Is this a coup?

“Our system may be archaic with its first-past-the-post electoral system and lack of a written constitution, but we have a duty to defend our Parliament and our democracy nonetheless.” Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament to prevent opposition to a ‘no-deal’ Brexit has been branded an attempt to undermine democracy in the UK and has sparked ‘Stop the Coup’ protests across the country. Green MEP Molly Scott Cato explores the features of modern coups and what must be done to defend democracy from the government's reckless actions.

Stop the Coup protests
Stop the Coup protests

Garry Knight

Molly Scott Cato

From Liverpool to London and from Bristol to as far afield as Berlin, hundreds of thousands of us have been involved in noisy protests over the weekend. This week will see further protests and daily evening demonstrations in Westminster. This is reminiscent of the Velvet Revolution in Prague, where protests eventually led to the fall of the Communist Party and the end of the one-party state.

The slogan that lies at the heart of all these protests is ‘Stop The Coup’. But how accurate is this; is our democracy really at risk from a coup?

I’ve been expecting this moment for some time and have traced the decline of our democracy over the past five years. We are right to be worried and it is essential we take action.

It seemed appropriate to spend my limited free time this summer reading How Democracies Die, a work by two Harvard political scientists on what a modern coup looks like. They explain how modern coups do not involve tanks on the street and the arrest of democratic opponents: they are more insidious. The public debate becomes debased as quality journalism decays and experts are denigrated; legal systems are under-funded while judges are pilloried; the norms that protect democracies are deliberately flouted by those in power, primarily the norm around a commitment to truth. As the authors make clear: ‘There is no single moment – no coup, declaration of martial law, or suspension of the constitution – in which the regime obviously “crosses the line” into dictatorship, nothing may set off society’s alarm bells. Those who denounce government abuse may be dismissed as exaggerating or crying wolf. Democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible.’

I am not surprised by the prime minister’s decision to prorogue Parliament. It runs in parallel with the rise of the far right over the last few years. Something I highlighted through my ‘Resisting Fascism’ roadshow earlier this year, which brought together academics, journalists and politicians from across parties and hundreds of concerned citizens to identify the signs of fascism already clearly present in the UK.

Since the arrival of Boris Johnson in Downing Street, these early signs have turned into red flashing lights. Dominic Cummings has taken on the role of coordinating this undemocratic regime, a man who has literally been found in contempt of Parliament.

It was Cummings idea to threaten Conservatives with being thrown out of their party if they vote against the government and block a ‘no-deal’ Brexit. He has in his sights 22 ‘rebels’ who include 10 former cabinet ministers, 21 former ministers, two former chancellors, a former deputy prime minister, a former lord chancellor and former Conservative Party chair. Meanwhile, eight of the current Cabinet of Horrors have themselves defied the party whip this year by voting against Theresa May's Brexit deal.

It is the attempt to normalise the attack on democracy that is the most disturbing sign of all, and is being parroted by spineless Tory MPs who I would once have considered decent chaps. Debate in Parliament over the most important decision of recent times has been deliberately truncated by a prorogation, not the usual autumn suspension to allow for party conferences, which most MPs were determined to sit through anyway.

Leading constitutional expert A V Dicey sums up the fundamental power principle of our parliamentary democracy neatly: “The principle of Parliamentary sovereignty means neither more nor less than this, namely, that Parliament thus defined has, under the English constitution, the right to make or unmake any law whatever; and, further, that no person or body is recognised by the law of England as having a right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament.”

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace let the cat out of the bag when he was captured on camera suggesting Johnson’s shutdown of parliament was in order to push through his Brexit plans, something that a majority of our fellow citizens were fully aware off. This is why I have called it the greatest power-grab since 1642, when Charles I came to Parliament to arrest the rebel MPs whose Remonstrance he refused to discuss.

So many of us took to the streets last weekend because we totally reject the idea that shutting down our Parliament is in any way normal. And there will be more to follow: we must maintain regular protests in towns and cities across the country, and indeed elsewhere in Europe. The pro-government media is trying to push the Stop the Coup activity into a left-wing ghetto so it is vitally important to ensure actions are cross-party, involving Tories and pro-Brexit speakers wherever possible.

As Timothy Snyder underlines in On Tyranny, we also need to defend our institutions. Our system may be archaic with its first-past-the-post electoral system and lack of a written constitution, but we have a duty to defend our Parliament and our democracy nonetheless. We must use the #PeoplesParliament slogan to counter the ‘people versus parliament’ narrative the government will use if and when there is a general election.  

This Friday is the last sitting day that the regime is allowing to our representatives. Some may stage a sit-in: others may set up an alternative Parliament elsewhere in Westminster. Whatever happens, they will need our active, non-violent but physical presence. Please be there. There is nothing more important you can do this week.