British Prime Minister Johnson's Critics Say He's Undermining Democratic Institutions

Nov 26, 2019
Originally published on November 27, 2019 11:44 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Critics of President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson say the men share something in common. Both Trump and Johnson, they charge, are undermining democratic institutions in their countries. In September, Johnson tried to shut down parliament in the run up to a major Brexit decision, and Trump has called some of the constitution phony. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London on how both leaders are testing the checks on their power.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: In September, Boris Johnson asked the Queen's permission to suspend or prorogue Britain's parliament for five weeks, saying he needed time to prepare his legislative agenda. But opposition lawmakers said Johnson just wanted to stop them from scrutinizing his Brexit strategy. That's how Justice Brenda Hale of the U.K. Supreme Court seemed to see it when she rejected Johnson's argument and reversed his decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRENDA HALE: The prime minister's advice to Her Majesty was unlawful, void and of no effect.

LANGFITT: Johnson said the suspension was beyond the court's purview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: And it is absolutely no disrespect to the judiciary to say I think the court was wrong to pronounce on what is essentially a political question.

LANGFITT: Across the pond, President Trump has dismissed various attempts to check his power, including the impeachment inquiry. This is how CBS News covered it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: In a letter to top congressional Democrats, the president's White House counsel called their inquiry unconstitutional and said Mr. Trump will not cooperate.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don't know how you can impeach somebody who's done a great job. I'll tell you what. If I ever got impeached, I think the market would crash.

LANGFITT: Many scholars on both sides of the Atlantic say Trump and Johnson portray themselves as instruments of the people's will against what they describe as obstructive institutions. Tim Bale teaches politics at London's Queen Mary University.

TIM BALE: They are pitting the people against the elites. They are representing themselves as the tribune of the people against those elites. So any institution which stands in the way is open to legitimate criticism.

LANGFITT: For instance, Brexiteers say Johnson isn't the problem, but the solution, to a parliament they say is trying to foil Brexit. Geoffrey Cox is Britain's attorney general.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEOFFREY COX: This parliament is a dead parliament.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Yeah.

COX: It should no longer sit.

LANGFITT: Trump's supporters go even further, saying the Russia investigation was an attempt to overturn the 2016 election. Here's former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Fox Business.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEWT GINGRICH: It was, in effect, an attempted coup to defeat the duly elected president of the United States on the part of the deep state.

LANGFITT: Both Trump and Johnson rode protest votes to power, targeting the political establishments in Washington and London that their supporters see as out of touch. Both have used incendiary language to denigrate those who challenge them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: A few days ago, I called the fake news the enemy of the people, and they are.

LANGFITT: When British lawmakers moved to block Johnson from crashing the U.K. out of the European Union, the prime minister responded with this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: There is only one way, Mr. Speaker, to describe this deal. It is Jeremy Corbyn's surrender bill.

LANGFITT: To British ears, accusing the leader of the opposition of surrendering to the EU echoed the language of World War II and the U.K.'s battle against the Nazis, language many lawmakers see as dangerous. This is Paula Sherriff with the opposition Labour Party.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAULA SHERRIFF: With many of us in this place subject to death threats and abuse every single day - and let me tell the prime minister that they often quote his words - surrender act, betrayal...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes, they do.

SHERRIFF: ...Traitor. And I, for one, am sick of it.

JOHNSON: I have to say, Mr. Speaker, I've never heard such humbug in all my life.

LANGFITT: Yascha Mounk is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of "The People Vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is In Danger And How to Save It." He says the prime minister carefully chooses his words for their political effect.

YASCHA MOUNK: He insinuates that they are traitors or enemies of the people. He says that his party is the party of the people, and everybody else, apparently, is not truly part of the British people. So that's a way of delegitimizing dissent.

LANGFITT: Mounk says similar factors help explain the rise of Trump and Johnson in these old, stable democracies as well as the rise of populism in other countries such as Italy and Hungary.

MOUNK: A stagnation of living standards for ordinary citizens, rapid cultural and, in many countries, demographic transformations which are leading to a rebellion, especially amongst people who feel that their status in society is increasingly being challenged.

LANGFITT: Mounk says the system of checks and balances in the United States faces greater threat right now.

MOUNK: Boris Johnson, at the moment, is more popular, but I think his attacks on institutions are limited so far to the topic of Brexit. Donald Trump is less popular and less strategic, but he is more willing to attack institutions in a fundamental way.

LANGFITT: But Tim Bale of Queen Mary University says it's the British system that's more vulnerable.

BALE: I think the fact that the president's term is time-limited and you have a written constitution, which implies rules that are more difficult to get around, means that the danger long-term is perhaps less than it is in the U.K.

LANGFITT: Both scholars say Johnson and Trump have already damaged the system of checks and balances in their respective countries. Mounk says it's up to opposition parties and citizens to use all the mechanisms available to fend off further attacks.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.