Two Tory PMs have succeeded Boris Johnson but he continues to seek the limelight and make headlines. Having gone to the COP27 summit in Egypt, he is taking some of the attention from Rishi Sunak and now has had his resignation honours list finalised.
The resignation honours list of outgoing PMs can often be a defining moment in how they are perceived. There was the scandal of Harold Wilson's 1976 'lavender list' in what were more innocent days and times of public service. Before that, Lloyd George's 1922 resignation list saw him sell peerages and honours from £10,000 to £40,000, arranged through his political fixer Maundy Gregory. This led to the passing of the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925, which did not stop Gregory, who was eventually convicted under the act in 1933 and is still the only person to have that ignominy.
Boris Johnson's list, as reported in The Times
, includes a number of firsts: four sitting MPs, the two youngest life peers ever (Ross Kempsell, Johnson's regular tennis partner, 30; and Charlotte Owen in her late 20s, who has spent a mere five years as a parliamentary assistant and worked as an intern for Johnson) alongside other staff from his chaotic Downing Street operation. This led The Spectator
to describe this as 'Boris's babes to join the Lords'.
Controversially, the four MPs – Alister Jack (Dumfries and Galloway), Nadine Dorries (Med-Bedfordshire), Alok Sharma (Reading West) and Nigel Adams (Selby and Aintsy) – will not take their peerages now and hence resign their seats, but are post-dated to enter the Lords after the next election.
Jack is sitting Secretary of State for Scotland, a post that pre-devolution was held by heavy hitters like Willie Ross, Donald Dewar and Malcolm Rifkind. No-one would mistake Jack for being in that company. Nadine Dorries was Culture Secretary until the end of Boris Johnson's Government and one of his most fervent supporters, as well as often the subject of media merriment. Alok Sharma was President of COP26 in Glasgow and Nigel Adams worked in the Cabinet Office under Johnson.
All this will have to be finally signed off but this list is much reduced from the original – as Johnson planned eight peerages for sitting MPs. The Spectator
took the judgement that Johnson's list was as shameless and shady as Lloyd George's: 'For no man has done more to advance the cause of Lords reform since the days of the Welsh Wizard
than Johnson. In his seemingly ongoing quest to destroy the Upper House, this morning's Times
reports that the Old Etonian has nominated some 20 names for life peerages'.
The bigger story behind this, apart from Boris Johnson's obvious disdain for public opinion and governmental probity, is that the Tories really think they own the British constitution and can do what they like with it. This has been their attitude since at least the advent of mass democracy and parliamentary democracy, and the Victorian fetishisation of parliamentary democracy by the likes of A V Dicey.
This sense of ownership and entitlement in relation to the British state has been reinforced by the patronage and powers of the Prime Minister and the executive – both of which have grown in recent decades under the increasing authoritarianism and illiberalism of successive Conservative and Labour governments.
For all the invoking of Britain's tradition of parliamentary democracy and mantra of parliamentary sovereignty, real political power does not sit with MPs and elected politicians. MPs are increasingly sidelined in big decisions of state, except in those rare moments when there is a minority government such as the 2017-2019 Parliament and under Theresa May and Boris Johnson administrations.
Many of the most important decisions in the UK are taken under the umbrella Crown powers which are a legacy of the age of absolutist monarchy and an absence of democracy and accountability. This is not some irrelevant abstraction for it has in the past allowed the UK to go to war without any parliamentary vote, the First World War and Second World War being prime examples; and even though there was a vote of MPs on the Iraq War, the position still remains that the UK can go to war without the endorsement of our elected representatives, any debate and any scrutiny of that decision.
It has arisen because the slow march to what passes for British democracy arose by evolution. This is the well-known story presented by British establishment writers and authorities to present as self-evident the genius and wisdom of British elites compared to their continental neighbours.
One surprising consequence of the power and reach of the great march of democracy is that much of it was swallowed unconditionally by the Labour Party and labour movement. The reforming 1945 Government of Clement Attlee believed it could use the British state as an agent of change, rather than seeing it as a force of the establishment holding back their ideas: their take on this informed by being coalition partners in the 1940-45 Wartime Government.
The UK's limited, flawed democracy has thus been protected from the kind of scrutiny, challenge and reform it should have had. Examples abound on this from the existence of Crown powers, the use of 'Henry VIII' powers in parliament to allow the executive to by-pass parliament, the continuation of what is now called King's Consent (previously Queen's Consent) which allows the monarch an opt-out from legislation which affects their 'private businesses' – and the grotesque existence of the House of Lords.
The UK has had 33 years of Labour Governments across six periods and yet the continuation of such anti-democratic processes illuminates that the evolution of the UK's partial democracy has retained many elements of feudalism and absolutism. This has aided the march of authoritarianism, centralisation and the erosion of civil liberties in recent decades under Tories and Labour. The academic Colin Crouch has noted that the UK state's pre-democratic routes have allowed it to become an outlier and advocate for 'post-democracy' – the corporate capitalist order which now dominates the world.
Scotland's limited democracy is no reason to feel satisfied
None of this is very edifying, nor does it do any favours to good government or aid citizens. A typical response to all of this in Scotland is that this disastrous record, lack of democracy and accountability, along with Scotland not voting Tory since 1959 – when the Tories won the popular vote in three successive elections – is more than enough reason for Scotland to urgently become independent.
There is, in the above, an understandable revulsion at Westminster, British Government and the nature of the state. Yet, as I say in my recently published book, Scotland Rising: The Case for Independence
, only looking at the external constraints on the condition of Scotland – Westminster, Tories, the British state – and not looking closer to home at the state of democracy here is not enough.
Scotland's home-grown democracy is not in good health. Some 23 years of the Scottish Parliament and 15 years of SNP rule have produced a system defined by centralisation, command and control, conformity and complacency in the circles of the ruling party.
Anyone who thinks otherwise should look up and down the breadth of Scotland and the atrophied state of what passes for local government. Councils such as Glasgow and Dundee have faced declining central government for over a decade and now have to manage this and spiralling inflation. This combination, from 2023-24 and beyond – with Tory austerity from Westminster and SNP centralisation at Holyrood – will produce a perfect storm and savaging of local services.
It is necessary to challenge and critique the likes of Boris Johnson and his debasement of public office and duty. And we should understand the twilight of Westminster and the British state which has presided over misgovernance, corporate capture and its open contempt for the British people.
We can't let the conceits and over-reach of the Scottish Government go unchallenged and the sad state of what passes for democracy go uncommented. There is little point in critiquing Westminster and then letting the Scottish Parliament morph into a mini-Westminster without comment. And a vision of independence focused primarily on the powers of the Scottish Parliament and Government is hardly going to inspire many – or result in good governance.
Democracy is under attack and is retreating across the globe. The tragedy of the UK is that fully-fledged political democracy never overcame the remnants and practices of the establishment and their self-preservation society. What passes for Scottish democracy might not be so debased but is not in good health, and the ruling party (like such parties everywhere in the world) is filled with smugness and complacency.
Politics in the UK, Scotland and across the developed world will increasingly get much more difficult, with elite politicians telling us that they have no option than to tear up the last surviving elements of the social contract because 'we have no money left' – which is an ideological fabrication.
One of the reasons that Westminster politicians can get away with this is the broken nature of politics, democracy and government, but we can ill-afford to have any room for feeling self-congratulatory about the state of our home-grown democracy.
'Scotland Rising: The Case for Independence' by Gerry Hassan, published by Pluto Press, £14.99, is available from bookshops and direct from the publishers