test of mammoth scale.

The Supreme Court ruling was also met with rage by Britain’s populist right wing press. The  Daily Mail’s  front page ton Wednesday would not have been out of place in the Nazi Party newspaper, Völkischer Beobachter, effectively declaring the 11 Supreme Court judges “enemies of the people.”

Statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the House of Commons in Westminster, London. (Eluveitie, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

The immediate consequence of the ruling was Parliament being resumed on Wednesday by Speaker of the House John Bercow. He bore witness to a bravura performance by Attorney General Geoffrey Cox who had signed off on the legalities of Johnson’s prorogation and who took center stage to explain himself to the House.

Rather than fight the rear-guard action of a man whose resignation had, along with that of the prime minister, been anticipated by many in light of the Supreme Court ruling, Cox went on the attack with the force of the Red Army at the gates of Berlin, fighting off wave after wave of attack at the despatch box. It was parliamentary oratory at its finest, and will have done much to restore confidence to the Brexit ranks.

During his opening address to the Commons, Cox announced that the government intends to hold another vote on staging a snap general election, safe in the knowledge that unless a no deal Brexit is taken off the table by Johnson beforehand (and with it an  extension beyond Oct. 31), neither Labour nor the other opposition parties can possibly support it. 

This is a crucial precondition given that Johnson, in his capacity as prime minister, enjoys the privilege of setting the date of any such election. With this in mind, clearly it would be in his interests to set that date after Oct. 31 and thus take the U.K. out of the EU without a deal by default.

Johnson appeared later in the evening of this first session of Parliament after the Supreme Court ruling. And just like his attorney general he was in no mind to utter words of contrition despite having been judged to have acted unlawfully. He went on the attack against Corbyn and the other opposition parties, accusing them of cowardice, of blocking the will of the British people, while challenging them to table a motion of no confidence and trigger a snap early general election.

Corbyn’s studied excoriation of Johnson’s conduct and integrity in response, which was only superseded by his chilling vocal exegesis of the Government’s Operation Yellowhammer document, which war-gamed the likely economic consequences of a no deal Brexit. It makes grim reading, predicting chaos at the ports, rising energy prices, shortages of some medicines and medical supplies, and the admission that the those on low incomes will be disproportionately impacted. 

Corbyn Survives at Labour Conference

Corbyn: Under siege. (David Holt via Flickr)

Jeremy Corbyn. (David Holt via Flickr)

Compared to the drama that unfolded in the Supreme Court and the first session of Parliament upon its resumption, the Labour Party’s annual conference was a decidedly benign affair, despite the ructions and political skulduggery that ensued.

The attempt by his allies on the party ruling’s National Executive Council (NEC) to abolish the position of deputy leader, thus rendering Tom Watson powerless, backfired spectacularly; with the outpouring of protest from the Blairite wing of the party and the media compelling Corbyn to interveneto get the NEC to row back tabling such a controversial motion.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, it was quickly followed by the publication of a damning memo recently sent to Corbyn and his team by one of his former’s key aides, setting out his intention to leave his post by the end of the year, while mounting withering criticism of the leadership team.

The Watson imbroglio and the Fisher memo, made it appear that the final Labour Party conference prior to one of the most important general elections in modern British history was destined to go down as one of the party’s most schismatic and shambolic. This was before the attempt by the Remain wing of the party to push through a motion that would have committed the party to a clear remain position on Brexit going into that election.

It amounted to a challenge to Corbyn’s authority, given that he and the party had up till then embraced a position on Brexit of first a general election, followed by a special conference (in the event that Labour won said election) to thrash out the party’s official policy on Brexit as it entered negotiations with the EU. This alongside the pledge to put any deal reached with Brussels to the British people in the form of a second referendum.

Corbyn managed to prevail and defeat this motion, thus solidifying his leadership. It was a key moment – one that had the effect of breathing new morale-boosting energy into the conference as the party reunited around its leader and his nuanced efforts at straddling a most precarious Brexit-Remain divide. It is a divide that has driven a stake into the heart of social cohesion across the country’s regions and constituent nations.

Whither Brexit?

The crisis of neoliberalism (or market fundamentalism) that swept the world in 2008 was in the U.K. compounded by savage Tory austerity. In working class communities battered and bruised most by this mass experiment in human despair, the resulting anger went some way to producing Brexit in 2016. This in turn sparked a political crisis, which in its turn has given birth to the present constitutional crisis.

What can be said with certainty is that any celebration over the Supreme Court ruling as a portent of the end of Johnson’s government is as premature as the confidence of Johnson’s supporters that his hard Brexit stridency will ultimately prevail.

As Cromwell presciently warned: “Do not trust the cheering, for those persons would shout as much if you or I were going to be hanged.” Cromwell, of course, later went on to actually dissolve Parliament and install himself in power as a military dictator.

 “History repeats, the first as tragedy, then as farce,” Karl Marx reminds us. Brexit has now taken the UK into the realms of tragedy. We are yet to find out what farce is going to look like.

John Wight is an independent journalist based in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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21 comments for “The Mammoth Stress Test of British Democracy

  1. Martin - Swedish citizen
    September 29, 2019 at 13:11

    Very good and enjoyable article!

    This may be a silly question, but how can Corbyn and Labour propose and hope to renegotiate the Brexit deal with the EU, given the clear EU position?

  2. DrC
    September 29, 2019 at 13:00

    The test of british “democracy” (really, that is sooo funny!) is whether or not the results of the referendum which the remainers lost fair-and-square, will be honored. Everything else in this circus is a red herring and anti-democratic by definition. Brexit may end up producing disastrous results, but subverting the results of the voting will be far more destructive.

  3. September 27, 2019 at 17:06

    Apparently, Johnson’s desire, similar to Corbyn’s, is simply to be PM. Johnson, as would Corbyn (from what I’ve read), will be happy to go for a faux Brexit, a la Theresa May.

    The British working class can have austerity via an undemocratic EU or via an undemocratic US (via a free trade deal with Trump). Great. Jonathan Cook’s comment that “There is an argument to be made that the EU is not chiefly responsible for the economic problems faced by British workers. Since the rise of Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s, figures from across the British political spectrum have been deeply in thrall to a neoliberal agenda that has clawed back hard-won workers’ rights.” (from “Israel should be deeply disturbed by the Brexit vote,” by Jonathan Cook)

  4. Kevin Bradley
    September 27, 2019 at 11:17

    Neither side in this fiasco can rightly claim to be defending democracy. Johnson’s hard Brexit faction is ignoring parliament while the majority of parliament is unwilling to respect the referendum result and deliver Brexit. They represent different factions of the ruling class, but the austerity of the hard Brexit faction will be even worse for most people in the UK.

  5. Eugenie Basile
    September 27, 2019 at 03:00

    Now that parliament is open again for business, it is doing its best to show the world that it should never take back control ! It should stay eternally subjected to EU rules.
    Maybe that is the ultimate remainer’s tactic ?

  6. bevin
    September 26, 2019 at 21:02

    Wight fails to tell the reader that the question of the EU-the debate over remaining or leaving- is not central to the differences in the Labour Party. Nor is the question of anti-semitism. Or Corbyn’s ‘leadership style’.
    What is at issue is the question of socialism, which is something which Corbyn’s Blairite opponents, including Tom Watson, are absolutely opposed to.
    They would sooner anything, including a Johnson government, than a socialist Prime Minister.
    In other words the issues are class issues.
    Which is the very point on which Wight’s party-the SNP- is extremely vulnerable. Scotland, historically is the heartland of the socialist movement in the UK. The SNP based its rise on Labour’s betrayal of its socialist principles. Any return to socialist policies would lead to the splitting of the SNP as the old Labour Base walked out on the uninspiring leadership of the Tartan Tories for whom Scots nationhood simply means a change of management without any challenge to the capitalist system.

    • bob
      September 27, 2019 at 07:21


      It’s amusing how the Scots, who want to break away from the UK but remain in the EU feel they have a good opinion about what is happening here.

      For an insight into the ‘Supreme Court’ – which I scarcely recognize as independent – have a look at the September 25 article on the Supreme Court and Johnson in The Slog.

      The ‘unlawful’ decision to prorogue parliament by the Blairite SC is an insanity fostered upon the british people by yet more elites as they gather to prevent the electorate’s decision to leave the anti-democratic eu. The name calling of the voters continues even here – the arrogance and other worldlyness is very apparent.

      Please also note that absolutely nothing is coming from the mouths of parliamentarians about the deliberate manufacture of the EU military union – as if brexit would have any role in that. The whole thing is a set up – possibly the forming of ‘the rules based order’ which so many politicians talk of amongst them selves without ever declaring what this means to the population.

      And at the same time politicians are crying and shouting at the electorate about their language and behaviour towards them – as if politicians are above the law and unaccountable to their electorate – this is not democracy – this is deliberate, designed chaos – and hopefully more people will see through the evident fascism subscribed to by politicians in adoration of their masters

  7. September 26, 2019 at 16:47

    “The Mammoth Stress Test of British Democracy”

    What democracy? I don’t see one in Britain.

    First, any party rules in the British Parliament with the support of 30-something percent of votes, and it is even called a “majority government.”

    Second, Johnson is not even elected, yet gets to have the title and powers of Prime Minister.

    He’s there by a majority vote of the members of the Conservative Party whose membership is about 160 thousand out of a population of around 65 million.

    And he is able to ruthlessly push for the most consequential change that could be imagined. Even bending laws and traditions.

    I don’t see a scrap of democracy in evidence.

    The truth is for virtually all of our “western democracies” there are comparably unpleasant truths. Our governments were set up for stability and the service of an establishment, not democracy.

  8. bill
    September 26, 2019 at 16:06

    The motion to remove the Deputy leader position was in fact withdrawn and there was no danger at all at any stage from any direction to the leadership who enters the next election now with his ducks in a row after Conference voted to remain neutral in any post election referendum placing before the people any Labour post-election deal with the EU….

    Cox offered no apology to the Supreme Court but merely jousted and blathered hither and thither, entirely unrepentant and with not one iota of humility towards either that Court or to Parliament itself.It was of course on his erroneous advice that the unlawful prorogation was attempted by a PM who still considers himself like Cox as above the law .It may well be that the PM ignores the Benn Act in coming days to set off yet another constitutional crisis….

  9. Kevin Mc
    September 26, 2019 at 10:27

    Informative analysis; I learnt a lot.

    Another analyst, whose name I cannot recall at the moment, pointed out that the ruling from the Supreme Court also served to diminish the monarch’s authority in the non-written British Constitution. Brexit seems to be the gift that keeps on giving.

  10. September 26, 2019 at 10:23

    Do you think Britain will look to Canada or South Africa’s constitutions for examples as they are parliamentary democracies as opposed to the USA which has checks & balances as a republic with a president and congress?They are more written than the British .In Canada’s they have 3 since the set up of modern day Canada.

  11. philnc
    September 26, 2019 at 09:24

    Great report that puts things in perspective for those of us across the pond. Especially liked the use of “market fundamentalism” as a synonym for neoliberalism. The latter more technical term is finally getting more use in political speeches over a generation after Thatcher but often doesn’t resoonate with ordinary people. Ralph Nader has suggested “corporatism” as an alternative, but that’s a structural description, while “market fundamentalism clearly defines the underlying ideology.

  12. bob
    September 26, 2019 at 04:37

    the electorate voted to leave the eu over three years ago – it still hasn’t happened – who exactly is operating illegally to overturn this result? Parliament has shown, repeatedly, it does not want brexit. If Johnson is guilty of anything it is trying to get brexit done. If he is ‘guilty’ as the remainer Supreme Court say (more an opinion than anything based on law) what does that make the queen who gives her permission????

    the elites certainly don’t like it ‘up ’em!!

    my hope is that the elctorate will never forgive their paid for so called representatives and get rid of the lot of them when an election, which the opposition want but don’t want, is called. We could do with getting rid of the far too many experts as well

    • September 26, 2019 at 18:03

      “The Queen” question is a very important one. Boris has Her permission but the Supreme Court’s condemnation?

      Worse than confusing, I think.

      I believe what we are seeing with The Queen vis-a-vis Blair’s newly constructed Supreme Court is a set of puzzle pieces which no longer together.

      Not so much a question of “democracy” as just old and new institutions crudely patched together so that it is not clear whether they even work.

      This whole matter of Brexit sure is highlighting the very worst in Britain’s political institutions.

      I’m against it entirely for many reasons, but especially the fact that Post-EU Britain will become even a worse toady to America.

      Trumpian America will extract a terrible price for any new trade agreement and other institutional arrangements. There are no loyalties or traditions or decencies or even ethics to be found in Trump and Company. And Britain will have no choice but to pay the price demanded.

      So, the British people, who thought they were voting against being tied to a larger political entity like the EU, are going to discover that they effectively voted just for switching to another, and I think one a whole lot harsher and less sympathetic.

      Although, it could be argued that it is not possible to become more grovelling than “the special relationship” already has made Britain for decades, I think that would be wrong. There are no limits with the Trump gang functioning more as a mafia than as a government.

      As to your hope about the electorate getting rid of the lot of them in elections, I’m sure you know those kinds of things just do not happen.

      As I said in my post above, all of our Western governments were set up for stability and the service of an establishment, not for democracy.

  13. CitizenOne
    September 26, 2019 at 00:10

    What is imminently apparent in this hubbub is that the government is led now by forces yet to be identified that hold all other government leaders who are against Brexit in contempt as if they were nonexistent. Suspending the government without disbanding it and aboloshing it all together was an unfortunate nicety which the parties were obliged to.

    At the root and the start of this unexpected turn of events was Cambridge Analytica headed by arch conservatives which was spectacularly successful in warping elections to their will through manipulating the constructs of newly emerging social media platforms and by taking advantage of their ability to target individuals identified as vulnerable by paying to have propaganda in the form of targeted advertising flood their social media habitats with propaganda designed to sway individual voters in a way that they felt that personalized and reinforcing messages like a phonecall from auntie Facebook became a trusted voice which was highly effective at persuading people to vote for Brexit. Citizens were targeted and bombarded by a supposed “research firm” which had no intentions of conducting research except where it mattered in identifying target individuals.

    The rich and powerful have always had an edge on the masses because the lure of money will always attract the best minds that hope to gain favor, riches and power by offering the best ways to exploit newly emerging technologies for the benefit of their wealthy benefactors.

    Such has always been the way that power remains in control. Hire the best minds that grasp the most effective ways to manipulate the masses and purpose them to undermine democracy and bend it to the will of the rich and powerful. It started with the town crier, moved to the paper press and has followed up with propaganda specifically targeted to individuals who are identified by their electronic internet profiles as individuals that can turn elections and referendums.

    Much of these customized “advertisements” designed to entice gullible voters were based on misinformation, disinformation and frankly lies. The content followed the propaganda principles of Joseph Goebbels who when asked to define German Propaganda stated that propaganda was anything which suported the State (government) and was not anything that did not.

    Goebbels admission clearly left truth out of the equation and justified lies as a legitimate tool of the state when used for its own purposes. Today, we have come to the current condition of the internet which is completely available for those who will say and do anything to win at every cost.

    The electoral outcomes of such a media state have revealed that the weaponizing of social media frely available on the internet is the newest and most effective way to propagandize the masses.

    Thomas Jefferson claimed that a democracy can only be maintained by a well informed citizenry. The opposite of that is that a population fed with propaganda shall not retain its democracy for long. This has been witnessed before to the great detriment of free society specifically in WWII in Europe and elsewhere all over the planet for the entirety of modern history.

    Brexit cannot be correctly understood without the understanding that hackers of the modern means of communication have found powerful ways to infiltrate the minds of the vulnerable members of society and turn their opinions into actions at the polls.

    The current battle as it unfolds is all about those in government that realize the ways power seeks to win the debate despite the general knowledge now known by most that ew are being manipulated which has pitted those on both sides in a determined battle to swing the government to one side supported by the manipulators and the other side that knows it is being manipulated and does not like it.

    Brexit is nothing more than a battle for control of the nation by the extremely wealthy that have ammased an armada of tools for manipulating the voters for their own selfish purposes and the members of the government that are keenly aware of the rouse and can see it clearly and therefore oppose it.

    The hardball game of manipulation and resistance to manipulation has high stakes and there is no doubt that the Brexit proponents have more tricks up their sleeves. It has yet to become a fight that one side or the other can claim victory. It will likely not be resolved anytime soon.

  14. Joe Tedesky
    September 25, 2019 at 22:49

    Very informative article and one which gives me more insight into how this Brexit event in the UK may turn out. I actually believe that this Brexit is a beginning where the UK leaves the EU and then forms a Anglo Sphere between it’s Five Eye Nations. In fact given all the similarities between these old English Empire countries like the use of the English language it almost to me at least seems like a no brainer that they will unite under a one Anglo Sphere coalition.

    See “Alternate History: What If The English-Speaking World United?” on YouTube.

  15. TEP
    September 25, 2019 at 21:58

    PM Johnson is not pushing for a no deal per se, he just (rightly & logically) states that being able to walk away from any deal you are being offered is essential because without that you can not have a negotiation at all. John Wight, who clearly favours the UK remaining in the EU, continues to skirt around the fundamental reasons why a pro-Brexit population is being outrageously treated with contempt by a pro-Remain parliament. The post supreme court analysis by George Galloway touches on this directly, and the quoted section in particular:-

    “It is a parliament overwhelmingly “Remain” at heart which gradually recovered its confidence to frustrate the electorate. Its confidence was richly boosted by the support of the richest people in the land (indeed the world – everyone from George Soros to the American banks have had their “tuppence-worth”), the deep state, the EU itself, the financial sector (virtually unanimously), international capital (as opposed to the much smaller “national bourgeoisie”) and most of the printed media and all of the broadcast media. A cacophony of clamour to stop Brexit by hook or by crook has steadily grown and the court case is merely a part of this.”

    • ML
      September 26, 2019 at 15:44

      But TEP, doesn’t it seem that a hard Brexit will surely destroy what is left of the working class who voted for it? With the Trump administration shouting from the balconies to let Johnson have his no-deal Brexit, it seems to me this will only spell deepest despair and more of a race to the bottom when the U.S./U.K. gets its free-market chops on your National Health Service, for example. Yikes. Perhaps it’s better to remain and re-deal with concessions to the working classes, than to have rapacious capitalist neoliberalism devour what is left of your social safety net? Because I fear that is exactly what will be coming down the pike for you folks. It’s sure not pretty over here on this side of the pond, I can tell you that… “Get sick and die, why don’t ya?” is our healthcare model here in the thoroughly oligarchical USA.

  16. Tom Kath
    September 25, 2019 at 20:10

    Yes John, the divide is now clearly globalism/nationalism, multi cultural/cultural, borders/borderless. This divides both Labour and Conservative, which are now secondary priorities in identifying yourself.
    This shift in fundamental priorities is evident not only in UK. – The same polarisation along “new” lines also explains the Trump phenomenon.

    • michael
      September 26, 2019 at 18:03

      Or maybe the divide is the Top 1%, the Establishment Global Elite who run the world, and the other 99%, who long for a time when their work was somewhat rewarded, appreciated, respected.

  17. Sam F
    September 25, 2019 at 19:57

    Thanks for this marvelous article, a dramatized glimpse of British politics. Like sportscasting where the outcome matters.

    Marx’ “History repeats, the first as tragedy, then as farce” applies in parallel to Afghanistan, where multiple failed British invasions of the 19th century to root out Russians who were not there, were repeated as tragedy in the US setting of the AlQaeda trap there for the USSR which still did not have imperial ambitions, and repeated again as farce when the US walked into its own trap there after 9/11. But we do progress, as with the Skripals and DNC emails, as we no longer need Afghanistan to blame domestic problems on the Russians.

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