Democracy Is Also Being Challenged in Great Britain

Democracy Is Also Being Challenged in Great Britain


Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.


For the past several years many observers have suggested that democracy in America is under serious challenge. This has been especially true since President Trump has taken control of the Presidency and the Republican Party. It has become clear that more and more democracies around the world appear to be selecting authoritarian leaders or presidents or prime ministers who are prepared to stretch the historical rules of governing to their legal limit. The situation is most acute at the moment in Great Britain.

The future relationship of the United Kingdom vis-à-vis the European Union remains uncertain at this time. With the selection of Boris Johnson as the Conservative Party Prime Minister to replace Theresa May, the new Prime Minister has presented his country a set of decisions which constitute a serious challenge to the future fate of democracy in the U.K. The political and parliamentary—as well as legal—maneuvering which are expected to occur over the next several weeks or months could well produce a very different Britain than the one to which the world has grown accustomed.

The actions that Prime Minister Johnson has instituted since he took at the end of July, are not illegal. Following a strategy reportedly designed by his chief political adviser, Dominic Cummings, Johnson has proceeded to move full speed ahead to meet the October 31 deadline of a Brexit deal or Great Britain will leave the E.U. This is a position which Johnson has championed since the June 2016 referendum, when the British people authorized the May Government to withdraw from the European Union.

It should be clear from the outset that the use of a referendum to determine public policy in the English Parliamentary system is highly unusual. There have been only two prior referenda held in British history in 1975 and 2011. Under British law the national referendum functions as a recommendation for the Government and the Parliament. The people do not have the power to dictate any policy, although a referendum is usually seen as an advisory recommendation of the will of the people.

The 2016 Brexit referendum did not indicate how Britain was to leave the E.U.; presumably leaving that to be determined by the Government and Parliament. After three arduous years of debate as well as a national election, Johnson has now decided that he will lead Great Britain out of the E.U. on terms negotiated or Britain with withdraw without terms on October 31.

The Prime Minister has now moved to pressure the Parliament into acceding to his will, or voting no-confidence in his Government, or forcing a new election. In addition, he does not want to face a legal fight in the Courts–which have never ever faced this type of legal question. Furthermore, Johnson does not want to lose an election; does want to address the distinct possibility that Scotland may opt to secede from Great Britain; nor to consider the possibility that his one vote margin in the current Parliament may disintegrate by internal resentment within his own Conservative Party. There is a strong likelihood, therefore, that Britain will have an election the results of which are unpredictable.

The problem with all this political, parliamentary, and even royal maneuvering is that it is largely based on a very serious determination by the new Prime Minister to make a major power grab. He may not be abusing power in the American sense, but he certainly is pushing the boundaries of English democracy—which does not have a constitution—to determine limits. He is challenging the behavioral norms of a very tradition based parliamentary system. In addition, the Prime Minister recognizes that his major opposition party, Labour, is itself in disarray.  Jeremy Corbyn is dealing with dissension within his own party as well as disfavor in the country.

Johnson, no doubt, has observed the growing number of democratically elected rulers who are seeking to maintain the control of their Governments by challenging the Parliament and people to act. He is engaged in challenging the will of the people against the decisions of the Government and the Parliament. Johnson is determined to succeed by frightening the people of the consequences if he fails.



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