How We Lose Democracy

Photo by Randy Colas on Unsplash

It doesn’t start with tanks rolling through the streets or jackbooted soldiers on the front lawn.

You’re unlikely to go to sleep in a democracy and wake up under an authoritarian dictatorship.

Instead, the erosion of democracy is a slow burn. So slow, you might not even notice as you go about your day-to-day life.

This has been noted in Donald Trump’s United States, with the president openly musing about refusing to accept the result of the 2020 election should he lose — and the idea that he could be “president for life” — and hammering the media as the enemy of the people on a daily basis.

Brexit and the slow death of democracy

It could happen in Britain, too. The Brexit crisis that has hamstrung the country since the controversial referendum in 2016 has already seen off two Prime Ministers and a third could follow. Or… he could refuse to go. Current incumbent Boris Johnson has hitched his wagon to the “hard Brexit” star and has pledged to come out of the EU at the end of October “do or die”.

The only problem (leaving aside the crippling economic problems Johnson’s favoured “no deal” exit would bring)?

Doing so will soon be illegal.

The ins and outs can be complex (particularly if you don’t follow our politics closely) but the headline is that a group of MPs in Parliament put forward a bill to force the PM to ask for another Brexit extension should a deal with the EU not be struck by the 19th of October. This bill became law — Johnson did not help his fight against this by torpedoing his party’s already slim majority by expelling several Conservative MPs who voted against him over whether or not Parliament should take control of the government’s agenda.

Johnson has publicly promised that he will not, under any circumstances, ask for an extension. Many wondered if he might resign instead, but recently journalists have been briefed that he won’t do that, either.

What he wants (and needs, given he is governing with no majority in Parliament) is an election. But the lack of a majority is hindering him there, too. In order to get what would be an early election, he needs enough MPs to vote for it — meaning he needs opposition members on board. Unfortunately for him, his untrustworthiness is so legendary that they fear he would delay the election until after the country crashes out of the EU.

Is it a coup?

So where does that leave him and the country?

It leaves a Prime Minister who, in a few weeks, could be breaking the law. He could, effectively, be squatting in 10 Downing Street. He could be a Prime Minister without the confidence of the house of commons, but who can’t get an election called. He’s already seen thousands of protesters march through London and other cities chanting “stop the coup” and had his own speeches interrupted by chanting.

Oh, and that’s before even mentioning his plan to prorogue (suspend) the sitting of parliament for five weeks in the midst of the biggest crisis in modern British history.

The new normal

And so we return to the slow decline of democracy.

Authoritarian leaders make the abnormal, the unconstitutional, even the illegal seem normal. Johnson is justifying his suspension of Parliament on the grounds that it is business as usual for a new leader. He claims there is nothing unusual about expelling MPs for voting against him (even though he had previous form for voting against Theresa May, his predecessor). And breaking the law and refusing to resign? Why, he’s just carrying out the “will of the people” against an obstructive and undemocratic Parliament. That’s how he’ll spin it, anyway.

If he succeeds — if he remains in situ with no majority, if he ignores the law and gets the disruptive “no deal” Brexit he craves — then we have a new normal.

Future governments may have no qualms about suspending a Parliament when it is not in their favour, or may simply ignore laws they don’t like.

Maybe Johnson truly believes that this proto-authoritarianism is necessary and in the national interest. Or maybe not. But either way, he’s setting a dangerous precedent. Because this is how we lose democracy. The tanks aren’t rolling through the streets, because they don’t need to — Johnson doesn’t need to kill democracy, he can just sit by and watch it slowly die.

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David is an author and freelance writer. He has two short story collections available, and his non-fiction work has appeared on The Mighty, WhatCulture and Just Football, among others.

Navigating parenting with a disability and trying to write a novel. Email:

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