Is Boris Johnson the death of Britain’s democracy?

Britain is a mess again. On Wednesday, Boris Johnson, the new prime minister, moved to suspend the country’s Parliament between mid-September and mid-October, a process known as “prorogation.” It is not, in itself, abnormal for Parliament to take a break, especially following a change in leadership; Johnson and his allies insist that a reset is needed to breathe life into their legislative agenda. But these are not normal times. As things stand, Britain will tumble out of the European Union without an exit deal on October 31, and crash into disastrous economic consequences. By suspending Parliament, Johnson has reduced his opponents’ ability to legislate against such an outcome. In other words, he’s running out the clock to increase the odds that Brexit will finally, actually happen, deal or no deal.

The liberal media met Johnson’s gambit with howls of outrage. It was a constitutional crisis, we were told, and nothing less than a coup. At home, the editorial board of the Financial Times, not normally the left-wing firebrand’s newspaper of choice, said that Johnson had “detonated a bomb under the constitutional apparatus of the United Kingdom” and called on Parliament to throw out his government. Those sentiments were echoed in Europe’s media, including Deutsche Welle, a public broadcaster in Germany, which assailed “Boris the dictator.” The United States joined the panic: under the headline “Boris Johnson is taking British democracy to the brink,” Ishaan Tharoor, of The Washington Post, wrote that the suspension of Parliament “offers more evidence that the West’s oldest and most respected democracies are not immune to the dangerous impulses facing younger democracies elsewhere”; in The Atlantic, Yascha Mounk called it “the most blatant assault on democracy in Britain’s living memory, and one of the most serious any Western country has faced in this populist era.” There were even comparisons to Nazi Germany; in 2019, Godwin’s Law is one you can never seem to suspend.

ICYMI: Op-Ed: Bernie Sanders on his plan for journalism

Britain’s conservative publications (several of which used to employ Johnson) painted talk of a coup as hysterical gibberish. The crux of their argument—that there’s nothing to see here—is disingenuous. But some of their points have merit: Parliament was scheduled to break anyway, to allow political parties to hold their annual conventions, and as things stand it will still have time to block a “no-deal” Brexit, should a majority of lawmakers want that. Some commentators on the Left made similar points: in The New Statesman, Stephen Bush wrote that, on close inspection, Johnson’s move “isn’t as significant or as game-changing as it looks.” It’s as likely that Johnson is trying to tee up national elections as a no-deal Brexit.

Suspending a country’s legislature at a time of crisis is deeply cynical, at best, and Johnson’s motives merit intense scrutiny. But the more panicked responses overlook the nuances of the decision, and Johnson’s right to make it. “The irony is that the UK parliamentary system has always been praised for its flexibility and pragmatism. Boris Johnson is simply exploiting that flexibility to break a political log-jam,” Charlie Beckett, a media professor at the London School of Economics, tells me in an email. “Those of us who oppose his policies cry foul but he’s not actually breaking any fundamental rules, it’s more that he is ignoring precedent and stretching conventions to breaking point. In the partisan atmosphere of Brexit that means everyone is treating policies as principles and claiming divine, or at least, constitutional authority.”

Many articles about Johnson’s move rightly highlighted the problems behind it: the inability of British politicians to broker compromise; the flimsiness of cherished norms; and the prime minister’s slender mandate, since he was installed by fewer than 100,000 members of his ruling party, not the public at large. But to read the week’s events as a despotic subversion of a healthy, best-in-class democracy is off the mark; in truth, Johnson is exploiting an atrophying political system that seems increasingly incapable of representing the will of its voters.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

We could yet see a despotic subversion: on Wednesday, BuzzFeed’s Alex Wickham reported that Johnson is weighing genuinely dangerous maneuvers to ram Brexit through, such as simply ignoring any Brexit-delaying laws passed by Parliament. This week’s play was an order of magnitude less serious than that. The frenzied reaction recalls Maggie Haberman’s line about coverage of Trump—that treating everything like a four-alarm fire makes it harder to flag true emergencies. Brexit may yet burn Britain’s democracy. For now, let’s keep some perspective.

Below, more on Boris Johnson and Brexit:


Other notable stories:

  • Breaking this morning: China refused to renew the press credentials of Chun Han Wong, a Wall Street Journal reporter who wrote recently that Australian officials are investigating possible money laundering by a cousin of Xi Jinping, China’s president. Chun’s expulsion, the Post reports, amounts to “the first time in recent memory that the Chinese government has effectively turfed out a reporter from the Journal, a publication generally known for incisive but evenhanded coverage of the country.”
  • Hurricane Dorian is on its way. The storm mostly spared Puerto Rico but now has Florida in its sights; it could hit the state as a Category 4 hurricane early next week. Dorian is already attracting a great deal of media attention, yet its path and likely effects are still unclear. Eric Berger writes for Ars Technica that the forecast for Dorian is a mess: “Hurricane-track forecasting has gotten pretty good over the last couple of decades,” Berger writes. “However, there are still outlier storms that are difficult to forecast, and Hurricane Dorian is definitely one of those cases.”
  • Yesterday, on Fox News Radio, Jeanine Pirro echoed the white-supremacist “great replacement” theory; she spoke of “a plot to remake America, to replace American citizens with illegals that will vote for the Democrats.” Trump was also on Fox News Radio yesterday. Brian Kilmeade asked the president to clarify his recent comments attacking the network—Trump had tweeted that Fox “isn’t working for us anymore,” seemingly because it had a Democrat on—but did not press very hard for a real answer. On TV, another Fox host, Neil Cavuto, was less forgiving. He ripped into Trump in a monologue: “Mr. President, we don’t work for you. I don’t work for you,” he said.
  • This week, the Post’s Fact Checker column called Bernie Sanders’s claim that medical bills bankrupt 500,000 people per year “mostly false,” awarding it “three Pinocchios.” Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson counters that Sanders’s statement was “basically true,” and may even have been an underestimate. The Post’s verdict, he writes, was unreasonably nitpicky: “To dole out Pinocchios for a good faith effort to translate public health data into a stump speech is journalistically obtuse.” ICYMI, Ana Marie Cox, CJR’s public editor for the Post, wrote recently that the paper’s Trump fact checks are futile.
  • Fallout continues from Lawrence O’Donnell’s thinly sourced—and subsequently retracted—claim that Russians co-signed Trump’s loans. The Post’s Erik Wemple accuses O’Donnell of “mocking the core idea” of journalism; “Is such a fellow fit to host an MSNBC program?” he asks. And Variety’s Brian Steinberg writes that the controversy exposes the perils of the longer-term shift from anchors to firebrands on cable news.
  • Another story from Steinberg: Disney is making cuts at the National Geographic unit, which it acquired from 21st Century Fox. Some of the unit’s functions will move elsewhere in the company; as many as 80 staffers could be laid off. National Geographic magazine will continue to publish, but the US editions of National Geographic Traveler will not.
  • Digiday’s Max Willens asked staffers at eight digital publications how recent moves to unionize have changed their workplaces. “Like nearly everything else in digital media—programmatic, video, subscriptions—unions are no panacea,” Willens concludes. “What they have done, according to those at newly unionized shops, is change the frenetic nature of these businesses as they mature.”
  • Monday marked two years since Christopher Allen, a British-American journalist, was killed by government forces in South Sudan. For CJR, Jeremy Bliss, Allen’s cousin, writes that both Britain and America have stalled in their efforts to seek answers about Allen’s death. “The UK Foreign Office and the US State Department repeat the same tired lines about their inability to investigate possible crimes on foreign soil,” Bliss writes.
  • And a judge asked Twitter to identify the users behind Devin Nunes’s Cow and Devin Nunes’s Mom, parody accounts that the real Devin Nunes, a Republican Congressman from California, is suing for defamation. Twitter usually pushes back on such requests; it’s not clear what it plans to do this time. Kate Irby has more for The Sacramento Bee.

ICYMI: Covering Climate Now signs on over 170 news outlets

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.