Boiling frogs on the road to authoritarianism
The Prime Minister is now his own judge and jury
Put a frog into boiling water and it will jump out. They have fantastic jumping skills. Put a frog into tepid water and bring it to a boil slowly and it won’t spot the peril until it’s too late.
The boiling frog syndrome is a myth. Frogs are not stupid. They’re said to be the world’s smartest amphibians. But the boiling frog is as good a metaphor as any for apathy at a time when our civil liberties and our ability to hold those who govern us to account are remorselessly eroded.
Flush with its victory in 2019 this Tory government has slowly turned up the heat on anybody and everybody who wishes to test its policies and its arguments whether in parliament or the courts or in public debate.
The latest and arguably the most shocking example of this slide towards elected dictatorship/authoritarianism/absolutism - call it what you will- is the new ministerial code published the day after Sue Gray’s damning Partygate report on the failure of leadership in Number 10.
This is Caesar, all-powerful, untouchable, giving the thumbs up or down.
It removes the last certain sanction, between elections, to oust a sitting Prime Minister who breaks the law or lies to parliament or, as in the case of the present incumbent, both.
Ministers – and that includes the Prime Minister - found guilty of breaking the ministerial code will henceforth no longer automatically be expected to resign. It is not, the PM has decided “proportionate”.
Under the new dispensation the Prime Minister is the law: prosecutor, jury and judge. Offenders will be scrutinised only at the Prime Minister’s pleasure and sanctioned only if he deems fit. This is Caesar, all-powerful, untouchable, giving the thumbs up or down. Hubris or megalomania?
It is no coincidence that this latest power grab comes as Boris Johnson faces scrutiny by the House of Commons privileges committee, a cross-party group of MPs who will determine whether he lied to parliament in his account of the Partygate scandal.
This ruse is designed to save Johnson’s skin as more Tory MPs call for his resignation. But it is much more than that. To understand why you need to grasp two things:
- First that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is a uniquely powerful figure protected by an unwritten constitution which gives the incumbent sweeping powers especially if he has a large Commons majority.
There is no more striking example of this imperial power - the Royal Prerogative- than the decision to go to war. Seeking parliamentary approval is merely a convention and a recent one at that. Only the sovereign, and therefore the Prime Minister, has the legal right to go to war. A vote was held before we invaded Iraq but not before the Falklands war.
This, it goes without saying, requires the electorate to trust their leaders. Once that trust is broken, as former Tory Prime Minister John Major says, our politics is broken.
- Second this latest move comes on top of a relentless strategy to boost the power of the executive, curb the influence of parliament and the courts, restrict the right to protest, make it harder to vote, suborn the electoral commission, hobble journalists working with whistle blowers and, as if that were not enough, breach international law.
Diehard Johnson fans argue that if you oppose his policies you do so because you opposed Brexit and therefore democracy. This absurd non sequitur suggests we can’t hold two opposing thoughts in our mind at the same time. It also epitomises the boiling frog mentality.
We are now so obsessively partisan in Britain that we are immune to reasoned argument. It’s a form of tribalism which makes normal political discourse virtually impossible. It’s like an Arsenal fan detesting Tottenham Hotspur just because they’re, well, Spurs.
Britain, the things we fought for, the values we cherish, is a delicately balanced weave of rights and obligations only made possible by the freedom to choose, to oppose, to persuade and to change our mind. A lie does not set you free. Nor does a chokehold.
And freedom, like justice, is or should be blind, oblivious to race, or creed or political affiliation. Your freedom this time will be mine next and vice versa. If you restrict, say, your political opponent’s ability to vote if they do not have the right paperwork, then, under a different government, it could be you who is turned away at the polling station.
Giving the Prime Minister the right, in effect, to decide if he’s committed a sacking offence is like allowing the police or the army to judge their own or the CBI to decide if a corporation should be prosecuted for fraud or corporate manslaughter.
Vladimir Putin can do what he likes without (so far) fear of losing his job. He is not accountable to anyone other than his cronies and his personal FSB detachment. Johnson is accountable but he too seems to able to do what he likes. Now more than ever.
Democracy is more than just the ballot box every few years. It is a complex and shifting beast. It is cumbersome, infuriating and sometimes hopeless. But it’s all we’ve got. It’s the best we’ve got as way of living our lives free of fear and free to live it as we wish.
It depends for its proper functioning on certain principles we all sign up to the most important being my obligation to hear you out however much I may disagree with what you say or what you stand for.
This prime minister, for all his talk of delivering on the people’s priorities, is slowly unravelling these rights like a worn sweater, thread by precious thread. The problem is that not enough people are feeling the heat - yet.