A two-tiered, multi-stage, evolving coup, presently getting punctuated

by Ira Straus
Chair, Center for War-Peace Studies

17th September 2019

Coups d’etat are never just brief overturns. They are prepared over a period of time, punctuated usually by a coup de grace at the end.

Even military coups can gestate for months or years. Non-military coups are implemented as well as gestated over lengthy periods of time and often change the status quo radically. Coup-like changes are made from above by the government, with cumulative effects, punctuated toward the end by measures that crystallize the change to a new order.

The second, lengthy, radical, non-military coup is the kind that has been taking place through the Brexit process. It is nearly completed, although still, barely, reversible.

Evolution of the coup

The roots of the coup lay in a pseudo-democratization of the two major parties, gradually undermining the operational two-party software of the British constitutional system. Then there was a growing schism within the democratized Tory party over the EU. A PM attempted a risky referendum maneuver in hope of ending the trouble from the schism.

Mr Cameron in fact made a habit of staking the country’s fate on the roulette of referenda, calling three of them to try to shut up three wings of the body politic that he found bothersome: the Scottish secessionists, the LibDem proportional representation advocates, and the Brexiters. By the luck of the draw, he won the first two referenda. The defeated parties duly shut up for the time being. By the same luck of the draw, he lost the third one, Brexit.

This one loss turned Britain’s world upside down. It brought the PM and Parliament face to face with an unanticipated sense of commitment to a radical overturning of the existing order.

The coup began on the governmental level a few weeks later. It became a cumulative process, damages accruing to the constitutional order at the hands of two Brexit Governments in this period.

The Brexit referendum itself was a lawful advisory vote, perhaps an unwise one but in my estimation a fairly conducted vote. Its irregularities, though significant, can only militate against its being treated as binding, not against its being treated as a fair vote. The coup lies in the subsequent treatment of the referendum as sacred and inviolable, and in the policies pursued and doctrines advanced on the basis of that sacralization, culminating in the actions of Mr Johnson.

The first step in the coup was the resignation of Mr Cameron, leading to Party selection of a new Government based on an intra-Party rhetoric of obligatory commitment to the referendum outcome. The next step was the continued and escalated insistence by the new May Government that the advisory referendum shall be treated as binding and unalterable, over and above all other considerations of state; indeed, invoking its democratism in plebiscitary style as superior to the constitution norm of parliamentary, deliberative, representative government. The Government’s formula for this, “Brexit means Brexit”, was borrowed from Political Correctness with its “No means No” and “Zero Tolerance” lines; these lines were well-established memes for enforcing a single view as the exclusive priority, ruling out all further discussion and balancing of considerations. One might suspect some Tories of jealousy of the Left’s use of these lines in undermining public freedom; making it a kind of cultural appropriation, with both ends of the political culture coming to undermine the constitutional tradition of deliberative discussion and representative democracy.

This new Governmental language constituted already a kind of proto-coup against the constitution. It was a coup still only on the psychological level. It inexorably moved up step by step to the legal and institutional levels.

Since the referendum lacked concrete definition of its goal, the insistence on its binding and superior character impelled a definition rather than deliberation on its interpretation. This deepened the attack on constitutional deliberative behaviors. It proceeded by the device of installing a series of red lines, some of them mutually contradictory, in an attempt to define what specifically would henceforth be treated as unalterable.

This brought the psychological coup closer to a concrete coup. It eliminated the space for parliamentary deliberation that is the basic norm of the British constitution.

It was a coup the Government began to enforce through its control of the agenda of Parliament. It led the Government into a series of actions in contempt of Parliament. Already in that period, people began speaking of this as a coup d’etat against constitutional procedures. It finally moved the Parliament to hold the Government in contempt; something it did not do lightly.

This however did not stop the coup. The Government simply ignored the Parliament’s ruling on its contempt. The coup rolled on as if on auto-pilot.

The “Brexit means Brexit” line and its consequent red lines became embedded as a kind of Ten Commandments in Government doctrine, not just alongside the commandments of the constitution but superior to them and in practice overriding them. They were enforced by methods of threat and an increasingly demagogic rhetoric.

The language of pitting of the people against the Parliament was not only demagogic; it was a direct attack on the constitutional parliamentary norms. It was invoked to try, often successfully, to exclude the parliament from its normal roles. Then there were the threats. An occasional Brexiter hothead had spoken of violence in the streets if Brexit were forestalled. Mrs May raised that threat to the level of a Government threat against Parliament and society. This use of the threat of violence as a political enforcer was a further step in holding Parliament hostage[1].

An impasse sends the coup back to the Party level

Nevertheless the coup ran into an impasse. The Government was unable to force either its Brexit deal or acquiescence to a no-deal through Parliament. Mrs May chose in the end to make a political deal with her intra-Party extremists and resign. This transferred the coup back temporarily over to the level of intra-Party politics.

On the Party level, as we have observed, a coup of a different order had been underway for some time – in both major parties. The Conservative Party, having for years tolerated a radical Brexit faction that was repeatedly disloyal to it in crucial votes, and having tolerated UKIP activists infiltrating its structures, now gave itself over to that faction, on the argument that that fraction would at least not thwart itself and so would be able to act. It was akin to hostages with Stockholm Syndrome, who come to identify with their kidnappers and their ideology as objective facts that one is not permitted to contest, and begin to collaborate with them as the only way out of the situation.

The misguided democratization of the major parties in recent decades lay at the root of their radicalization. It transferred power to the party base, undermining the traditional methods of parties as private corporations for selecting the best candidates for the general election. The latter is the actual public democratic contest; the prior party candidate selection in a democracy is aimed at feeding the most appropriate candidates into this public democratic contest, not at being itself its own form of democracy. The transfer of power from the tried and true methods to the Party base is what led to the selection of Party leaders and, in this instance, a new PM by a narrow list of paid-up Party members. That list in any party comprises the militant wing of the Party base, unlike the much larger number of Party voters. The latter voter-pool, together with the Parliamentary party and the traditional Party apparatus, constitutes the real party: the historical party that understands itself, accurately, as a group formed out of a variety of experiences and aggregative processes into an entity fit for functioning within the British constitutional system of first past the post elections, which in turn favors competing for the center ground of the real public not pandering to the passions of party militants. The traditional party candidate selection rules had been set with that in mind.

The changeover in the last weeks to a radical Johnson Government – one fantasizing about the regeneration of British greatness through Brexit, selected by a narrow militant paid-up Party base, comprising personalities who were repeatedly disloyal to the previous, one-nation Party Government on crucial votes: this was not by itself a coup, but it gave a punctuation mark to the ongoing coup within the Party. Mr Johnson immediately threatened to make it a fully consolidated Party coup, stating he would de-select Conservative MPs who would not follow strict loyalty to his Government in their voting. He proceeded to carry out the threat, removing the whip from more than twenty members of his Party, members who unlike himself and his own ministers were reliable mainstays of the Party.

Mr Corbyn, it must be noted, has made parallel threats of de-selection against the MPs of the real historical Labour Party. The coup is not just a contingent willful set of specific actions; it is also a process with historical causation that affects both parties.

This is confirmed when one looks at similar afflictions in other countries. Britain is not the only country where a pseudo-democratization of intra-party life has occurred. The Cold War global competition over which side has title to the word “democracy”, opposing an old liberal representative regime replete with autonomous institutions on the one side to an all-pervading and transformative or totalitarian democratism[2] on the other; the 1960s New Left movements for direct democracy; a series of reforms aimed at extending democracy throughout the formerly autonomous institutions, at the expense of their own ways of doing things: this gives the phenomenon a global, or at least pan-Western aspect.

Bringing the coup back to the Governmental level

Having brought the coup to fruition on the Tory Party level, at least for the moment, Mr Johnson proceeded quickly to bring the coup back to the Governmental level with a series of radical actions, most visibly the proroguing of Parliament. Some of his officials and supporters quite openly refuted his proclaimed constitutional pretext, saying the real reason for it was to stop Parliament from doing anything effective against his Brexit plans. It was widely observed that this was a purpose outside of the constitutional norms; and a deception of the Queen in the advice the Government presented in order to compel her to proceed with prorogation. It did much damage to the institution of the monarchy, on top of the damage to Parliament.

With this, the rolling coup has been given a strong punctuation mark, akin to the punctuated evolution that gives shape to a new species.

Yet the coup is still not completed. Parliamentary resistance has, in response, to a new level of seriousness, although it remains probably insufficient. So has legal resistance from one of the three courts that have ruled on the prorogation.

It remains to be seen, in the weeks immediately ahead, whether the Parliament will revert to acquiescing in the coup by leaving its response insufficient, or will on the contrary reverse the coup and restore British parliamentary democracy.

Is the coup still reversible?

Reversal of the coup on the governmental level would require of the Parliament three steps, by now all of them widely understood:

1. A vote of No Confidence in the Government.

2. Formation of a Government of National Unity (GNU), one adequately representing the moderate actual majority of the Parliament and of the country.

3. A commitment of the GNU to a program of a second referendum, relegating any possible general election to later.

There is the additional matter of reversing the radicalizing coup within the two major parties. A GNU could create an impetus for renewal within both parties, but unless a path were found to carry this impetus to actual fruition, the parties would continue to create an impetus for coups on the official level.

On the official level, Parliament remains as yet reluctant about acting on Step 1, No Confidence, in the absence of prior majority agreement on Steps 2 and 3; agreement that has been obstructed by Mr Corbyn. At the same time, it knows that it has only days, no longer months, if the coup is to be stopped, and that a No Confidence vote might be followed by forming a GNU notwithstanding the lack of prior agreement. The outcome hangs in that balance.


[1] There was also a troubling dishonesty in this warning-threat. The officials of the May and Johnson Governments have been making plans for the chaos that would naturally ensure from Brexit and the violence all but inevitable in a hard Brexit, even while both PMs have threatened the opposite: blood in the streets from non-Brexit. They recognized in official practice that far greater potential for violence would come of Brexit than of non-Brexit. The Yellowhammer plans (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/831199/20190802_Latest_Yellowhammer_Planning_assumptions_CDL.pdf , paragraph 13) have only confirmed, on official paper, what was long evident: unrest, disorder, and community tensions are genuinely expected from Brexit; the talk of them as consequences instead of non-Brexit is a false flag, raised mostly for the sake of intimidation.

[2] This was discussed by Prof. J.L. Talmon in The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, 1952.