September 26, 2019 12.16 pm This story is over 50 months old

Barry Turner: Where the chaos in our politics comes from

Democracy is under threat, there is no doubt about that

There tends to be an over use of hyperbole and comparison when it comes to the media commenting on politics these days. The “greatest crisis since,” the “threat to democracy is unprecedented,” or as Jon Snow tweeted yesterday “in all my 45 years of reporting, I cannot remember a more chaotic, divided, and disturbing period in British politics.” Jon should perhaps reflect on the fact that a significant amount of this “disturbing chaos” is itself a product of the press and media with their vivid imaginations and love of the high drama.

It is true that the display of anger and downright spite and bile in the House of Commons yesterday was an extraordinary disgrace on both sides of the House. I appreciate that MPs have every right to be angry at Boris Johnson’s illegal and cynical proroguing of Parliament, but that anger should perhaps be directed into sober politicking rather than howls of abuse. As for Mr Johnson’s thoughtless and hurtful invoking of a murdered MP’s name in his cause, well, no hyperbole is necessary to describe that.

The veteran reporter Jon Snow is of course correct in his observation, even if he is selective about the causes of our current political crisis. The behaviour in the commons was hideous and adds to the ever decreasing stock of UK democracy being played out to the world. This has got to stop or any grand aspirations of Britain’s post Brexit influence in the international arena will be risible.

Democracy is under threat, there is no doubt about that, in many of the world’s current parliamentary democracies. For many years now the political parties and other vested interests have insidiously eroded the institutions that uphold the democratic traditions of these countries. It is of great irony that one of the architects of this disregard for democracy is still constantly on our TV screens invoking the institution that he and his kitchen cabinet showed utter contempt for when he was in Number 10.

The proroguing of Parliament was undoubtedly another attack on our carefully balanced democratic traditions, based on the separation of powers and the rule of law. But it should perhaps be considered that this current “chaotic, divided and disturbing period” to quote Mr Snow, did not spring fully formed from the unlawful and undemocratic prorogation initiated by our current chaotic PM and his casually dressed Rasputin-like advisor Dominic Cummings.

Remember the referendum? Remember that it ‘was in or out’ and that David Cameron assured us that the will of the British people would be acted upon? Well, it wasn’t. The first trick pulled when Mr Cameron’s gamble backfired was a betrayal of democracy too. Far from implementing the wishes of the British people, Cameron ran for the hills to be replaced by an inept PM who had already left a legacy of failure from her previous role as home secretary. Scheme after scheme was rolled out to frustrate that democratic will, from delay after delay, to downright insulting of the electorate in calling it too stupid to understand what the referendum was about.

That too was an attack on democracy on a massive scale and one that now seems to be be forgotten and subsumed by the shenanigans of Boris Johnson and his cabinet. Whether or not you voted to leave or remain in that referendum, your democratic rights were subverted by the machinations of those who promised us the choice. No one who voted in that referendum ever expected that three and a half years after the vote that we would still be left to implementing its outcome.

Most of us knew that after more than four decades of membership of the European Project that it was going to be difficult to extract us from its institutions. Most people understood that leaving was a major constitutional and economic leap, maybe not completely into the dark, but certainly into the opaque. However, most of us expected the wishes of the people expressed in a free vote would be respected even if we did not like them.

Our democracy is not yet gone, that is a gross exaggeration favoured by those in some of our more ‘imaginative’ press, but is has been challenged. It is facing more challenges by the day and we should be eternally grateful that our democratic checks and balances are still there to push back against the radical and reckless behaviour of some of those elected to serve us and, hopefully those unelected ‘advisors’ they gather around themselves. The Supreme Court has served us well, far better than our opposition parties have. The Speaker of the House has in large part served us well, although his failure to censure the disgraceful behaviour of some MPs and ministers yesterday was disappointing.

The press and particularly the broadcast media however are failing us. There is a lack of reasoned debate in our media because they prefer the hyperbole, the rough and tumble and the chaos. In a free pluralistic democracy under the rule of law the press is supposed to be one of the guardians of our democracy. Not a bunch of touchline referees and irresponsible rabble rousers stirring up trouble for a ratings advantage.

British democracy is indeed in crisis and it will not be resolved by revelling in it or hysterical handwringing about it. It will not be resolved by character assassinations or scandal mongering, but by proper journalistic scrutiny and reasoned debate about all the issues, not just those that favour partisan positions.

Barry Turner is a Senior Lecturer in War Reporting and Human Rights and a member of the Royal United Services Institute.