Inane and Orwellian: a Queen’s speech to improve the life of Boris Johnson | Rafael Behr

Inane and Orwellian: a Queen’s speech to improve the life of Boris Johnson | Rafael Behr

The state opening of parliament is a reminder that much of what passes for a British constitution is actually fancy dress.

The doors to the Commons are ritually closed on Black Rod, the royal emissary, as a reminder that monarchs have not been allowed in the chamber since 1642, when King Charles I burst in to demand the arrest of rebellious members. Civil war followed. Fast-forward 380 years and we find another Charles on the golden throne of the House of Lords – sitting in for his elderly mother – dictating parliament’s agenda from a goatskin parchment.

The speech is written in Downing Street, where a prime minister in command of a large Commons majority enjoys powers not much diluted down from monarchy. There are two forces determining how Boris Johnson uses that power. Both are informal and temperamental. First, he is afraid to upset ideological sensibilities on the right of his party, where a taste for rebellion is always quick to turn regicidal. Second, he takes no interest in the managerial side of government – the business of getting things done – which he finds boring.

As for restraint on abuses of power, the conventional mechanism is conscience. There are invisible lines that a prime minister is expected not to cross as a point of honour, guided by natural deference to democracy. It is well-established now that those qualities are absent in Johnson.

Taken in combination, those factors produce a legislative agenda that is not really about governing at all but sending signals, framing debates and skewing the pitch on which the prime minister intends one day to campaign for re-election.

The volume of bills being proposed, 38 in all, testifies to a lack of focus and purpose. In the absence of one big plan, there are many little plans to look busy. None of it comes close to getting a grip on the single biggest issue facing most people in the country: the shrivelling of their incomes as prices rise against a backdrop of impending recession.

The Johnson flagship policy for the general betterment of life in the UK will be enacted as a “levelling up and regeneration bill”. Its advertised benefits are formidable. A government briefing note promises, among other treats, to “improve productivity, boost economic growth, encourage innovation, create good jobs and enhance educational attainment”.

Scroll down to find the method, and it turns out that Shangri-la is reached by way of measures no less drastic than “giving residents more of a say over changing street names and ensuring everyone can continue to benefit from alfresco dining”.

There will also be a new duty on the government to set “levelling up missions” and report on whether they have been accomplished. The law to make everything better for everyone will work by placing a statutory obligation on the government to explain how things are getting better.

Johnson is reduced to these inanities because the most powerful faction among his MPs will not, as a point of ideological principle, countenance anything that seriously interferes with the accrual of wealth and privilege to those who already have them. Levelling up has hit the same obstacle that derailed David Cameron’s “big society” agenda. That too was conceived as a way to rehabilitate unhappy parts of the country without recourse to any of the explicit financial redistribution that Thatcherite Tories despise as socialism.

Johnson, like Cameron before him, has wasted time on delusions of political alchemy, trying to cook up egalitarian ends with libertarian means. The product will always disappoint. The next stage is also predictable. Someone will have to be blamed for the persistence of material discomfort, and the political subject will have to be steered away from the economy.

That leaves Johnson committed to a programme of government by campaign gesture and culture war provocation. Downing Street has laws for both. One item, long anticipated on the Tory benches, will be a “bill of rights”, the purpose of which is to assert British national autonomy in matters of human rights law, in much the same spirit that Brexit was imagined as a heroic economic emancipation.

In place of legal obligation to principles enshrined in international treaty, enforceable by courts, there will be a restoration of “common sense”, as defined by ministers. In Orwellian fashion, this is cast as a measure to “ensure the constitution is defended”; from what that defence is needed is unclear. The implied enemy is quisling remainer judges, always getting their wigs in a twist over government breaking the rules, and lefty human rights lawyers, one of whom happens to be leader of the Labour party.

In the same spirit, there will be a public order bill, banning direct action protests – climate activists chaining themselves to railings, gluing themselves to motorways – that cause a nuisance but hardly threaten to unravel society. Police will be given powers to stop anyone who even looks as if they might be up to anti-government mischief.

As with immigration policy, Downing Street is convinced that public opinion on law and order permits strides to the authoritarian right well beyond the boundaries of conventional Westminster consensus. The rule of thumb: if liberals are squealing in distress, double down; press harder.

It seems a long time ago that moderate Tory MPs were endorsing Johnson for the leadership in the belief that his true colours were the ones he had displayed to win election as mayor of London. They thought that the cosmopolitan incarnation of “Boris” would re-emerge once Brexit was done. Johnson himself promised them as much in private têtes-à-têtes, although they should have known he was promising the opposite to Eurosceptic headbangers in a room next door.

It was clear then that Johnson would say anything to become prime minister and, once that goal was achieved, do anything with the power at his disposal to carry on being prime minister. That is all there is and all there ever was. That is the agenda that Prince Charles declared from his mother’s throne, albeit encrypted in parliamentary pageant. And this is all that will be left once the crowns, robes and rods have been packed safely back in the constitutional dressing-up box: 38 bills adding up to a campaign for the deferral of serious government and the prolongation of rule by Johnson for Johnson’s sake.

via the Guardian

May 10, 2022 at 07:01PM