The British public has not even begun to understand the seriousness of what is happening to our country. This recent warning from Lord Sumption in a law lecture was an alarm for all those interested in preserving our democracy.
As 20 million people are under stay at home orders for Christmas, via another last-minute Ministerial diktat delivered via a press conference, and even the world’s borders are refusing us, alarms must ring louder than ever.
MPs have raised questions about the new coronavirus strain and Christmas restrictions for weeks. Yet barely more than a day after Parliament went on recess, the Prime Minister delivered a decree so ‘inhuman’, to use his own words, he had completely ruled it out in the House of Commons. Now, for millions of us, it is a criminal offence to spend time with our families this Christmas.
This is a heinous way to govern a democratic nation. The Prime Minister’s criminalisation of the most important family celebration of the year, reversing promises he just made in the House of Commons at the drop of a hat, leaves him with barely a shred of democratic legitimacy. This reckless manner of rule-making over the minutiae of our family lives is incompatible with any reasonable notion of a democratic social contract. It is, frankly, more characteristic of social control.
Mr Johnson seems unmoved as he adopts the role of Britain’s most authoritarian Prime Minister in modern history. In fact, he now has form for announcing the most difficult decisions at times that undermine or simply evade parliamentary scrutiny. The first national lockdown law in March was imposed one day after Parliament went on recess. The second national lockdown was announced to the nation, as though it were law, two days before Parliament returned from recess. And now, much of the country has been plunged into a third lockdown, as soon as MPs left for the Christmas recess.
In the wake of the Prime Minister ushering in the most extraordinary infringement on citizens’ right to a private and family life on the brink of Christmas, what can MPs — who were elected to make, amend and scrutinise legislation — actually do? Merely tweet their concerns? Do they share responsibility for the millions of pounds of perishable products squandered in the lorries at Dover? How will they respond to the panicked emails from constituents, many of whom are continuing to work? I hope they get more than an out of office reply. Because liberty, lives and livelihoods are being lost in this democratic void.
Plenty of MPs are calling for Parliament to be recalled, but they have no real power in this regard. Only Ministers can request to the Speaker that parliament returns. Even if Parliament were recalled, London’s Tier 4 restrictions (that MPs have not had a chance to vote on) would cause many to stay at home in their constituencies. The law only permits you to go to work if it is not reasonably possible to work from home. It is possible for MPs to work from home — Members of the House of Lords have been working under remote procedures for months — but the Government will not allow it in the Commons. The Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has maintained tough restrictions on remote participation in legislative votes and debates in the Commons. It is extraordinary that the Chamber should be empty at this moment in our nation’s history.
This year has put the cracks in our parliamentary democracy under uncomfortable pressure. The more Ministers use urgent procedures to make laws without parliament — even laws that suspend the population’s liberties — the more one wonders if the architecture of our democracy is already caving in.
It is not that I believe MPs will launch a democratic rebellion — at least not one that will win. The Opposition is more or less furloughed; their Leader is like a zealous Deputy Manager hoping to get the top job if he tows the Government’s line and promises to “deliver” better. MPs seem to be in the kind of stasis we saw in the lead up to the war against Iraq. Over 400 MPs voted for that illegal war — many gripped by crisis, abdicating analytical and moral responsibility, uncritically “following the intelligence”. Between the media clamour, the international pressure and the intelligence agencies, there was an overwhelming push for war. Here we are again. Merely “following the science”, floating in the tide of a media clamour, international pressure and health authorities.
How many MPs would have been so cynical to believe that the “facts were being fixed around the policy”, as the former head of MI6 said in the run up to the war? And how many MPs today are so cynical to think the “figures are being chosen to support the policy, rather than the policy being based on the figures”, as Theresa May remarkably said in the Commons — or that “overblown rhetoric” was being used, as Chris Whitty himself put it? Belief in authority is so often blind.
We cannot make the mistake of assuming that our democracy will return to perfect form as soon as the stress is released, simply like a mechanical spring. History tells a different story. It is not the case that mass vaccinations will return the country to “normal”. The muscle memory Britain has acquired for lockdowns, shock and awe law-making and rule by decree cannot be entirely unlearned. Despite 2020 being the year of taking back control and “recapturing sovereignty,” as Mr Johnson put it, Parliamentary sovereignty is crumbling with every dreadful diktat he issues from that lectern.
Let us at least, in this swansong of democracy, go through the sombre motions. For the MPs who do understand the seriousness of what is happening to our country, and railed against Government imposing new national restrictions without parliamentary involvement, their red lines have been crossed yet again. If criminalising family gatherings at Christmas in this way does not spark a democratic rebellion in Parliament, I do not know what will. But how would we know? The gift of recalling Parliament is in Government’s hands and it does not seem to be one they will give us this merry “little” Christmas. Surely then, there are no more red lines to cross.