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Bill Emmott: The will of parliament vs. the 'will of the people'

Bill Emmott (Mainichi/Koichiro Tezuka)

By Bill Emmott

In Europe, we are facing two political crises at the same time, both of which stimulate reflections on the nature of constitutions and the current populist challenge to postwar traditions of liberal democracy.

The most serious is the one in my country, Britain, where we have a new prime minister who in September will begin a power battle with our own Parliament over the manner in which we leave the European Union and whether there ought to be a general election first. Prime Minister Boris Johnson's parliamentary position is weak, so in response he is behaving like a strongman or bully, both towards the rest of the EU and the members of his own Conservative Party.

There is also a political crisis in Italy about whether to have a general election, which also brings with it a risk of a financial crisis, given that that country has the second largest public debt as a share of GDP among the world's big economies, second of course to Japan. In Italy the crisis has also been caused by a politician with a weak parliamentary position, Matteo Salvini, who thinks his League party could win a general election if one were called early. Normally, Italy shouldn't be having another election until 2023.

In both of these cases, populist campaigning techniques are playing a big role, in which claims to know the true desires of "the people" are made so as to try to overrule the judgments of elected representatives in Parliament. In turn, this clash between parliamentary democracy and the apparent popular will could make life very difficult for the Heads of State of our two countries, Queen Elizabeth in Britain and President Sergio Mattarella in Italy, if they become required to act as umpires in these contests.

In Britain, this populist challenge has become possible because of our referendum in 2016 about whether to remain a member of the EU or to leave, which was a big constitutional innovation. It was only the third national referendum in our history. The problem is that the simple choice in the referendum -- leave or remain -- offered no guidance as how to make the much more complicated political choices that arise when leaving a supranational legal entity that is Britain's main trading partner. Parliament is supposed to make those choices, but it has become deadlocked.

For that reason, after three years of failure by the previous Conservative prime minister, Theresa May, to get Parliamentary agreement on the manner of Britain's withdrawal, she was forced to resign and the party chose to gamble on Boris Johnson as her successor. Since a disastrous general election in 2017, the Conservatives have not had an absolute majority in Parliament and so have had to govern as a minority executive, supported by a Northern Ireland party, the Democratic Unionists.

This makes government impossible for Prime Minister Johnson too. On Brexit, the latest deadline for Britain to agree upon and pass through Parliament a Withdrawal Agreement with the EU is Oct. 31, in just two months' time. Without a majority, PM Johnson cannot hope to get any laws through Parliament in that period. Hence he is threatening just to take Britain out of the EU on Oct. 31 without any formal agreement, which would also mean defaulting on the country's debts to the EU. No new laws need to pass Parliament to achieve this default and "no-deal" Brexit, which is why this weak prime minister can make this bullying threat.

He and his supporters claim that, although such a "no-deal" Brexit risks being chaotic and disruptive for trade and the economy, even likely leading to shortages of food and medicines, it represents "the will of the people" as it would at last satisfy the 2016 referendum vote, which Leave won narrowly by 52% to 48%. Parliament, however, is determined to stop such a chaotic Brexit, either by winning a no-confidence vote to force a general election so as to test "the will of the people," or by passing their own laws forcing PM Johnson's government to extend the Oct. 31 deadline until a new agreement can be reached with the EU.

In an effort to avoid this, PM Johnson made a surprise announcement on Aug. 28 of an unusual extra suspension of Parliament for about a month until Oct. 14, so as to reduce the amount of time his opponents have to get their own laws or no-confidence votes passed. This will cause a big confrontation in the coming days. Already, this has put Queen Elizabeth in an awkward position. Like the Japanese Emperor, our Monarch is supposed to be symbolic and independent of politics under our unwritten, informal constitution which relies more on conventions than on laws. She and her officials had no choice but to agree to the extra suspension, since to oppose it would have been too political an act.

Italy has, like Japan, had a written constitution since its defeat in World War II. It voted to replace its own monarchy with a president who is chosen every seven years by Parliament. Italy's head of state is forced to act as a mediator whenever a government has to be formed or when a coalition breaks down. That is what happened in August.

Matteo Salvini is Italy's right-wing populist, and was the junior partner in a two-party coalition government formed just 15 months ago in May 2018. Since then, his party has risen in the opinion polls to double its 2018 level, and he therefore thought that with new general elections he could become prime minister. Parliament, however, disagreed, and with President Mattarella's consent has just agreed to form a new coalition government, replacing Salvini's party with the center-left Democratic Party. The question now is whether the new coalition can survive.

These two major European countries are therefore both engaged in battles between the will of Parliament and populist claims to know an alternative "will of the people." For the sake of stability and peace, I hope the parliamentary approach wins. But the contests promise to be fierce.

(Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)

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