‘The US and the UK need to show that democracies really can hold their leaders to account.’
By Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times
Both Britain and America flatter themselves that their political systems are admired all over the world. The UK is the home to the “mother of parliaments”. The US is the “leader of the free world”. The two countries see themselves as mature democracies; models that other nations can emulate.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
But the last few years have shaken that Anglo-American complacency. Britain has suffered the agonies of Brexit and got through four prime ministers in as many years. The US saw Congress stormed on January 6 2021 in what was essentially an attempted coup by an outgoing president.
The troubles of democracy have deep roots in both countries. But they are also closely associated with two individuals — Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.
Trump and Johnson have championed a similar style of politics. Both have built up cults of personality, convincing their most devoted followers that they are men of destiny. Both are nostalgic nationalists, who have promised to restore their country’s greatness. Both claim to be representatives of the people against a self-interested elite.
Because they regard themselves as unique, indispensable figures, Johnson and Trump have felt free to break the laws and conventions that normally bind political leaders. When challenged or held to account, both have claimed to be the victims of a deep-state conspiracy.
This is a style of politics that is well known all over the world. The charismatic strongman leader — paranoid, power-hungry, unaccountable and surrounded by sycophants — is a sadly familiar figure. Just look at the ranting speeches of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who claims to see conspiracies against him everywhere.
For Erdoğan, the law is a weapon to be used against his political opponents rather than something that he himself must obey. The same is true for Vladimir Putin in Russia. In Turkey and Russia alike, the president’s political opponents frequently end up in prison, while the leaders themselves are never held to account, despite the accusations of corruption and abuse of power that swirl around them.
It is these questions of the rule of law and accountability that are central to the latest episodes of the Trump and Johnson soap operas.
The former US president has just been indicted for mishandling classified documents. The former UK prime minister has just resigned from the House of Commons after a committee accused him of lying to parliament about breaking the law during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The reactions of Trump and Johnson to their current travails are strikingly similar. They have followed the same paranoid and self-interested narrative, claiming that they are the victims of a political conspiracy and that the system is rigged against them and their followers.
Such assertions strike at the heart of the US and British images of themselves as mature democracies in which the rule of law is not a charade but a reality. The bleak suggestion is that governance in Washington and London is little different from Moscow or Ankara.
Both Trump and Johnson are fabulists for whom the truth is simply what is politically or personally convenient at the time. That style of politics is becoming more common and threatening. We live in a social media age in which “alternative facts” (in the words of a former Trump aide) can always be concocted, if the real facts prove inconvenient.
Any functioning, law-governed democracy must be based on the idea that there is such a thing as truth and that it can be established in a court or by a parliamentary committee. Crucially, that is very different from saying that Trump or Johnson must be found guilty. They have every right to protest their innocence. If either could prove it before a court of law or a parliamentary committee, that would be just as much a sign of democracy in action as a guilty verdict.
The courts, political parties and the voters all have a role to play in making sure that the rule of law and democracy function properly. Here, the outlook looks more promising in the UK than in the US.
The parliamentary committee that found against Johnson contains a majority of members of his own party. By contrast, very few Republicans in Congress have turned against Trump, whatever their private misgivings. The judge who will rule on the latest Trump indictment in Florida was appointed by the former president. She, too, must be seen to behave impartially.
If the courts do their job in an obviously fair and professional manner, it is more likely that their verdicts will command the respect of voters. A majority of voters, like the courts, also have to be able to resist conspiracy theories and “alternative” facts. That seems far from a sure thing in the US, where Trump remains the favourite for the Republican nomination and is neck and neck with President Joe Biden in the polls for an election.
The cases of Trump and Johnson will matter far beyond the shores of the US and the UK. If they are properly handled, it will send a vital message to people battling autocracies all over the world. America and Britain need to show that it really is possible to have a system in which political leaders are held to account — and where the rule of law is a reality not a myth.
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