A Very British Coup? Former royal navy Trident Submarine Commander Assesses
Dr Andrew Corbett, of the Joint Services Command and Staff College, delves into evidence that the Government is actively undermining British democracy
Coups happen in other countries – they are not something the public would ever expect in Britain. But could such a thing be occurring in plain sight here today or is this simply a wild exaggeration of a few bumps in road in our democracy?
Since Prime Minister Boris Johnson was voted into power, his Government has threatened parliamentary sovereignty, the independence of the judiciary, the independence of the BBC, the individual right to trial by jury and has undermined public confidence in all institutions of governance to an extent never seen before.
The net effect of all these measures could amount to a coup – a very British coup, one which will perhaps only be evident in hindsight.
The Government’s justification for such behaviour seems to be ‘the national interest’ – but the ‘Government’ and the ‘state’ here are not synonymous. When the two diverge to the extent that the Government starts acting in its own interest and to the detriment of the interests of the state, this can be construed as a coup.
Unfortunately, our unwritten and uncodified constitution is vulnerable to such a thing because it consists of a myriad documents and protocols which rely on any incumbent Government to act in good faith.
Assault on Parliamentary Scrutiny
As Brexit continued to unfold last year, the first potential assault was on Parliament itself.
On 30 July, the Government stated that a petition submitted to the Scottish Court of Session against the prorogation – the discontinuing – of Parliament was “hypothetical and premature” and that there was “no reasonable or even hypothetical apprehension that the UK Government intended to advise the Queen to prorogue the Westminster Parliament with the intention of denying before Exit Day any further Parliamentary consideration of withdrawal from the Union”.
A month later, on 28 August 2019, an Order in Council – formally made by the Queen acting on the advice of the Privy Council – was issued stating that Parliament could be prorogued on Monday 9 September at the earliest, until Monday 14 October. Only after this had occurred, was the Cabinet informed.
Documents submitted to the Supreme Court indicated that preparations for prorogation had been ongoing since mid-August. The Prime Minister’s handwritten notes, dated 16 August, stated that “I don’t see anything especially shocking about this prorogation”.
On 24 September, the UK’s Supreme Court unanimously found that the advice given to the Queen by the Prime Minister was unlawful, as was the subsequent prorogation.
Although the Coronavirus Act 2020 was designed to “enhance the ability of public bodies across the UK to provide an effective response” to tackle the pandemic, it also enables ministers – without recourse to Parliament – to postpone elections, referendums and petitions to recall MPs.
As COVID-19 inhibited business being conducted in the House of Commons, on 21 April, MPs voted to introduce a hybrid system, allowing them to participate in parliamentary proceedings either remotely or in person. The motion allowing hybrid proceedings lapsed on 20 May and the Government was determined to stop its reintroduction – thereby disenfranchising many MPs who were shielding with health conditions.
On 2 June, the Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg proposed a social distancing-compliant voting system that involved MPs queuing two meters apart for 45 minutes in a line that stretched through Westminster Hall and into the gardens.
The Conservative MP Robert Halfon complained to BBC News that the Government “was snipping away against the democratic rights of MPs, turning us all into parliamentary eunuchs”, but it was not enough to stop him voting against the end of the hybrid measures.
Limited virtual participation for those unable to travel or attend for health reasons or COVID-19 restrictions remain, but all voting will take place in Parliament in person.
The Russia Report
“There has been clear and proven Russian influence in foreign elections… [and] attempts in the EU Referendum,” was the conclusion of Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMS) report into ‘Disinformation and Fake News‘ in February 2019.
It found that “strong evidence” pointed to “hostile state actors influencing democratic processes” and made particular reference to the activities of Arron Banks and the Leave-EU campaign during the referendum.
Another parliamentary group, the Intelligence and Security Committee, started work on an inquiry into alleged Russian interference in British democracy in October 2017 and its report submitted to the Prime Minister on 17 October 2019.
On 5 November, the Minister of State for Europe Christopher Pincher stated in Parliament that “there is no evidence to suggest that Russia or the Kremlin has successfully engaged in interference in our electoral processes”.
During the 2019 General Election campaign, Boris Johnson said he saw “no reason to interfere in the normal timetable” for the report to be published “just because there’s an election going on” and added that he had seen “absolutely no evidence” of interference in “any British electoral event”.
Despite repeated parliamentary and media requests, the report remains secret.
Trust in a Crisis
The advice of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has included a very clear need to maintain transparency and public trust.
From the beginning, the Government has continually contradicted itself as it has become increasingly clear that truth and trust have been lost.
This was first evident when questions were asked on 26 March about the Government’s decision not to participate in the European Union’s collaborative effort to procure intensive care ventilators.
Asked why, a Downing Street spokesman said: “Well, we are no longer members of the EU.” That was amended later the same day in another statement which explained that an email inviting the UK to join the scheme had not been received. The week before, the Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said on BBC Question Time that the Government “engaged with that process today”.
On 21 April, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office reported to Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee that “it was a political decision”. That evening, Hancock stated in the daily Coronavirus briefing that there had been no “political decision”. Later that night, the Permanent Under-Secretary issued a retraction stating that ministers were not briefed by the mission in Brussels about the scheme.
This was followed by claims and targets for personal protective equipment and testing that were continually not met. But perhaps the greatest loss of trust followed the repeated denials and conflicting explanations surrounding the Prime Minister’s chief advisor’s trip to Durham during lockdown, including a car journey to Barnard Castle he claimed he made with his wife and child to test his eyesight.
The Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove was asked on radio “would you have gone on a 60-mile round trip to test your eyesight?” and responded: “I may have on occasion driven with my wife in order to make sure that… I am not an expert on driving matters.”
A YouGov poll for the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute reported a 19% drop in public trust between 14 April and 27 May in the Government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, a 13% reduction in trust in politicians generally, and 11% in the news media.
Politicisation of the Civil Service
The Government’s determination to politicise and control the Civil Service was first evident on 13 February, when the then Chancellor Sajid Javid resigned after being told by the Prime Minister that he must sack his entire team of Treasury advisors and accept a team nominated by, and reporting to, Dominic Cummings.
Javid was quickly followed out the door by Sir Philip Rutnam, the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, who resigned asserting that he had been a victim or “a vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign”.
Last month, the Cabinet Secretary and National Security Advisor Sir Mark Sedwill announced his resignation and his position was quickly filled by the special advisor and political appointee, Sir David Frost – the Government’s chief negotiator in the Brexit negotiations.
Threats to the BBC
During the 2019 General Election campaign, after a series of portrayals of the Prime Minister by BBC News that were perceived by him to be negative, Boris Johnson threatened to review the public broadcaster’s licence fee model. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury also threatened to include a measure to decriminalise the failure to pay the BBC licence fee in the next parliamentary programme.
Following the General Election, neither threat has materialised.
Sir David Clementi, the chairman of the BBC Board, appointed Tim Davie to replace Tony Hall as the corporation’s new Director General early, after speculation that Sir David, whose replacement is due in early 2021 and is in the gift of the Prime Minister, will be replaced by a more compliant political appointee.
The Right to Trial by Jury
According to evidence given by the Lord Chancellor to Parliament’s Justice Committee on 23 June, before COVID-19 arrived, there were approximately 39,214 crown court cases awaiting trial by jury. On 24 May, there were 40,536.
In order to deal with this crisis case load, the Lord Chancellor announced that he is considering reducing jury sizes to only seven and, in some cases, doing away with ‘judgement by one’s peers’ altogether and making do with simply a judge and two magistrates.
This change would require primary legislation and the Lord Chancellor noted that this would require approval before the parliamentary summer recess on 21 July. He has said this will be only a temporary measure – but this is open to question.
Where Will Diverging Interests Lead?
The evidence suggests that the Johnson Government has acted with a cavalier sang froid towards the concept of scrutiny – either parliamentary or through the media – which is incompatible with parliamentary sovereignty.
The Government’s actions suggest a desire to govern not through parliamentary democracy and scrutiny but more by executive fiat, where national interest appears to be aligned with the specific interests of the incumbent government, not the national interests of the state.
If the interests of the Government have been diverging from the interests of the population and the state, what might these measures cumulatively represent?
In hindsight, perhaps we will call it a coup and come to regret its impact on all our futures.
Dr Andrew Corbett, formerly in command of two Trident submarines, is a teaching fellow at the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, and the Joint Services Command and Staff College