This week Britain’s cities are echoing to the sounds of crowds chanting “defend democracy” and “stop the coup.” On Twitter, #StopTheCoup has already trended. Meanwhile, opposition politicians are comparing the actions of new U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson to those of a dictator or autocrat.
The reason for this outrage is Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament for five weeks — a move that’s likely to force Britain into exiting the European Union without an agreement on how to do so smoothly, otherwise known as a “no-deal Brexit.” It is widely thought that this has been Johnson’s aim all along, but with only a working majority of one seat in Parliament — amidst cross-party plans to prevent a “no-deal Brexit” — the prime minister chose to invoke the arcane procedure of “proroguing” to cut short parliamentary time to try and get his way.
While proroguing isn’t unknown, and the government has claimed it is simply using the procedure to prepare a new set of policies to be announced in October, this will be the longest such suspension since 1945. With that in mind, the independent Hansard Society has described the move as an “affront to parliamentary democracy,” and the speaker (parliamentary chairperson) of the House of Commons has called it a “constitutional outrage.”
Those who have followed closely the struggles of movements against dictatorships across the world may be rightly wary in applying the term to the United Kingdom. In “Sharp’s Dictionary of Power and Struggle,” nonviolent theorist Gene Sharp defines a dictatorship as a system in which the position of ruler is occupied without constitutional limits, and without separation of powers, elections or civil liberties. With a legal challenge in the offing, a general election widely expected imminently and the sit-down protests outside Parliament for the most part passing off more-or-less peacefully, it would appear to be as yet too soon for such a term.
The related definition of autocracy describes a structure in which a single person makes decisions and issues commands without legal limitations or right participation by others. The entry continues by pointing out that an autocratic ruler may have gained the position through heredity or violent seizure of the state but can also do so through bureaucratic manipulations. Boris Johnson was elected not through a general election, but through an internal ballot of the governing Conservative Party, following the destabilization of the former Prime Minister Theresa May. In such light the definition is too close for any comfort.
To the supporters of the prime minister he is the opposite — a champion of the people who is doing whatever it takes to enact the result of the 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union, in which the population narrowly voted to leave. Ironically the centerpiece of that campaign’s promise was the sovereignty of the same U.K. Parliament that opposes “no deal” and is now being overridden. And as protesters point out, leaving without a deal — widely expected to have significant detrimental effects — was not one of the options on the voting paper.
Some spokespeople for the pro-Brexit cause have claimed that it is they who represent the nonviolent independence movement, who are liberating the United Kingdom from Europe. In reality, violence has rarely been far from the surface of the campaign and has sometimes spilled over. The 2016 campaign was characterized by anti-immigrant rhetoric and warlike analogies. As the campaign reached fever pitch, Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a right-wing terrorist who later gave his name in court as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” Shortly after the result, hate crime spiked. When asked what he would do if Brexit wasn’t delivered, one of the campaign’s most prominent spokespeople said he would “don khaki, pick up a rifle and head for the front lines.”
For proponents of peace, these are anxious times. Once considered on the fringes of political discourse, architects of the Brexit campaign now have significant institutional power and considerable political influence, whether in or out of government. Some commentators are now beginning to talk of a “civil war state of mind.” More immediately, the likelihood of “no deal” creates the strongest possibility yet of a militarized border being imposed between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, in a region where the comparative peace enjoyed in recent years is still relatively fragile.
But is it a coup? Sharp’s entry suggests such a seizure of power would usually take place through military force, but does point to the phenomenon of the “self-coup,” in which an existing ruler unconstitutionally claims greater powers. Even if temporary, such a definition lends credence to the words of the protesters, and most likely will be how this action will be remembered.
There is a continuum of severity. There are authoritarian regimes with which we cannot compare the United Kingdom at present. But everywhere some basics help protect civil liberties and democracy: distribution of power across institutions, noncooperation with injustice, solidarity with protesters who are attacked and civil resistance.
Already there are politicians speaking of taking their places in parliament regardless of the decision and others talking of strikes. Major faith figures have spoken out. The protesters blocking the roads include well-turned out office workers wearing suits with tucked in shirts. A wide constituency of people stands ready to resist. What comes next is too difficult to predict.
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