The Silver Lining on Brexit: It’s the Institutions, Stupid.

Jennifer Raymond Dresden, Ph.D. 

The hand-wringing over Brexit continues apace. With reports of preparatory stockpiling, previously-secure immigrants scrambling for new residency status, and a British public that remains (no pun intended) deeply divided on the best course forward, there seems very little good news coming from our friends across the pond these days.  

On top of all this, Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently had Parliament suspended (“prorogued”) for most of the time remaining before the Brexit deal deadline  at the end of October. The justification offered to Queen Elizabeth II in requesting this (because technically only the monarch can prorogue Parliament) was that Johnson’s newly-formed government needed time to prepare a legislative agenda that would need to be presented by the Queen at the re-opening of Parliament (another quirk of the British system).  Most observers agreed that this was a pretty flimsy pretext and that really Johnson knew the House of Commons was unlikely to support anything he wanted to do before the Brexit deadline. Suspending a legislature because it’s giving you a hard time is not a good look for any democratically elected leader.

But one thing should not get lost in the gloom: the guardrails on British democracy are still doing their job.  

Before you give up on reading more right here, let’s be clear on a few things.  British democracy is unquestionably under major stress. Rhetoric has become incendiary and deeply divisive, right-wing populism threatens the multicultural identity that many Brits have worked hard to build, and there are more than a few Scots pretty ticked off to find themselves both in the UK and out of the EU after losing two different referendums in five years.  This is to say nothing of the very real concerns over whether Brexit will undermine the peace that has (mostly) held in Northern Ireland for the last twenty years.  

One could be forgiven for seeing Johnson’s recent move as sounding the final alarm on British democratic fragility. After all, anticipating significant legislative resistance, Johnson simply did away (temporarily) with the legislature. The move violated long-held norms that are at the heart of democracy in the United Kingdom and confirmed what many have been seeing as a drawn-out constitutional crisis. 

But here’s the thing: it didn’t work. Early last week, the move was struck down by the courts and Parliament is officially back on the job.  The true test of democracy’s resilience isn’t whether or not a particular leader pushes the boundaries of what is appropriate or even legal.  (If there’s one thing that political scientists can actually agree on, it’s that politicians will generally pursue as much political power as they can.)  The real test is whether or not the system can self-correct and preserve those boundaries.  

Preeminent scholar Andreas Schedler has identified this ability as one of the crucial differences between democracies and authoritarian regimes that also happen to hold elections, regimes Schedler and others term “electoral authoritarian” systems. In electoral authoritarian regimes, politics is a “nested game.” In the first “game,” incumbent and opposition parties compete in elections and over policy, just as they do in democracies. What distinguishes electoral authoritarian systems is that there is a second “game” afoot.  This is an additional arena of contestation and manipulation in which incumbents and opposition forces are simultaneously fighting over the rules of the first game. They are engaged in electoral and policy fights at the same time that they are trying to control the boundaries within which those fights play out.  

In democracies, this second game mostly doesn’t happen. The rules are clear and there are strong institutions in place to preserve and enforce them.  Most people follow the rules most of the time because challenging the institutions would be costly and unlikely to succeed. It’s just a better strategy to work within the institutional boundaries than to try to break them down, even if you would prefer that they weren’t there.  When scholars of democracy bang on about the importance of institutions, this is often what we’re talking about.

Which brings us back to the United Kingdom and Brexit. Johnson’s strategy seems to have been to try to undermine the rules that would keep him from executing Brexit as he would like. However, there have been several key moments where the institutions have held. The institutions that could legitimately check Johnson’s strategy did so while others declined to take actions that might have prevented prorogation but at the expense of damaging British democracy in other ways.

As a first example, when Johnson asked the Queen to suspend Parliament, she did it.  Some at the time had hopes that Queen Elizabeth would call out the alleged lie at the heart of Johnson’s move and refuse or delay the process. This course of action would have been good for Johnson’s opponents in the short term, but disastrous in the long run. The British system requires that the monarch be separate from politics.  To refuse a procedural request from a duly elected Prime Minister would have undermined the entire set of institutions predicated on the notion that political legitimacy derives from democratic elections.

Second, when Speaker-turned-internet-celebrity John Bercow found himself in the unenviable position of having to execute the formal process of prorogation, he did it.  It didn’t matter that Labour MPs drew on a 400-year-old playbook by making a show of trying to physically block him from doing it.  It didn’t matter that—as he made quite clear—he believed Johnson’s tactics were shameful. Bercow had an institutional role to play, and he did not attempt to subvert the institution by refusing to play it.  He, like everyone else, waited for the legal process of challenging the prorogation to play out.

Finally, that process reached its conclusion early last week. The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom ruled that Johnson overreached and accordingly nullified the prorogation.  The Supreme Court does not typically enjoy the wide powers of judicial review of its American counterpart and many anticipated that it might rule that it simply had no authority in the matter of prorogation. However, the court is positioned to check actions that are inconsistent with fundamental British laws. That is basically what it did last  week. This represents a shift from the court’s usual approach, but can certainly be read as consistent with its mandate. The good news for British democracy was twofold: the courts checked a Prime Minister who was almost certainly undermining his institutional constraints and (equally important) Johnson accepted the ruling.

This is not to say that playing by the rules is always the right answer.  There are unquestionably cases in which institutions are manipulated or so flawed in their design that complying (even under vocal protest) would be a grave mistake from the perspective of human rights protection, democratic stability, or the defense of other central values.  

It is also not to say that this story is over.  The Supreme Court’s unconventional ruling exemplifies how institutions are being strained by the current state of British politics. Events may yet lead to an even greater crisis that could overwhelm their ability to self-correct.

However, it does not appear that the United Kingdom has yet reached that point, thanks in large part to the strength of its institutions.  Whatever tribulations Brexit may still bring, it has not yet undermined the ability of British democracy to preserve itself.  

To borrow a phrase, this (for now) is what democracy looks like.  


JenniferRaymond Dresden, Ph.D., is the Associate Director of the Democracy and Governance Program at Georgetown University.