Last night Boris Johnson and his rump government shamefully succeeded in its bid to silence the voice of parliament for five weeks. The reason? To avoid scrutiny on arguably the most important geo-political decision this country has had to make since 1939.
Johnson likes to see himself as the Pericles of modern politics – there is now a bust of the Greek hero in No 10. The prime minister might like to think he will one day be spoken of in the same breath as the famous “defender” of ancient Athenian democracy. In truth, many scholars now consider Pericles a populist, demagogue and hawk – some hope for him then.
Ultimately, considering the Tory taunts to the opposition of being “chicken” and running scared from a general election, Monday’s prorogation was a stunning display of both hypocrisy and cowardice. One described by a contemptuous speaker, as an “act of executive fiat”.
So last night, like tens of thousands of people across the country who’ve been campaigning and protesting to “defend our democracy”, a cross-party group of MPs also took peaceful, direct action, symbolically flanking the speaker, to say we will not be silenced, and that we will stand up for the democratic freedoms and sovereignty of our parliament.
This is the very principle which this craven mob of hard Brexiteers spent the referendum pretending they were defending, only to launch the most outrageous attack on parliamentary sovereignty in modern times. It has revealed their true motives: taking yet more control of our economy and political power and handing it to to a small group of the wealthy and privileged.
Almost on cue, the usual suspects in the right-wing press and Tory party are trying to portray our protest as some kind of terrible disruption. But even a casual glance at what happened in parliament last night reveals this to be another desperate lie.
We stood peacefully by the speaker – men and women, black and white, straight and queer – MPs from different parties to protest this power grab. And the speaker stood in solidarity with us, as any speaker who valued the rights of the House of Commons would.
As mentioned above, this is when John Bercow said: “It is not typical. It is not standard. It’s one of the longest [prorogations] for decades and it represents, not just in the minds of many colleagues, but huge numbers of people outside, an act of executive fiat.”
And this is the key point. What is being done by this government is not normal and we must never permit it to become normal. Across the world we see the forces of the reactionary right eroding democratic norms, smashing conventions and grabbing power.
From the US where a president holds migrant children in cages, to Hungary where Viktor Orbán has butchered Hungary’s constitution to shore up his power and has attacked the press – Britain is not immune and if we do not stand up now, we may find our democratic norms eroded still further.
No one is arguing that the UK will wake up tomorrow to find itself in a totalitarian regime like that seen in BBC’s Years and Years. But history shows us that unless we are continually vigilant against power-hungry men and women who have no scruples, we find ourselves without the freedoms we need to have a successful, open and tolerant society. These are the values and freedoms which our forebears fought and argued for over hundreds of years.
History is full of warnings about how this sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious erosion of political norms can happen. With its brutal empire and legalised slavery, the Roman Republic was hardly a towering beacon of progressive values. But it can still be instructive, still act as a warning of what happens when wealthy and powerful groups, headed by ambitious individuals, accumulate too much power – exactly what has been happening in the UK and across the western world these last 40 years.
In Rome, more and more power drifted, decade after decade, from the Senate to the dictators. Temporary at first, and arguably for the good of Rome. Be it Marius, Sulla, Julius or Augustus, the cumulative and growing effect of their power grabs ultimately helped destroy the republic.
Back in the modern day, states like Hungary can see democracy wither almost unnoticed as the creep of a new normalcy sets in. That is why MPs are not playing some game of student politics – this is very serious.
We have a government which openly declares its intention to defy the will of the people’s representatives, and therefore the people. A prime minister who so lacks any sense of irony that he stands in front of a line of uniformed police officers while declaring he’d rather “die in a ditch” that obey the law.
Such is the sense of entitlement of Boris Johnson and his establishment class – they believe they can break the law without the consequences meeting ordinary people.
Charles I believed this too when he shut down an irksome parliament, sparking the English Civil War. In that sitting, MPs went so far as to sit on the speaker of the day, John Finch, and as he wriggled beneath the weight of five people, the chamber passed legislation condemning the King. Last night we didn’t quite have to sit on the speaker, and in fact he was very happy to shake everyone’s hands afterwards.
Why? Because the speaker understands the country faces its gravest crisis since the Second World War.
Our action in parliament was peaceful and necessary. The real vandals are those who are prepared to abuse the power of the executive to commit a “constitutional outrage” in speaker Bercow’s words. The only student politics here are the posh boys from the Oxford Union and the Bullingdon Club throwing around bread rolls and trashing the place, because they know their wealth will protect them from the consequences of their actions. A protection most of constituents do not enjoy.
Of course, they may silence parliament for five weeks, but they cannot silence the people on the streets. Thus, when we come back we will defeat his hard Brexit coup and sweep this government from office and replace it with one that respects our constitution and the rule of law.
Clive Lewis the Labour MP for Norwich South
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies