Searches for the word “prorogue” spiked 12,000 percent at Merriam-Webster on Wednesday as the queen of England gave her prime minister, Boris Johnson, permission to “prorogue” Parliament until October 14. Proroguing, it turns out, is an elaborate word for temporarily shutting down parliamentary debate—and it happens regularly in Commonwealth countries. In itself, it is not cause for alarm. But when the duration of the suspension leaves just two weeks for Parliament to discuss what is arguably the UK’s most important existential question since World War II, then the prime minister’s decision to seek the suspension becomes weighty, even suspicious. As it stands, if Parliament does not come up with an agreeable formula to leave the European Union, the UK will simply crash out—the dreaded no-deal Brexit.
No one really knows what a no-deal Brexit would look like, because no country has ever tried to leave the EU before. The UK bureaucracy, as well as the private sector, has spent a lot of money on consultants trying to figure out what the various Brexit formulations could look like, but no one can be sure. Johnson and his supporters seem to be banking on the strength of an insular, inward-looking UK. But empire, as the Oxford set fetishizes it, is never coming back. The UK will never again be able to project power out while retaining a detached aloofness from its neighbors. What is certain is that given the extent to which the lives of Brits are intertwined with the continent, the aftermath will be messy and costly.
Predictably, there have been mass protests against the prorogation across the UK. The Brexit vote has divided the island sharply along nearly every conceivable line—age, geography, economic status, education level, and others. Johnson’s critics argue that his actions are tantamount to a coup. His supporters maintain that Parliament had unnecessarily politicized Brexit, and that the prorogation was necessary to “allow him to govern.” But the idea of politicizing a vote is incoherent. The people who are in the chamber are precisely where they are in order to deliberate questions that affect the lives of the people who elected them. And between an unstable pound sterling, uncertainty over Northern Ireland, and a potential Scottish secession, nothing is affecting UK lives more today than that October 31 deadline.
Still, using the word “coup” to describe the Brexit prorogation leaves a sour taste in the mouth of anyone living in a society that has survived one. It may feel good rhetorically, but given, for example, that former prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s son was involved in orchestrating one in Equatorial Guinea, more British people should perhaps be more sensitive to the gravity of the word. “Coup” suggests an illegitimate rise to power that undermines the legitimacy of the entire state. While there is certainly a manipulation of convention in this case, the prorogation itself was within the rules that Parliament sets for itself. The system is working the way it was designed to work, even if the outcome is unsatisfactory.
In countries with longer histories of electoral democracy, there is a tendency to talk down to emerging democracies. Around the world and particularly in its former colonies, the UK has been a chief proponent of the doctrine of stability—the idea that a stable government with flawed characters at the top was more beneficial for the international system than one in which people’s lives and dignities are respected. Earlier this year, the UK envoy to Sudan publicly supported and urged accommodation for a warlord responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands in the name of “stability.” Libraries could be built around books arguing that countries in the Global South shouldn’t be “rushed” into democracy, and UK observers are some of the biggest contributors.
So, in countries like Kenya, the fallout from the Brexit vote is being met with a certain schadenfreude. Like the British, we have been forced to accept the outcome of a dubious vote compromised by a private UK corporation. Kenyans boycotted, went out into the street, and inaugurated a “people’s president.” For that, we earned a stern lecture from Western diplomats about the value of “stability.” Our process was clearly flawed, but outsiders insisted that the long-term stability of the region was more important than a vote that reflected the true will of the people. Decades of preaching at voters in emerging democracies, and here both our societies are in the streets shouting that our voices have been stifled.
Certainly, none of this trivializes the real concerns that ordinary people in the UK have about what their future will look like. Political upheaval on this scale is undesirable, and protest is a sign that something is still working.
But if there is a transnational lesson here, it is that democracy is hard. People who live in rich countries often take their political stability for granted and assume that if other parts of the world are not democratic, it is simply because they aren’t trying hard enough, or don’t have the right institutions, or aren’t investing enough in whatever quick fix someone came up with during their graduate program. Brexit and its aftermath is the UK’s reminder that democracy is a system of participation and representation that requires constant vigilance—something that we now see is difficult to achieve even under the most ideal circumstances.