Former prime minister warns of threat to UK democracy

By on 13/02/2022 | Updated on 13/02/2022
Photo courtesy Chatham House via Flickr

Former PM John Major has long been a critic of Boris Johnson – but this week he dramatically upped the ante, warning that his successor’s behaviour and duplicity are undermining the UK’s democracy as well as its reputation. Matt Ross reports

“In our democracy, we are lucky: we are able to speak truth to power,” said Sir John Major. “But if democracy is to be respected, power must also speak truth to the people – and yet in recent years, they have not been doing so.”

In a highly critical speech this week, Major attacked the administration of Boris Johnson, his successor as both Tory leader and UK prime minister. Johnson’s behaviour is damaging the country’s democracy, Major warned – citing evidence including his response to news of a series of lockdown-busting parties at the heart of government.

“At Number 10, the prime minister and officials broke lockdown laws. Brazen excuses were dreamed up. Day after day, the public was asked to believe the unbelievable. Ministers were sent out to defend the indefensible,” Major said. “When ministers respond to legitimate questions from the public, from inquisitors, from the media, with pre-prepared soundbites or half-truths or misdirection or wild exaggeration, then respect for government and politics dies.” The government has looked “distinctly shifty,” he added – with “consequences that go far beyond political unpopularity: no government can function properly if its word is treated with suspicion”.

The UK system, said Major, depends upon “respect for the laws made in Parliament; upon an independent judiciary; upon acceptance of the conventions of public life; and on self-restraint by the powerful. If any of that delicate balance goes astray – as it has, as it is – our democracy is undermined”. Speaking at think tank the Institute for Government, he went on to challenge the actions of Johnson’s administration on every front.

The charge sheet

On respect for the law, Major noted that Johnson’s administration unlawfully prorogued Parliament – sending MPs home – during the 2019 Brexit battles. When called out by the Supreme Court, he added, “the government accepted the verdict, but in bad faith. It did not apologise, and nor did it mend its ways”: a year later, in the 2020 Internal Market Bill “it went on to introduce legislation giving the government the power to break international law”.

On an independent judiciary, he recalled that after losing the prorogation case, the “leader of the House accused the Supreme Court judges of, I quote, a ‘constitutional coup’”. Meanwhile, “other cabinet ministers publically disparaged ‘lefty lawyers’, ‘activist lawyers’, and even attacked judges for exceeding their authority”. Such public denunciation “gives credence to the belief amongst the legal profession that the government may wish to usher in a compliant judiciary,” he added. “It should back off”.

On the conventions of public life, the former PM pointed out that Johnson is “being investigated for several apparent breaches of the Ministerial Code. He chose to ignore critical reports on his ministers, rejected advice from his independent adviser on ministerial standards – who resigned as a result – and attempted but failed to overturn the unanimous standards select committee report that condemned the behaviour of a parliamentary colleague and friend”.

On self-restraint by the powerful, Major highlighted a series of attempts to increase the power of government – including bids to weaken judicial review, give police greater rights to search people, and ban noisy protests. Recalling huge demonstrations against the poll tax, the Iraq war, and Brexit, he noted that these “were most certainly noisy: would those have been banned under this sort of legislation? Because the intent of those protesters was not to prevent the public from going about their normal lives. They were the public, expressing deeply felt opposition to government policy”.

While such demonstrations “may be uncomfortable for any government, protest marches are a safety valve for democracy and for free speech,” he added. “Democracy should treat them with care.”

Respect the rules

The prime minister and cabinet “seem to believe that they, and they alone, need not obey the rules, traditions, conventions – call them what you will – of our public life,” said Major. “The repeated charge that there is one law for the government and one for everyone else is politically deadly, and it has struck home.”

When Johnson’s government comes under pressure, he argued, “it looks for enemies where there are none. Moreover, it then has a habit of choosing the wrong enemies. Most recently, it’s been waging campaigns against the civil service and the BBC”.

This is, said Major, not “wise or justified, or even in the government’s own interests. The civil service is a support structure to government: treating it as a hostile ‘blob’ which seeks to undermine the government is both foolish and wrong. As to the BBC, it’s a crucial part of our overseas soft power, and a policy of undermining it and starving it of funds is self-defeating for UK national interests”.

Major was not uncritical of the civil service, however, arguing that senior officials should have challenged Johnson’s behaviour. If Major or his predecessor Margaret Thatcher had acted in this way, he said, ministers and civil servants would have told them in no uncertain terms that this was unacceptable. But “nobody in the cabinet – or indeed the cabinet secretary – seem to be saying that to the present prime minister, and that is a weakness in Number 10″.

“If the prime minister has been given that advice and not accepted it, then I don’t understand why the people giving that advice have not resigned,” he added. “And if he hasn’t been given that advice, either by other members of the cabinet or by the cabinet secretary, I think it is reasonable to ask why not.”

An XPM on the OPM

Asked about Johnson’s creation of an ‘Office of the Prime Minister’ – part of his response to the revelations of lockdown parties – Major responded that “it sounds a little like a gimmick”. The prime minister has always had an office, he added: “We just used to call it Number 10.” And he suggested that the PM’s Downing Street team has already grown too large, arguing that “a mistake has been made in bringing so many special advisers into Number 10″. The office needs people with topical expertise and experience, he said, “not lots of clever young people running around with ideas and political ambitions of their own”.

The actions of Johnson’s government, Major argued, damage the UK’s standing overseas as well as its democracy at home. “For many years, travelling the world, I have been received as the lucky representative of the most stable democracy of them all,” he recalled; the UK has enjoyed a “position of influence, built up over centuries, and then praised and copied”.

But the government’s handling of Brexit and its threats to break international law have meant that “trust is being lost, and our reputation overseas has fallen because of our conduct: we are weakening our influence”. Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Protocol, “arguably one of the worst pieces of negotiation we have seen in recent history,” is poisoning the crucial relationship with the EU. “It does help, if you’ve signed treaties, if you understand them before you sign them,” Major commented archly.

This damage is exacerbated by overseas squabbles – most obviously with France over migrants – that, Major suggested, are manufactured to rally domestic support: “Even a casual glance at overseas comment shows our reputation is being shredded,” he said. “And when ministers attack or blame foreign governments to gain popular support at home, we are simply not taken seriously: ‘megaphone diplomacy’ merely increases hostility overseas.”

Failures foretold

Boris Johnson’s leadership has, it’s fair to say, realised all of Major’s worst fears. In a speech on Brexit in October 2018 – nearly a year before Johnson became Tory leader and PM – Major warned that government “is not about cheap grandstanding. It’s not about deceiving the electorate with slogans, or soundbites, or untruths or half-truths. It’s not about windy oratory that says nothing. It’s not about simplistic solutions to intricate problems. It’s not about scapegoating one part of our population to earn the plaudits of another”.

“Most emphatically, it’s not about princelings fighting for the political crown of premiership,” he said then, in a passage clearly aimed at Johnson. “Such self-interest is politics at its least attractive. It does not deliver sound government. It destabilises government. As a general rule, those whose focus is on self-advancement are rarely the most suitable to be entrusted with power.”

Asked repeatedly this week whether Johnson has lied to Parliament about Number 10 parties, Major declined to answer – though he did say clearly that if he has done so, the penalty must be resignation. And he urged Johnson to accept all the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which last year called for a series of reforms to strengthen the codes, commissioners and advisers charged with maintaining probity among elected leaders.

“It would be reassuring if the appointment of the guardians of ethics was fully independent, and where appropriate with new powers to initiate, investigate, and report that should be put on a statutory basis,” said Major. “It would help to regain the UK’s reputation as the standard for democracy, for fairness, for honesty, and for pragmatic common sense in protecting our national interests. That reputation, built up by our predecessors, is invaluable to our national interests; it should be protected, not demolished.”

Defending democracy

Such new powers are required, Major believes, not only to restore public trust in government, but also to safeguard the fabric of Britain’s democracy – which can be torn by elected leaders who are careless of their responsibilities. “The protection of democracy depends upon Parliament and the government upholding the values we have as individuals and the trust we inspire as a nation,” he said. “Those values can’t be partial; can’t be occasional; can’t be taken out and paraded for political convenience. They are eternal. Democracy is a lifelong companion, not a passing fancy.”

Democracy is also, he warned, more fragile than it can appear. “Democracy, in many places, is in retreat; and nor is it in a state of grace in the United Kingdom,” he said. “Even our great allies in the United States are facing populist attacks on their democracy – and we should be aware that when America sneezes, we often catch their cold.” Major’s comments came just a few days after Johnson, taking a leaf straight out of the Trump playbook, made unsubstantiated allegations about Labour leader Kier Starmer – claiming that he’d failed to act against sex abuse by entertainer Jimmy Savile – then refused to apologise even after Starmer was harassed in the street.

The parallels are obvious: a year after Trump’s supporters occupied the Capitol Building, former UK prime minister Sir John Major is plainly worried that his own country’s constitution, reputation and liberty are at risk. “Our democracy is a fragile structure. It is not an impenetrable fortress; it can fall if no-one challenges what is wrong or does not fight for what is right,” he warned. “We tend to take democracy for granted; we should not.”

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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