UK’s fight for democracy under Boris Johnson’s leadership: Resilient institutions, engaged citizens, and lessons for safeguarding democratic values.
In an era where democracy faces threats around the world, the United Kingdom has shown both resilience and vulnerability. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s tenure saw attempts to chip away at checks and balances, but the system fought back. A recent parliamentary committee report exposed Johnson’s lies to Parliament, leading to his resignation. This article explores the challenges faced by the UK’s democratic system, drawing parallels with global democratic struggles. It highlights Johnson’s actions, the resistance from institutions and citizens, and the importance of safeguarding democratic norms.
I. The Erosion of Democratic Norms
During his time in office, Boris Johnson sought to erode democratic norms, posing a threat to the UK’s democratic fabric. One of his notable attempts was to restrict public protests by proposing legislation that would limit the ability of citizens to exercise their right to peaceful assembly. Additionally, Johnson’s move to prorogue or suspend Parliament was seen as an effort to bypass scrutiny and push through his Brexit agenda without proper democratic debate.
Furthermore, Johnson’s administration attempted to sell off Channel 4, an independent media outlet known for its critical reporting. This move was seen by many as an attack on press freedom and an attempt to stifle dissenting voices. Weakening the powers of the Electoral Commission also raised concerns, as it undermined the transparency and accountability of the electoral process.
While Johnson’s actions were not as extreme as those of autocratic leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, they highlighted the importance of vigilance in safeguarding democratic principles. The cumulative effect of these attempts to undermine democratic norms is a cause for concern, as even small encroachments on democratic institutions can have lasting impacts.
II. The Battle for Freedom of Dissent
The arrest of peaceful protesters during the coronation of King Charles III shed light on the challenges to freedom of dissent in the UK. Under a controversial law introduced during Johnson’s administration, police were granted broad powers to detain individuals based on suspicion. This legislation raised concerns about its potential for abuse and its impact on the right to protest, a fundamental aspect of any democratic society.
The arrest of individuals planning to distribute signs critical of the monarchy underscored the need to protect the freedom of expression and assembly. Critics argued that the law gave disproportionate power to the police, eroding the trust between citizens and law enforcement and posing a threat to civil liberties.
Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, a member of the opposition Labour Party, highlighted the dangers of this law, characterizing it as a form of thought crime. She criticized the blanket power given to the police to stop and search individuals during protests, pointing out that it placed an undue burden on citizens and allowed for potential abuse of power.
The arrest of peaceful protesters exemplified the need to strike a balance between maintaining public order and upholding democratic principles. It served as a reminder that democracy requires the freedom to dissent, as it is through peaceful protest and the exchange of diverse ideas that societies can progress and address grievances.
III. The Vulnerability of the UK’s Political System
The UK’s political system, characterized by an absence of a written constitution or formal rules, relies heavily on the adherence to democratic norms. This reliance on “good chaps,” individuals who are expected to uphold democratic principles, leaves the system vulnerable to those who seek to exploit loopholes or ignore established norms.
Boris Johnson’s actions demonstrated the vulnerability of the UK’s political system to leaders who are willing to misbehave. His attempt to close down Parliament in an effort to prevent scrutiny of his Brexit bill was deemed “unlawful” by the Supreme Court, which reinstated the legislature. This clash between Johnson and the judiciary highlighted the importance of
independent institutions in safeguarding democracy.
Moreover, Johnson’s disregard for the truth, as exposed in the parliamentary committee report, raised concerns about the erosion of trust in political leaders. The report revealed that Johnson had misled Parliament on multiple occasions, undermining the principle of accountability. Such behavior not only erodes public trust but also weakens the democratic foundations of the country.
The absence of explicit constraints, such as a written constitution, underscores the importance of a strong culture of democratic values and the need for robust checks and balances. The episode with Johnson emphasized the fragility of the system when faced with leaders who prioritize personal or political gain over the principles of democracy.
IV. Institutions Standing Up to Johnson
Despite the challenges posed by Johnson’s attempts to erode democratic norms, the UK’s democratic institutions displayed resilience and pushed back against his actions.
The parliamentary committee’s report, which exposed Johnson’s lies to Parliament, demonstrated the power of institutional oversight and the accountability mechanisms in place. The report had significant implications, leading to Johnson’s resignation and underscoring the importance of honesty and integrity in public office.
The Supreme Court’s ruling that Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament was unlawful was a landmark moment for the UK’s democracy. The judiciary’s independence was crucial in ensuring that the rule of law prevailed and that executive power was not unchecked.
Furthermore, the Conservative Party, which Johnson once dominated, is now facing significant losses in the next election. This shift in public sentiment reflects the voters’ recognition of the importance of upholding democratic values and holding leaders accountable for their actions.
Citizens also played a vital role in resisting the erosion of democratic norms during Johnson’s tenure. Protests, both large and small, sprouted across the country in response to attempts to curtail democratic freedoms. Activist groups, civil society organizations, and grassroots movements rallied to protect democratic institutions and demand transparency and accountability.
V. Lessons for Democracy Worldwide
The UK’s experience under Boris Johnson’s leadership offers crucial lessons for democracies worldwide. First and foremost, it highlights the need for an engaged and vigilant citizenry. Democracy thrives when citizens actively participate in the political process, demand transparency from their leaders, and hold them accountable for their actions.
Secondly, the importance of robust and independent institutions cannot be overstated. The UK’s judiciary, parliamentary committees, and electoral bodies played a pivotal role in safeguarding democratic values during Johnson’s era. These institutions must be fortified and insulated from political interference to ensure their ability to uphold the rule of law and provide checks and balances.
Furthermore, the battle for democracy requires a long-term perspective. Upholding democratic norms and institutions is not a one-time effort but an ongoing struggle. It demands a commitment from citizens, leaders, and institutions to protect and strengthen democracy against threats both external and internal.
The UK’s struggle for democracy during Boris Johnson’s tenure serves as a poignant example of the challenges faced by democratic systems globally. The system’s ability to fight back against attempts to undermine checks and balances highlights the importance of engaged citizens and robust institutions. By learning from the UK’s experience, democracies worldwide can strengthen their defenses against autocratic tendencies and protect the fundamental principles of democracy. Preserving democratic norms and institutions is crucial in ensuring a resilient and thriving democratic system for future generations. Only through continuous vigilance and a collective commitment to democratic values can societies safeguard their democratic foundations and withstand threats to freedom and accountability.