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 sideby Jade Azim / March 22, 2019 / Leave a comment
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…