Boris Johnson has resigned as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, though at the time of writing (14 July 2022) he has not relinquished office. His defiance in his resignation oration at the podium outside No 10 and, the day before, in the House of Commons provides clear evidence of his presidential, or as I term it here, Caesarist ambitions. Repeatedly he spoke of his ‘incredible’ and ‘colossal’ mandate “from the millions of people who voted for us in 2019”. His 80 seat majority was not so much a victory for the Conservative Party but an endorsement by the voting public of his -Johnson’s- leadership. He felt empowered to speak over the head of his own MPs and of Parliament with its despised opposition parties to the British people. Rees-Mogg’s repeated defence of Johnson to journalists has been to emphasize the 80 seat majority as a collective mandate of 14 million people and not as 365 mandates. In that vein, we could say that the anti-mandate was 18 million votes. Rees-Mogg, who parades as a man of precedent, now proclaims that legitimacy derives directly from the people and not from the prime minister’s support in the House of Commons.
Johnson’s mumbled reply whether he was considering dissolving Parliament and call a general election before a parliamentary committee on 6 July, caused consternation among parliamentarians because it would be in effect a referendum on Johnson as a plebiscitary leader, speaking directly to the people and seeking not their votes for the Conservative Party but to his person alone. Has anybody done that in recent British political history? Tony Blair’s election campaign for his second term had more than a whiff of presidentialism – he was more popular than the Labour Party. Margaret Thatcher was eminently the leader of the Conservative Party, and she stepped down in 1990 rather than take on her party and Cabinet through an appeal to the electorate, an option she could have considered. William Gladstone is the only British case, when in his rise to becoming leader of the Liberal Party and his successful election of 1868, he appealed directly to the masses on the basis of his ethical and religious fervour and in doing so he triumphed over the old interests in the Liberal Party. His “charisma” transformed party politics and his election opened the way to fundamental reforms in the army, the civil service, voting, local government and the church.
Gladstone was one of only two modern politicians Max Weber referred to as charismatic. The other one was Teddy Roosevelt who overturned the Republican Party’s way of doing business, though failed to become President in the 1912 campaign. President Trump overturned the Republican Party and made it his own and became President in 2016 through speaking and tweeting directly to his base. Weber’s more frequent term for this type of politician was Caesarist rather than charismatic. Chancellor Bismarck was Caesarist, as was President Andrew Jackson, as was Emperor III Louis Bonaparte who modelled himself as a new Caesar. The outstanding classicist Theodor Mommsen made the political concept of Caesarism respectable. In his multi-volume Römische Geschichte (of the 1850s) he put the drama of the Roman Republic into modern terminology presenting Julius Caesar as a “democratic king” whose legitimate use of force created a nation by overcoming the divisions within a corrupt senatorial oligarchy. Julius Caesar in Mommsen’s words was a “creative genius”, also “a realist” and “a statesman in the deepest sense of the word”. This was a good look and Louis Bonaparte penned his own Histoire de Jules César. As a general Louis Bonaparte seized power in 1851 in a coup d’ état and then called an “election”, having widened the franchise, which became in effect a referendum on his assumption of power. Not so much an election as an acclamation and Weber wrote of such plebiscites: “The plebiscite is not an election but the first or renewed recognition of a pretender as a personally qualified, charismatic ruler”. Nineteenth century political commentary from that point onwards referred to Bonaparte III as Caesarist. Bismarck, in his constitution of 1871, engineered his own autocratic power by widening the franchise and restricting the power of liberal parliamentarians. His Caesarist rule lasted two decades.
Plebiscitary leaders defined as the direct election of a president by the electorate, a perennial of modern democratic politics, become Caesarist when democratic process and institutions are bent out of shape in order to keep the president in power. Elections are managed to ensure only the incumbent succeeds, continuity through acclamation. The essential skill of the leader is the gift of speaking directly to the people, which most party coached politicians lack. Periclean rhetoric has the power to re-define the demos. Demagogic skills are essential in order to arouse an audience emotionally. This is the gift that raises the leader above the average politician and above the conventions and restraints of democratic institutions. It assumes an emotional need in some large part of the electorate which is being continually ignored. In representative democracies whole swathes of constituencies, nominally part of the governing party, are routinely ignored. Think of all those northern Labour held constituencies in the Blair governments. Manipulation through technical politics and artful political messaging drives a cumulative discontent that has no realistic outlet.
Current political science has used the Caesarist model to characterize George W. Bush and Donald Trump in America, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Narendra Modi in India, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, and Recep Erdoğan in Turkey. All of these work within a democratic framework, but not Vladimir Putin who created an autocracy barely registering the Yeltsin liberal reforms. The playbooks are different but what they have in common is demagoguery, emotionalization of politics, the appeal to inward-looking nationalism, and ruthless use of social media. The trust of the masses is won by discrediting the elites and the “establishment”. The result is the concentration of power in the hands of the Caesarist leader. A major concern of this literature and the phenomenon of the “strong man” is where the line is drawn between constitutionally legitimate plebiscitary president and the emergence of the autocrat; where is the line crossed and how are institutions of the state, democracy and law deformed?
Trump is a failed Caesar. The House Hearings of June 2022 have shown how the line between democratic and legal election and Caesarist acclamation was successfully upheld. Boris Johnson is also a failed Caesar (though still in the building) unable to override his own parliamentarians, despite an extraordinary rise to power through the EU Referendum campaign and a whirlwind demagoguery of outrageous claims and falsehoods and appeals to “British” nationalism. Leaving aside Johnson’s forthcoming career as the politico-journalist of Brexit betrayed, what cracks are now discernible in the British state after its near melt-down? There are a number of headings I’ll briefly outline.
When Johnson threatened to call a general election rather than resign, commentators immediately wondered whether the monarch as Head of State would allow this. The sentiment was that she surely wouldn’t. But how can anybody know whether the Palace is an independent entity with a constitutional rule book to which it can refer for incoming requests? Many thought it strange in May 2010 that the Coalition government of Cameron and Clegg was formed so quickly -5 days- without proper consideration and publication of their joint government programme. Reasons for urgency were given by the Cabinet Secretary who had drawn up a Cabinet Manual, after discussion with the Palace, specifically for this eventuality. In the case of the formation of Theresa May’s government of 2017 she asserted to the Palace that it had the full support of the Democratic Unionist Party. That support turned out to be highly conditional. Then we have the notorious case in August 2019 of the prorogation of Parliament for 5 weeks. This was requested by the Prime Minister Johnson, and privy counsellor Rees-Mogg travelled up to Balmoral for it to be signed off. Scottish judges ruled this action unlawful because there was no accompanying rationale – a witness statement – for the decision. Prorogation would have occurred in the momentous weeks before the final date of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. Were the Palace unaware of this and why did they not ask for a rationale? So the question hangs unanswered whether Johnson’s threat of dissolution would have succeeded had the request reached the Palace. The Dissolution and Calling of Parliaments Act April 2022, which replaced the Fixed Term Parliament Act, states that the ability to dissolve parliament is once again a royal prerogative, exercised on the advice of the prime minister.
I have asked around about these questions and of course there is no constitutional rulebook that the citizen as commoner can read. My best guess, and I’m happy to be told otherwise, is that the Palace, the domestic and external security services and the Cabinet Office are an indivisible convolute that makes its own executive decision at these significant turning points. This is the rationale for the Cabinet Manual which, as everyone said at the time in February 2011, was not a constitutional document merely (!) an executive rulebook. I don’t see this as a conspiratorial deep state, rather as the permanent state and probably quite adhoc in its structuring. There is not much to suggest that the Palace exercises agency in its own right, as did George VI, at the present time. (Those with long memories, though, will remember the Palace’s complicity in the removal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in Australia. Murmurings suggest Prince Charles intends that the Head of State not be a passive role.) A competent Caesar in the absence of constitutional state law has ways to make the permanent state his own instrument.
The Prime Minister’s Office and the Civil Service
Partygate has thrown this into relief, though Sue Gray’s report has meagre pickings for the outside researcher, though we now know the Office of the Prime Minister has over 200 personnel. The language of the Permanent Private Secretary does not do justice to the personal apparatus of the Prime Minister. Gray did make a reasonable fist of expressing the higher civil service’s outrage over the Prime Minister’s subverting of proper administration, but essential parts of her report were redacted.
Max Weber, who wrote the blueprint for public administration – impartial, manned by career professionals, expertise, lines of hierarchy and competences (not quite the same as the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms) – is worth consulting on what Caesarists do to officialdom. He described it in terms of the American big city boss who is elected on the basis of his personality and who brings in his own appointees, totally loyal to him without any obvious expertise. This was part of the mid-nineteenth century American “spoils system”. Trump exemplified its resurrection, appointing on loyalty alone and leaving massive agencies with no head and top officials. This is documented by Michael Lewis (Fifth Risk 2018) where he predicted the danger of some airborne virus and that it would be discounted on political grounds. Anthony Fauci’s forebearance alongside President Trump is legendary, and tragic. Fauci now reckons the unofficial total of lives lost in the United States is three million. The recorded failure of Prime Minister Johnson to engage with the Covid 19 virus epidemic in the early months of 2020 is still subject to a delayed official report.
The Gray report makes clear that the Prime Minister’s Office was subverting the ethos of the Cabinet Office. To this can be added the well-known features of presidentialism. Ministers of state are subservient to the Prime Minister and his advisors. The communication machine is an instrument of the Prime Minister and not for public information (which backfired spectacularly in the Allegra Stratton YouTube incident). Heads of civil service departments are chosen not for their independence of mind but deference to the leader. The presidential trend in British politics has led to a strengthening of the executive and the deference of the onetime impartial and semi-autonomous civil service. Prime Minister Blair’s ‘sofa government’ and Prime Minister Johnson’s conduct of government represent a glorified court fusing special advisors and favoured top civil servants and ‘de-officializes’ administration in the name of direct control, but in reality leads to chaotic government, as noted by Alex Thomas in an article for Civil Service World. Peter Hennessy has for a long time argued that the Cabinet Office has lost its organizational rationale as the capstone of the departments of state, falling into the discretionary political requirements of the Prime Minister of the day. Caesarism takes this analysis one step further, there is no differentiation between the Prime Minister’s office and the Cabinet Office. In the Greensill scandal no one in the Civil Service at the time was aware that Jeremy Heywood was working in combination with Prime Minister Cameron. Unless the duties, ethics and jurisdiction of the Cabinet Secretary are strengthened, there are potentially a number of ways open for a British Caesar.
The federal and unitary state
As already mentioned the Caesarist politician feeds on unrequited electoral promises and the treatment of the citizen as invisible to the real concerns of Westminster. Caesarism is difficult to pull off in a federal polity. In the Swiss Confederation with such varying states and cantonal voting, fundamental citizen issues like immigration can be debated, voted and worked through. With a rotating head of state in a praesidium there is little possibility of an expostulating Caesar. For Donald Trump to overturn the 2020 election he had to try to coerce a number of state governors to come up with an alternative reality, in which he failed robustly as in the cases of Georgia and Arkansas. Bismarck came up with a federal polity for the German Empire and he created a political chamber (Bundesrat) for the 35 German kings, princes and free cities alongside the Reichstag. Unitary and yet federal, but the Bundesrat was completely undemocratic and it became the instrument of Bismarck’s autocratic rule. The German executive and legislature was controlled through the largest and most reactionary state, Prussia – a historical warning for England’s dominance within the United Kingdom.
Britain is a unitary state with devolved administrations in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Johnson infamously declared devolution to be a terrible mistake. In taking back powers from the European Union he re-patriated them to the unitary state. Any regional policy or advancement of particular cities lies in with the discretion of the Prime Minister and the executive.
With the decline of ideological parties based on class affiliations and culture and which did not hold back on expressive language, an inevitable decline in political enthusiasm results. Trade unions, party associations of whatever banner, lost their conflictual edge and rationale. The projected universality of the plebiscitary leader, embodied probably most of all in Tony Blair, does not despite heroic and sincere convictions fill the void. Johnson’s populist version made no attempt at universalism. Citizenship rights are defined and narrowed against the fear of the other, the incomer and the immigrant. Unsurprisingly, these issues are no longer so popular as labour shortages shrink the economy.
Britain is no longer a great power and the Swiss model should not be derided. As empire imploded the European Union gave the UK’s formidable foreign policy and worldwide links an obvious bulwark. With withdrawal from the EU, the implosion has accelerated shrinking the state, like some dark star, into the Office of the Prime Minister. Democracy at the regional and local level demand more.
The obvious solution, which has been suggested by many in Federal Trust and elsewhere, is that the ridiculous House of Lords is speedily converted into an Assembly of the cities, regions and nations. Probably not a Senate unless the monarchy collapses completely. The Assembly would be a legislative body not just a reviewing body, and the constitutional task – not easy – is to decide what issues are decided in the Assembly and what in the House of Commons. This offers a solution to Tom Dalyell’s West Lothian question. The Scottish National Party’s representation at Westminster at the moment is vociferous but without effective agency. Scottish independence is their preferred option but, if this is not achieved, reverting to the status quo at Westminster can hardly be entertained. An assembly, whether through direct or indirect voting – or both, would bring political representatives from across the United Kingdom’s different regions into a legislative assembly with the power to decide the distribution of taxes and revenues and the grounding of economic policy according to local needs and not determined by the present Westminster set-up in thrall to a rentier economy centered on London and the South East.
It is worth remembering that the rentier economy was given a massive boost by quantitative easing after the financial crash of 2008-9. What looked at the time as a terminal meltdown of the economy was avoided by ameliorative measures, initially seen as temporary but instead lasting a decade. We avoided the car crash with a desperate swerve of the steering wheel and then assumed the danger was past. The temporary measures were christened the “new normal”, the normalisation of the untenable. By the same token British citizens have avoided a stealth coup d’état but the danger still exists. Trump’s attempted coup d’état, unique for playing out in plain view, was stopped by officers of the law protecting the legislators. Here, The Sunday Times chief political commentator reported (on 10 July) that “Several senior ministers are understood to have contacted Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, asking how Johnson could be removed. […] Among their concerns were rumours that Johnson might ask the Queen to dissolve parliament and call an election.” Case sprang into action “pointing out to Johnson’s political aides that under the so-called Lascelle principles, which dictate when the monarch can refuse a dissolution, there could not be an election”. The Bonapartist ruse was stopped in its tracks. It seems there was some sort of rulebook, though it had to be conjured up from obscurity. And what might have happened if the cabinet secretary had been conniving with the Prime Minister, as Heywood did with Cameron on a wonga-type scheme?
There is plenty to look at here. Parliament exercises the prerogative of the crown, the prime minister’s power depends on the ability to command a majority of MPs in the House of Commons. Theresa May fudged this, Boris Johnson could have tried to dodge this by dissolving parliament (Bismarck was the pastmaster of this tactic). Contemporary plebiscitary politics and leaders seek by their nature to override checks – and the British system has few balances. The Head of State is not just symbolic but needs to be alert and functioning, and its rulebook given clarity. And if Britain is not to drift mindlessly into the oligarchy of the world’s other strong men, it requires democratic institutions that are relevant and meaningful to the multifarious people of our nations and regions.