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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:02 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Taverne Lord Taverne Liberal Democrat 8:02 pm, 8th January 2020

My Lords, I believe that we are too ready to ignore some real present dangers to democracy. Johnson is of course no Hitler, but there are disturbing signs that he does not understand some of the basic elements of democracy, and we have no idea what we may stumble into. Certainly, neither Johnson nor the bulk of the present Conservative party—let alone the most influential figure in the party today, Dominic Cummings—seems to grasp the danger to democracy of a Government who lie. Nor do they care a hoot about parliamentary democracy, which has been the rock on which British democracy has traditionally been based.

Johnson clearly does not believe in the importance of scrutiny by Parliament of government policy, as he showed in his attempt to prorogue Parliament, which in the event was foiled by that bastion of our liberties, the Supreme Court. Ominously, he has announced that we should re-examine the role of the Supreme Court in its relations with Parliament, because he seems to regard the court as an undemocratic obstacle to what in his opinion may be important government policy.

Now that he has a majority, he can also sweep aside any obstacles created by inquisitorial MPs, such as those who passed the Hilary Benn Act, which he tried to invalidate. Furthermore, Johnson has encouraged a general campaign against experts and elites, especially against politicians who seek to question the people’s will as expressed in the 2016 referendum, which it seems is inviolate, however much circumstances may have changed.

In fact, one of the most dangerous developments in our politics today is the constant invocation of “the will of the people”. All democracies start with the proposition that Governments should govern in accordance with the wishes of the people, but that proposition is not unqualified. As Locke maintained, it must be subject to the rule of law and the rights of minorities and of the individual. Furthermore, because of the complexities of government, Burke argued that MPs should not be delegates who vote as instructed by some outside body but representatives who take account of majority wishes but exercise their own judgment after hearing the argument and evidence. Without those qualifications, “the will of the people” becomes an extremely useful term for autocrats.

Today it is commonplace to hear any qualification to the need to obey “the will of the people” as a denial of democracy. But that is the creed of Rousseau, the hero of Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety. and of almost any autocrat since, from Mussolini and Hitler to Erdoğan today. The Conservative Party seems to have swallowed Rousseau hook, line and sinker and forgotten its own history. Exit Locke and Burke; MPs must now be delegates, no longer representatives.

We may soon find ourselves in very dangerous territory. Suppose, as is far from impossible, that no substantial progress has been made in the difficult negotiations for a free trade agreement by the statutory deadline at the end of this year. We may indeed end up after all with a no-deal Brexit and a situation of chaos. Only today, Mr Boris Johnson has announced that he is happy to leave without a free trade agreement. No doubt the lie machine will get to work to prove that failure is in fact a famous victory, but people may finally decide that this is not what they were promised. If so, it will of course all be the fault of Europeans, civil servants or other elite enemies of the people, but especially obstructive parliamentarians, an easy target for blame in the present political mood. It will be an ugly world. There is perhaps more than just a whiff of Weimar in the air.