Donald Trump attacking the validity of the United States constitution is as grisly as it is inevitable. Trump has never accepted he was voted out of the Presidency and now that he has faced up to the fact he is unlikely to be re-elected is now trying to destroy the fundamentals of US democracy itself.
He is, and always has been, a menace to his own country and America’s pre-eminent global role in the stability of world order. That world order is too finely balanced, too fragile, for us to be sanguine in the United Kingdom about the outcome of the next Presidential election in the United States.
In China, Iran and Russia – three of the biggest countries that top the list of current concern – people do not have the freedom to choose who governs them. Each of these countries presents a growing concern to the West, and each one is facing bigger internal challenges of their own making. In China, President Xi has bent the Chinese constitution to fix a third term in office as President for himself. Now he finds growing internal resistance to his Covid policies through growing public protests leading him to change tack. A sign of political weakness.
In Iran the morality police, so long a key part of the Iranian constitutional set-up, find themselves being disbanded because of growing popular resistance. A sign of political weakness. Russia finds itself embroiled in a nasty and brutal war of its own making on its own doorstep which it is losing on the ground and in the court of world opinion. The war and the tactics that Russia is resorting to are both signs of President Putin’s weakness. It often does not seem like it but it’s a bad time to be a dictator.
In the end democracy and freedom will always win because no society can prosper and grow with the suffocating demands and rigidity dictatorship demands. No individual willingly submits to being pushed around, brutalised and constrained.
Free elections allow people to vote for change or more of the same. They can choose. Knowing you have regular elections enables people to work for the political party of their choice to succeed, even if they lose this time around. The prospect of change is an invigorating prospect.
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In Britain we are used to the stability of our democratic process and institutions. Perhaps we have become too used to the stability they bring and the freedoms they safeguard but our Parliamentary democracy is a precious thing. Allied to the rule of law and with our independent and non-political judiciary, we have a system that provides us all with a protection that we should guard jealously. In our own country though we have not been immune to threats to our processes and institutions. They are not as crude and as thuggish as elsewhere, but we need to be on our guard nevertheless.
The fundamental tenet of our Parliamentary system, of our democracy, is that a government must be able to carry the confidence of a majority of Members of Parliament. If it cannot then it falls and we have a General Election. David Cameron’s Fixed Term Parliament Act was a crude attempt to ensure a weak government could not fall. In practice it mattered little until the government of Theresa May. That government could not pass its core legislation yet the FTPA meant it could not be forced from office. For too long the country staggered on with a government Parliament could not remove. FTPA was a direct attack on our democracy and the government of Boris Johnson, rightly, abolished it. Nothing like it should ever be permitted again.
Referendums are antithetical to our Parliamentary democracy. They are not simply undesirable. Referendums dangerously undermine the authority and sovereignty of Parliament. We send MPs to Westminster to make decisions. That’s what we pay them to do. We should not allow them to dodge that fundamental responsibility. When we were told that the Brexit referendum was an “instruction” to Parliament to deliver Brexit a shiver of fear should have gone down all of our spines. Our forbears cut off a King’s head to stop him trying to boss Parliament around. If Parliament is not doing the things we want it to do then we should elect different Members to it, but we should never permit referendums again. It’s our Parliament and we should as jealously protect its authority as much as we should expect MPs to do their job.
Another lesser, but in its way no less insidious, threat is the argument that the leader of a winning party has a personal mandate to govern. We elect parties not individuals. The name of the leader of a party is on the ballot paper of only one constituency. Unless they are members of a political party, and most people are not, then very few people will have had any hand in choosing the leader of the winning party. We do not have a presidential but a prime ministerial system of government. No one person has an individual mandate to be Prime Minister. We might want to change the system so we can, but that is another argument for another time. It is to try and undermine our democratic process to argue that this or that individual has a personal mandate.
These are the biggest, but not the only, examples of how our own democracy, our own constitution and institutions, have themselves been undermined in recent times. We are not immune to the frustrations and sense of disempowerment that have driven populist politics in the US and across continental Europe, as well as India and Australia. We can be pleased that despite huge counter-pressures Parliament has worked well. The despatch of no less than four Prime Ministers in recent years shows that when a critical mass of MPs loses confidence in a Prime Minister then out they go. We can debate the politics of each despatch of individual. We can argue about what is going on in the Conservative Party. It is though the loss of Parliamentary confidence in a Prime Minister that means they were heaved out of No 10.
All this is much more than just an exercise academic political or democratic theory. A general election is now on the horizon once again. The political parties have moved into election mode. We have seen enough political division in our country, whether it is between Scotland and England, Brexiteers and Remainers, the north and the south, to last us all several life-times. Our recent politics has done a very efficient job at dividing us, at pushing us away from one another. We have been invited to be sceptical about our politics and our politicians, to be cynical about the civil service, to pour contempt on the legal system, to think ill about why people might want to live here, to mock our continental cousins. It’s politically productive, that’s why politicians do it. Does it deliver though the kind of politics we all want and need? That, in the end, is in the hands of each one of us. To take an interest in, to vote and to be a candidate is the responsibility of and opportunity for all of us.