Boris Johnson’s Trump-style assault on British institutions is a threat to democracy

The government is waging a destructive war against the BBC, the civil service and the judiciary. 

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Here in Britain we watch aghast as Donald Trump undermines US democracy. He will not commit to accepting the result of November’s presidential election, tweeting that it will be “the most fraudulent in US history”. He claims, without evidence, that postal voting – favoured by Democrats in this age of coronavirus – is wide open to fraud. He puts an ally in charge of the US Postal Service and then opposes funding it so ballot papers cannot be delivered. 

Trump urges his supporters to vote twice – which is a criminal offence. He appears to be seeking to suppress the black vote. He claims people in “dark shadows” control his Democratic rival, Joe Biden. He promotes the subversive QAnon conspiracy theory. He foments unrest so he can portray himself as the champion of law and order. He ignores Russian interference. He undermines trust in the mainstream media. He snubs Congress, fires critics and rewards the subservient.

As Covid-19 infects millions of Americans, so the virus of Trump’s demagoguery is sickening the country that has long regarded itself the standard bearer for liberty and democracy. But we in Britain have no cause for complacency. The virus has crossed the Atlantic, albeit in a milder and mutated form. Here Boris Johnson, the man the US president calls “Britain Trump”, and Dominic Cummings, the animating spirit of Johnson’s government, are likewise vandalising institutions which may be imperfect but have mostly promoted stability and served the country well. 

In the name of reform, the Prime Minister and Cummings are waging a nasty, aggressive and destructive war on the so-called "establishment" that often seems more concerned with settling scores, shifting blame and accreting power than promoting better governance.

Enemy number one is the civil service, a convenient scapegoat for the government’s mishandling of the pandemic. Johnson and Cummings do not appreciate its core values of “integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality”. They want revolutionary zeal. Wise and experienced permanent secretaries are traduced in anonymous media briefings, forced out and replaced by more malleable figures. From his new “command centre” in the Cabinet Office, staffed by Brexit fanatics, weirdos and misfits, Cummings is now overseeing the politicisation of Whitehall.

Next comes the BBC which, for all it faults, is admired around the world and the most trusted source of news in Britain. No matter. The corporation has committed the grave offence of being too impartial for a government that regards anything short of the sycophantic coverage it receives in the Tory press as hostile. Downing Street and its surrogates relentlessly denigrate it. Ministers have boycotted its news programmes. Cummings wants to abolish the licence fee. Coincidentally or otherwise, two “Fox News-style” rival channels lurk in the wings, awaiting the government’s green light to promote a right-wing agenda.

The judiciary – repository of all those “enemies of the people” – is also being targeted for “reform” (read “greater political control”) because the Supreme Court had the temerity to insist that the executive could not bypass parliament during last autumn’s Brexit showdowns.

Although Johnson has spent the last four years boasting of British exceptionalism the list goes on. He and Cummings have neutered the cabinet, another traditional constraint on prime ministerial power, by packing it with poodles. They resist parliament’s efforts to hold the executive to account – unlawfully proroguing it, routinely misleading it and snubbing its select committees. They are ripping up the planning controls that protect our cities and countryside from rapacious developers. They have the military, intelligence agencies, universities and local government in their sights. According to the Times, the government will shortly unveil plans to cut the number of district and county councils by two-thirds – the better to control them.

At a time of growing concern about Russian interference in our democracy, and the proliferation of political disinformation on social media, Downing Street wants to restrict, not strengthen, the powers of the independent Electoral Commission. The commission’s offence was to investigate the financing of Cummings’ Vote Leave campaign after the 2016 EU referendum.

All this is happening at a time when Britain is already engulfed in the immense upheaval of Brexit, and the very real prospect of Scotland seceding from the 300-year-old Union. The majority of those living in Scotland did not vote for this mayhem in last December’s general election, nor for this assault on so much that for so long has helped keep the UK calm and orderly. It did not vote to place the UK's future in the hands of an unelected, unaccountable adviser like Cummings. At present, most people would happily settle for a competent response to the coronavirus pandemic and the economic devastation it has caused, and the “oven-ready” Brexit deal that Johnson repeatedly promised last December.

The Conservative Party was itself once a force for stability, a defender of the status quo, a champion of incremental, consensual reform. Under Johnson – a secret admirer of Trump according to last weekend’s Telegraph – it has become a party of wreckers.

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times and a New Statesman magazine contributing writer and online columnist.

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