Thousands of people demonstrated today against Boris Johnson’s suspension of parliament. On the London demonstration, the slogan that worked best, in my view, was: “You shut down our parliament – we shut down the streets.”
Several hundred people set off from Whitehall, where there was a much larger crowd, and shouted it as they blocked Westminster bridge. There was a similar action on Waterloo Bridge.
That slogan says: power is not something to be quarreled over by government, parliament and the judiciary. It is something that all of us need to fight for. It says: by taking action on
the streets, people themselves can impact on this tug-of-war between different branches of the state. It says: democracy is something we all create. It is not something that John Major goes to remind a judge about, so that he can remind Boris Johnson.
Whatever happens next, we need to expand that democracy – on demonstrations, in communities, in workplaces, in our organisations – against the most right-wing government the UK has had for the best part of a century.
Whether or not the UK leaves the EU without a deal on 31 October, this government will continue to claim victims: the thousands of people who have lost their jobs due to Brexit uncertainty; the millions of migrant workers from the EU or from outside, facing discrimination and cruelty; the millions of people impacted by Tory austerity policies that long preceded the Brexit referendum; and all of us who are threatened by the inaction of this and other governments on climate change.
Whatever happens about Brexit, Johnson’s suspension of parliament has already taken politics to a new place.
His gang of zealots are tearing up rules and conventions that have provided the framework for the way government and parliament work with each other for a couple of centuries.
It’s not only the suspension of parliament. These clowns have put rumours into the press that even if parliament legislated against a no-deal Brexit, Johnson might simply ignore it. Or refuse to take the law to the Queen to sign. Ripping up the rule book is all part of the act.
But their approach creates (at least) two sorts of problems for the way that the ruling class wields power, in my view.
First, parliamentary democracy exerts social control not primarily by physical repression, but by convincing people that the state is, in however poor a fashion, looking after their interests. When the government busts through constitutional convention to pursue policies so obviously damaging to millions of people, the ideological mythology may not hold.
Second, whatever happens next, Johnson’s subversion will deepen the crisis both of the Conservative party and of the British state.
In the four days after the suspension of parliament was announced, the Scottish Tory leader quit, one of the leading Tories in the Lords quit, and civil servants are in
turmoil after the sacking of Sonia Khan and the undermining of the Chancellor, Sajid Javid, by the head cases at No. 10 Downing Street. The last time I checked, the government had a parliamentary majority of one.
But these short-term political problems are nothing compared to the cracks opening up in the edifice of British statehood. The biggest of these is the unresolved status of the north of Ireland – which, in the guise of the argument about the border with the Irish Republic, has been the biggest obstacle to Tory unity in support of Brexit with a deal.
But there’s Scotland too. The presence of a bunch of fanatics in No. 10, never mind a no-deal Brexit, re-opens the question of independence.
All this underlines the point that Johnson is acting out of weakness and desperation, not strength.
That does not mean that the next weeks and months will be nicer: they might be nastier. Desperate people can lash out. But it’s important to bear in mind. The UK is a declining former imperial power, that has to find a new place in a global order dominated by ever-greedier finance capital.
There’s plenty to say about the Labour party’s limitations in facing this political crisis. Many of my leftie friends say that Jeremy Corbyn is doing badly. To my mind, that’s not really the point. Even if Corbyn was a master strategist, a tactical wizard and a public orator capable of working crowds into a frenzy, I don’t think that would alter things much.
Corbyn is trapped at the head of a parliamentary party that mostly thinks within the framework that Johnson and his vandals are attacking with hammers. The average Labour MP would not know a mass extra-parliamentary movement if it ran them over in the street. The Labour party is a creature of the parliamentary system – and although it’s been refreshing to see thousands of people flooding into it and changing it substantially since Corbyn was elected, the fate of Johnson’s government will not be determined in the first place by Labour.
A broader movement is needed. New forms of solidarity, of organisation, of our power. You shut down our parliament, we shut down the streets. GL, 31 August 2019.
And a few more photos of today’s demo. Thanks to all you poster-making geniuses (so much better than the printed ones from the left wing sects) …