It’s hardly new to hear a British Prime Minister being accused of presidentialism by seeking to gather more powers to themselves at the expense of Parliament. Thatcher and Blair were both accused of it, sometimes with good reason, and one of the key tensions in any parliamentary democracy is where the balance of power lies between the executive and the legislature when there’s no clear separation of them.
A Twitter thread yesterday from my QMUL colleague Robert Saunders got me thinking some more about this in its current context. He used the idea of how the current government could be seen as a US-style administration (rather than the conventional government or ministry) where the leader at the centre is the source of power and executive authority.
As I wrote on Twitter, I generally agree with the thrust of Robert’s remarks here, but I find myself wondering if there’s a better angle to look at the attitude of Johnson, Cummings et al towards the British political system. Specifically, are they all Gaullists?
I’m not claiming here that the secret guiding ideology behind Johnson is a deep commitment to the ideas of the former French President, but rather that an interesting way to view his and his associates’ attitude towards the British government is by comparing it to De Gaulle’s role in bringing down the French Fourth Republic and creating the Fifth Republic with himself at its heart.
I’m not a historian of France so please excuse any simplifications or mistakes I make here, but my argument is that the general trends are the same, not that there’s a complete like-for-like resemblance between the two. The French Fourth Republic was a parliamentary democracy which (like the Third Republic before it) was often limited in what it could achieve because of a very fractured party system and factions within the parties. De Gaulle’s “certain idea of France” challenged this version of democracy and favoured a much more centralised and unified model based around a strong executive Presidency. In this view, the divisions caused by parties and factions, exacerbated by the key role of the National Assembly in the system meant that the system was not truly representing the national will. The collapse of the Fourth Republic over the Algerian crisis brought De Gaulle back into power to introduce a system in which power and authority came from the direct mandate of the President, not the Assembly.
That same tension between representative parliamentary democracy and the perception of a need for strong leadership is present in British politics. For at least the past two decades, we’ve had assertions that what local government in Britain really needs is strong leaders who can come in and sort everything out, and it’s not hard to get people to agree that that sort of leadership is what’s necessary for the country.
Does Britain really crave a strong leader?
Figures from a recent survey suggest the UK is lurching towards authoritarianism. Is this actually happening, and is it…
Consider that Johnson came to power promising to end gridlock in a divided Parliament and get things done, and since coming to power the instincts of the government have been to sideline those who would attempt to place limits on their power or scrutinise them in the exercise of it. (As I write this, Johnson is talking about the need for “Project Speed” to get rid of the “delay and bureaucracy” that gets in the way of things happening) And just as De Gaulle used the device of the referendum to embody the national will, so we see the Brexit referendum endlessly repurposed to give the government its mandate from the will of the people, which must be carried out. The governments of recent years are criticised as the equivalent of the Fourth Republic, too hidebound by the constraints of the system to be a true government for the nation, and instead power needs to be concentrated more in the already powerful to enable them to deliver for “the people”.
The nature of the British system, with the lack of a single written constitution, means any formal proposal to shift to a more Fifth Republic-style system is probably not likely (though if it were, my guess is it would be framed as some form of direct election of the Prime Minister) but it also makes it easier to make changes to the system, especially if ministers are not going to allow themselves to be constrained by precedent or continuity and are willing to use their powers to push wholesale change.
The key to understanding Gaullism is that if it’s an ideology of anything it’s an ideology of power and nationalism. Other concerns are subordinate to the the idea of the strong leader representing the nation in order to preserve and defend it. This, I think, is what we miss about this current government: it’s much more concerned with questions of who wields power and how it’s wielded than what that power actually does.