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The Age of Constitutional Coups

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(The original American constitutional coup was the Constitution itself, drafted and passed by slaveowners, merchant capitalists and other elite actors for whom democracy was the last thing desired in the young American republic. It is quite entertaining to try to describe the U.S. Electoral College system to people from other countries. It is easier to explain the rules of baseball and almost as bad as trying to describe the nation's tax code and campaign finance laws.)

Disunited Kingdom

A recent effort to consolidate right-wing power through undemocratic but constitutional means no military deployments required is underway (and perhaps being foiled) in Britain, which prides itself as the birthplace of so-called parliamentary democracy. The nation's openly ridiculous Conservative Party ("Tory") prime minister (PM) Boris Johnson has tried to prevent the United Kingdom's Parliament from blocking his effort to force the UK out of the European Union (EU) without any remotely reasonable and negotiated terms of separation by October 31st. Johnson attempted to drive a battering ram through Britain's curiously still unwritten constitution by extending Parliament's annual "prorogation" (suspension) to five weeks in order to reduce the amount of time available to the opposition to block a no-deal "Brexit." Right before the extended prorogation, however, opposition "MPs" (Members of Parliament), mainly Labour Party representatives, joined with Conservative "Remainer" MPs to pass a bill extending the Brexit deadline to January of 2020 unless Parliament approves a deal with the EU by October 19th. In classic authoritarian fashion, Johnson kicked Remainers out of the Conservative Party.

Johnson has declared that he would rather be found "dead in a ditch" than abide by this law and negotiate an extension with the EU. Refusal to do so could open him up for impeachment and imprisonment.

Some close observers speculate that Johnson will avoid these dire penalties by agreeing to abide by the bill and then resigning as a matter of "principle." He would hope to bring home a new Conservative majority in new national elections triggered by his resignation.

Scotland's top court has recently ruled that Johnson's prorogation was illegal and the case is expected to go the UK's Supreme Court.

The chaotic authoritarian Johnson holds the PM position despite never having won a national popular election. Under the UK's unwritten rules, he was granted Britain's top job on basis of Conservative Party member votes alone after his predecessor and fellow Conservative Teresa May resigned in frustration over her inability to act on the UK-wide Brexit referendum vote of June 2016.

The referendum, pushed by the far-right nationalist Neal Farage, was part of a neofascistic, immigrant-bashing soft-coup strategy. "Many in Britain are now springing to the defense of parliament and elected representatives," the left British commentator Patrick Cockburn wrote last week, "but they should have sprung a bit earlier" since "Brexit was always a vehicle where the hard right could take over the government." Beneath claims of noble, patriotic, and democratic intent, hard Brexiters aim to strip social and environmental protections, deport migrants, and link the UK more closely to the arch-neoliberal United States (even to the point of opening up Britain's cherished National Health Service to America-led corporate privatization) in the name of what Johnson calls a "robust market economy."

Hard Brexit opponents, including Conservative Remainers, have been denounced by Johnson, Farage, and other rightists as "traitors" to the glorious British homeland, enemies of the project of Making Britain Great Again.

Boris is not experiencing authoritarian success on the model of Erdogan, Orban, Duda/Kaczynski, Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines), Vladimir Putin, and Trump. The Brexit referendum was not binding on Parliament and passed by a narrow margin (52% to 48%) it could not likely sustain three years later. The British majority has never backed a chaotic, No Deal Brexit (most of the United Kingdom's citizens are apparently "traitors"). Johnson is backed by just 35 percent of the population, the nation's equivalent to Trump's base: its most nativist, rural, small-town and reactionary voters. On top of this, Johnson has been repeatedly and rapidly stymied again and again by Parliament and by British courts, one of which has recently ruled that his decision to suspend the parliament for more than a month was unlawful.

The British Westminster system, bizarre though it may be, is a tough nut for Bombastic Boris and his fellow authoritarian nationalists to crack. He could still have a future at 10 Downing Street despite all his frenzied nonsense, however. In a democracy, no head of state ought to hold their office with support from just a third of the population should hold power. Under the British order, it is conceivable that Johnson will continue to the hold his job after new national elections are held next year. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition party, Labour, has failed to articulate a clear or consistent position against the right-wing Brexit power-grab. He has been viciously and absurdly demonized as an arch-radical and an anti-Semite in British media.

The prolonged Brexit drama could well continue without resolution into a new "hung parliament" government in which no specific party or coalition holds a majority. The buffoonish Johnson could still preside following an election sparked by his resignation.

The Yankee republic has nothing on its old colonial master when it comes to democracy-disabling constitutional madness.

It's all pretty absurd, like something out of Monty Python, but then so is the distinct possibility of the abject moral and intellectual idiot and climate-denier Donald Magic Sharpie Trump coming back for a second term to join hands with his fellow western hemispheric eco-fascist Bolsonaro to finish off prospects for a decent future by accelerating the transformation of planet Earth into a Greenhouse Gas Chamber. (I guess that's not so much absurd as apocalyptic. Call it constitutional Ecocide.)

It would help if some voters were less pathetic. No small part of the hot nativist messes currently stewing in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and 10 Downing can be blamed on all those "moderate" and squeamish pants-soilers who whine that Sanders and Corbyn are scary radical leftists. These stinky-trousered namby pambies cower behind corrupt neoliberal fake progressives like Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Pete McKinsey Butiggieg and then wonder why the right-wing kicks their ass.


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Paul Street ( and is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (2004), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (2007), Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (more...)
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