Theresa May’s appeal to “the people” isn't just dangerous for her MPs—it's bad for democracy

Right-wing populists have sowed the seeds of doubt in democratic institutions since the referendum. Now, it would seem, they have the British government itself on side

March 22, 2019
British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street. Photo: PA
British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street. Photo: PA

The Prime Minister made a choice this week. In the wake of her Deal’s two-time death at the hands of MPs, Theresa May walked up to her government podium to appeal to “the people” against their elected representatives.

Whilst the most explicit attack so far on Parliament, this is not even the first time this week that the government has attempted to antagonize the people against democratic process. The government’s recent war of words with speaker John Bercow, after his request for changes to the Withdrawal Agreement, had already put the government front and centre in a rhetorical battle waged initially by right wing and far right populists.

And it does not go unnoticed. Bercow asking for substantive changes to a piece of legislation that suffered Parliament greatest and fourth greatest defeats came under fire from the government’s allies in the press as, apparently, the greatest blockade to Brexit. “B*ll*cks to Bercow,” the Sun screamed, while the Daily Express branded him “the Brexit Destroyer.”

Downing Street briefing that Bercow, and now MPs, have pitted their democratic institution against “the people” is a momentous moment in British politics. But the character assassination of Bercow as an elite preventing the will of the people is also only the latest instance of parliamentarians being painted as “traitors” who are “betraying” the nation.

Outside Parliament, a crowd of protesters agree. They yell “parliament against the people.” The situation in Parliament Square and on College Green has got so intense it makes it feel too dangerous even for the staffers that reside in the estate to wander outside. Already told to take off their passes for safety, they are now shoved to the bottom of a bag.

By the government adopting anti-Parliament motifs, and then reinforcing them in the press, they demonstrate the populist rhetorical style of homogenising a “people” and their parliament as two competing forces. This doesn’t only put the safety of everyone working in Parliament at risk—it creates a British politics that is apparently extra-parliamentary and exclusive of its institutions.

This rhetorical tactic, which sets out to delegitimise democratic rivals, is a long-established tool of populist movements. As theorist Michael Kazin puts it, populism relies on “the notion of the sovereignty of the people” and a supposed “conflict between the powerful and the powerless.” It rests on an innate power imbalance between a sovereign people and those that deny their sovereignty—often a corrupt establishment that imperils their will.

Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde explains how society is thus split into “two homogenous and antagonistic groups,” with a “pure people” opposed to a “corrupt elite.” (Sound familiar?)

How both the “people” and the “elite” are defined is what determines the intent of the populism, and often its efficiency. A successful populist movement will involve as much of the “ordinary” citizenry—or those they consider legitimate citizens, like those born in the country or people of a certain race or who hold certain views—in their definition of “the people.” For the right, this force can be set against “elite” democrats; for the left, it can be set against a financial of capitalist elite accused of altering democracy from the outside.

The context we find ourselves in now, in the final weeks before Brexit Day, sees “the people” as those who voted for Brexit and the “corrupt elite” as the politicians who are trying—or accused of trying—to stop it. An insurgent right-wing populism sees the rot as being on the inside of elite institutions working against the ordinary, working-class—in many cases, white—citizens that just want to “get on with it” and have their will enacted. The focal point of that antagonism is a corrupt Parliament itself—and the MPs that occupy it.

Before setting off on his ill-fated and short-lived march for Brexit a week ago, Nigel Farage accused the government and “establishment” of “betraying the British people over Brexit.” This is to be expected, though derided—this rhetorical use has a deep history within Farage’s politics.

What should not be expected is for the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to use the exact same motif to attack the MPs with whom she rubs shoulders every day. Emily Thornberry referred to the gesture as Trumpian—but it’s uniquely dangerous for British democracy.

The implication is that sovereignty of Parliament, once sacred, is now illegitimate. Only the right’s concept of “the people” is truly sovereign. And this transfer of sovereignty was this week endorsed by no outsider to the system, but a government so desperate and reckless it risks inciting violence against MPs who now stand in for a corrupt elite.

Insurgent right-wing populists have used established tactics of division to sow the seeds of doubt in democratic institutions since the referendum. And now, it would seem, they have the British government itself on side. It truly is a magnificent and horrifying success for right wing populism. And a complete devastation for Parliamentary democracy.