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  • Peter Ramsay

Performative resistance: what Mason, Jones and Co are trying to teach the left

Remainer fury following Boris Johnson’s slightly longer than normal suspension of parliament was organised around the left’s idea that this was a coup or dictatorship in the making. Their rhetoric was quickly exposed as ridiculous when, within days, parliament met in the normal fashion, defeated the government in crucial votes and then refused to take up the government’s offer of a general election. Nevertheless both MPs and left-wing activists have persisted with the pantomime. It is important to have a clear understanding of what they are doing.

In a short article entitled ‘Performative prorogation: what Johnson, Cummings and Co are trying to teach the public’, Professor Jonathan White of the LSE’s School of Government attempted the daunting feat of providing a theoretical justification for the left’s talk of coups and dictatorship. White’s argument is interesting because in its one-sided interpretation of Johnson's actions it exposes the purpose of these melodramatics for Remainers generally and the left specifically.

White notes that: ‘The word “dictator” has been used a lot in past days, and for good reason.’ According to him, the justification for such language is that Johnson and Dominic Cummings are seeking to rely on Johnson’s ‘charismatic’ authority so as ‘to reshape the identity of executive power’. Their actions present ‘the separation of powers, checks on the executive, procedures and standards of conduct in public life’ as ‘just so much fluff’. The purpose of this ‘executive exceptionalism’ is to establish ‘a new normal’; to ‘teach the public that liberal democracy is a charade’; and ‘to promote a disenchanted vision’ among the population in which ‘the struggle for power is all’. He suggests that this educative ‘performance’ of ‘breaking of norms’ is at least as significant in the decision to prorogue than the instrumental aim of achieving any particular version of Brexit.

The clear message is that militant Remainers have not in fact lost all perspective. The claim is that democracy really is being undermined by a power-hungry populist who is seeking to normalise his right to decide what will happen in the name of the people without reference to constitutional norms. Recalling the fate of the Weimar Republic it appears is not histrionic exaggeration. Rather it is the public who are being manipulated (once again) by the machinations of Johnson and Cummings.

This is not a very convincing argument in its own terms. Far from amounting to a dictatorial demonstration of executive power, the government is plainly scheming to make the most of a weak hand in order to win a general election. With the prorogation, the PM goaded parliament into voting for more Brexit delay, after which he immediately invited his opponents to support a motion calling for an election so that the electorate could decide who is right about Brexit. The opposition then refused to back an election until Johnson, acting on their instructions, has blocked Brexit. In this way, Johnson has set the terms on which that election will eventually be fought, but now that he is legally required to do something he has said he will not do, his grip on executive power looks decidedly shaky.

White’s attribution of a dictatorial agenda to the prime minister overstates both Boris’s charisma and his strength of will. Any reputation that Johnson may have for decisiveness and ruthless politicking is unwarranted by his record. He dithered over whether to support Leave; developed no plan for victory in the referendum; failed to maintain the loyalty of Michael Gove at the crucial moment; dithered again over the Withdrawal Agreement, following David Davis out of May’s cabinet rather than leading a revolt. Johnson is an opportunist and a bluffer and his team are improvising. White’s gross overestimation of Johnson has been characteristic of left-wing thought throughout the Brexit process. It tells us little about Johnson but a lot about the left’s diminished sense of its own political agency.

White would have been closer to the truth if he had argued that one effect of the prorogue might be to create precedents for the aggrandisement of executive power over parliament. But even this argument without more would seriously distort political reality. The truth is that Johnson and Cummings are latecomers to the business of ‘teach[ing] the public that liberal democracy is a charade’. At worst, they can make only a minor contribution to promoting popular disenchantment or indeed to the expansion of executive power because their opponents, the ones shouting about dictatorial attacks on democracy, have already done the heavy lifting.

Having called for the referendum, the large majority of MPs promised in the 2017 election to implement the result. Despite these promises, a plurality of MPs have nevertheless promoted a second referendum, been unwilling to vote for May’s Withdrawal Agreement, opposed leaving on WTO terms, failed to agree on any other proposal and avoided bringing down a government that could not get its Brexit policy through parliament. By repeatedly delaying the leaving date while getting no closer to any exit route, it is MPs who have engaged in a political ‘charade’, undermining any democratic meaning that parliamentary procedures might once have had by using them to frustrate a popular decision that MPs themselves asked for. If promoting a disenchanted vision of democratic politics among the population really is Johnson and Cummings’ project then there is little left for them to do. Such a view has already been entrenched by years of parliamentary delinquency.

However, the one-sidedness in White’s account runs deeper. He is careful to point out that Johnson’s populist road is only one of the contemporary routes to the expansion of executive power at the expense of the legislature. The other is technocracy, in which decisions are removed from political influence through deference to ‘the demands of technical experts’. As an example of technocratic government, he offers the recent adherence to austerity policies across Europe mandated by bankers and economists. Nevertheless, he claims, ‘the British situation is different’. But is it?

There is a much more pertinent example of technocratic politics in the current context that he omits to mention: the British opposition parties’ refusal to countenance a ‘no deal’ Brexit because of the economic disaster that technical experts predict will follow. It is a striking omission because it evades the fact that any populist erosion of democracy is a reaction to the technocratic one. Those seeking to resist Johnson’s populism are the chief exponents of educating the public in the technocratic belief that democratic politics is impotent in the face of the markets. It is Remainer technocracy that calls forth Leaver populism, providing the latter with its opportunity and terms of reference.

In a subsequent version of the argument, published in the Guardian, White acknowledges the close relationship between technocratic and populist politics, and argues that populist assertions of executive power are no solution to the underlying problem. I agree. But here, White is using the general relationship between technocracy and populism to avoid the central issue of the day. Johnson’s ‘populist’ manoeuvres put the question of the accountability of parliament to the people front and centre, whatever his own motivations may be. Remain MPs’ resistance to those manoeuvres is a resistance to democratic accountability as such. White’s evasion is one shared by the Corbynite left, supporting parliament’s resistance to accountability under cover of their absurd claims of opposing Johnson’s ‘coup’. And this evasiveness is characteristic of the left’s wider approach to the EU, which brings us to the most profound one-sidedness in the argument.

White concludes by speculating that for the Johnson clique leaving the EU may not really be the point. Instead ‘Brexit is just the occasion, and the appeal of breaking with norms more intrinsic – a chance to reshape the identity of executive power, and with it our understanding of how politics works’. But even if that were true, it is Johnson’s opponents who are the more determined proponents of rule by executive decision, and what they propose has already been far more effective in institutionalising that form of rule.

Labour, Lib Dems, Greens and SNP are by their own account Remain parties. They are fighting to preserve Britain’s membership of the EU. The EU is a regime in which decisions made by both unelected European commissioners and by ministers of the British Crown (meeting in the EU’s secretive councils of ministers together with executive agents of other member states) automatically become law in the UK without reference to parliament. Decades of EU membership have done more to ‘reshape the identity of executive power’ to the detriment of parliamentary government than Boris Johnson ever will.

At this particular political moment, White’s focus on the elements of populist reaction, with only the most cursory nod to their political context, can have only one effect: to shift responsibility for both popular disenchantment with representative politics and the aggrandisement of the executive away from their primary sources—technocratic politics generally and the EU’s structural democratic deficit in particular—and on to their secondary sources. His argument may be threadbare but it is essential work if the Remain cause is to maintain its coherence. Remainers need to understand themselves as standing in the tradition of anti-fascism or they would be forced to admit to the essential antagonism between them and democracy.

For the Corbynite left the difficulty of Remain’s anti-democratic content is particularly pressing, and it is White’s headline that gives the game away. It is not Johnson’s prorogue that is a ‘performance’, but #StopTheCoup. It is a performance of resistance, the primary purpose of which is not to convince the wider public of anything. Its purpose is to convince the left themselves that they are still involved in radical politics. All the shouting about coups and dictatorships provides a lot of radical noise which covers the Corbynite left as it quietly abandons its socialist pretensions and falls into line with the Blairites, the Lib Dems and the FT, and with their technocratic promotion of executive power in the European Union. Paul Mason, Owen Jones and the rest are trying to teach the left that there is no alternative.

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