Karl Marx said that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the second as farce. Of course, that doesn’t preclude tragedy following the farce.
In March 1629, King Charles I ordered the prorogation of England’s Parliament. A prorogation is a suspension of proceedings. This was well within Charles’ right, since at the time the summoning, adjourning and dissolving of parliaments was understood as part of the royal prerogative. This time, however, was different. Parliament had only the previous year tortuously negotiated an agreement with the King to forbear raising taxes without its consent or to imprison his subjects contrary to law. Charles had violated these agreements, and Parliament was examining these violations among other matters. The members of the House of Commons had good reason to believe that the prorogation of Parliament would swiftly be followed by its dissolution and that Charles might now simply attempt to rule on his own and as he pleased.
Parliament could not prevent the King from sending it home. But some members had prepared a resolution condemning anyone, not excluding the King, who violated the previous agreement as an enemy of the commonwealth. The Speaker of the House could not recognize this resolution because an order of prorogation stopped all business. But several members, rushing forward, held him down in his chair until the resolution had been adopted.
When I taught the history of those times, this moment was always a dramatic highlight. It had consequences, too. Twenty years later, after a bloody civil war, a court whose dominant figure had been a freshman member of Parliament in 1629 sentenced Charles to death as a traitor and cut his head off.
This was one piece of history I did not expect to see repeat itself. But it did this month when members of the current English Parliament rushed its Speaker, John Bercow, who had just been ordered to prorogue it, and held him down as his predecessor had been nearly 400 years ago.
There were differences, of course. The prorogation was sent in the name of Queen Elizabeth II, but was the act of England’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson. Bercow did not resist being restrained but joked with the MPs who surrounded him. No one is going to lose his head over the matter, at least literally. But it is serious business nonetheless, the gravest constitutional crisis England has had in over a century. And it suggests some of our present political crisis too.
Johnson prorogued Parliament to silence it while he maneuvered to meet an October 31 deadline to leave the European Union. This deadline was imposed after Parliament rejected the terms of withdrawal negotiated by his predecessor, Theresa May. Without a withdrawal agreement, a so-called hard British exit from the EU would leave Britain without terms of trade or border controls with most countries on the continent, and uncertain status both for Britons living in Europe and Europeans living in Britain. The general consensus is that this would lead to severe economic disruption, including shortages of vital goods and a serious contraction of British trade and living standards over a prolonged period. More time to reach an agreement would thus seem critical, and Parliament, both protesting the prorogation and before submitting to it, resolved to seek an extension. It further passed a bill declaring that Britain would not leave the EU before reaching such an agreement. Johnson responded by stating that he would ignore both resolutions, and expelled 21 members of his own party who had supported them. The case went to the courts and is likely to wind up in England’s newly-instituted Supreme Court.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson breezily ignores laws he does not like. He happily flouts or perverts constitutional processes and defies any attempt by his legislature to restrain him or call him to account. He plays recklessly with the economic future of his country. And, oh yes, he is a habitual liar, blowhard and philanderer.
The English political system is very different from ours. There’s no written constitution. There’s no independent executive branch. The prime minister isn’t directly elected but is the designated leader of whichever party commands a majority in the House of Commons. There’s no term limit on service, but the party can remove him or her at will. Parliament — since 1911, essentially the House of Commons — is the principal organ of state. Its legislation can’t be vetoed or overturned by any person or body, the courts included. What keeps it in bounds is respect for traditional norms and liberties. But it can ignore those bounds if it wishes. The law is what that majority party, voting as a unit, says it is.
This sounds like a prescription for legislative tyranny. That’s not the way the present-day English system works, though. Parliament is a theater. The real power is in the hands of the prime minister. As head of government, he devises the annual legislative program. As party leader, he ensures that all party MPs vote for it on pain of expulsion from its ranks.
The prime minister also commands an executive bureaucracy that wields extensive legal and administrative powers. The military and police, the intelligence agencies, and state services in general are responsible to him. Counties and localities have no independent powers or revenues.
This is not an aberration. Most modern parliamentary systems have evolved in the direction of a sovereign executive. The same is true of our presidential system, which notionally provides checks and balances but where presidents have increased their powers steadily from George Washington’s day. Traditional monarchy, in short, may not have died with George III of England and Louis XVI of France. Under different names and circumstances, it may be alive and well in modern democracies.
Donald Trump cannot suspend Congress for weeks on end as Boris Johnson has just done. He hasn’t yet claimed the power to override Congressional vetoes. But he has invoked spurious emergencies to bend or break established laws and divert tax monies and treated the armed forces as a militia at his disposal. He defies Congressional subpoenas and orders his underlings to do so as well even when they no longer work for him. He hasn’t yet stated his intention to simply ignore acts of Congress as Boris Johnson has those of Parliament, but that may not be far off. In any case, Donald and Boris are birds of one feather. What they feed on is what remains of democratic government.
The men of 1629 who held down the Speaker of the House knew that they risked their lives and fortunes to declare acts against law to be treason, and that no court would protect them from a king’s vengeance. Does anyone on either side of the Atlantic have that kind of courage today?