Checks and balances are the skeleton beneath our body politic. The simple but powerful idea that you should not centralise power to one person or institution holds much of our democracy together – and you only really notice it isn’t working when it’s already too late.
So, 250 years later, the clarion call of James Madison (one of the architects of the US constitution) should be remembered more than ever. “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."
Whilst it is now received wisdom that under a Trump presidency, Madison’s homeland is struggling with its own checks and balances, we should also be looking closer to home.
Because underneath the auspices of its largest parliamentary majority in 40 years, the Conservative Party are currently dismantling any form of opposition – real or perceived – from their path.
Johnson’s new look Conservative Party is already famous for its contempt towards the BBC and our independent judiciary: they both made the grave mistake of doing things the government disagrees with. Whether judges make rulings against the unlawful proroguing of parliament, or the BBC provides “extensive coverage” of a four-year-old boy with suspected pneumonia sleeping on a hospital floor, they’ve ran afoul of Dominic Cummings and company.
Now there are plans to limit the powers of the courts by a newly hostile attorney general, and to scrap the BBC licence fee.
The civil service, long deemed part of the liberal establishment, are being either bypassed or threatened with reforms, unless it bends to the government’s will, or the will of an unelected government adviser. Lord Kerslake, the former head of Civil Service, argued that if “Cummings is now a de facto minister on these issues, he should be able to be called to account through parliament.”
But it’s not 2019 anymore, and any hint of a reversal of the long-term decline of the role of parliament is well and truly over. The government doesn’t even deem its immigration reforms important enough to run by the legislature, announcing their plans this week, whilst not intending to submit any form of immigration bill for weeks, if not months.
Even inside government, usually there are different and conflicting centres of power. No 10’s relationship with the Exchequer tends to put a stopper on projects which are on the wrong side of grand, but Sajid Javid was told to let his office be run by No 10, and he paid the price for his refusal. Replacing him, Rishi Sunak has accepted a joint adviser team as the cost of his advancement to No 11 for the first time in history. Cabinet used to hold prime ministers to account; this Cabinet used to hold prime ministers to account; this one is Johnson's backing band, taking part in call and response chanting.
If you think all of this fundamentally unconservative, you would be right. A party which has long prided itself on incremental change and practical solutions has turned into something else entirely. There is no ideological framework to get tied down to here, insofar as Boris Johnson has an ideology and it appears to be the singular advancement of Boris Johnson. Dominic Cummings, his most powerful advisor, seems to just – like Heath Ledger’s joker – want to watch the world burn.
But obviously, don’t report on any of this, because you might be deemed to work for the wrong news outlet and be shut out of official government briefings as a consequence.
All of this operates in the context of her majesty’s official opposition (the Labour Party, if you genuinely need reminding), being mired in its 10th week of a leadership contest that threatens to carry on forever. Couples on Love is Blind have met, got engaged, married and then divorced in the time it took Labour’s nominations process to end. If we’re looking for someone to hold the government to account, we might have to wait a bit longer if they’re wearing red.
Across the world, self-proclaimed strong men are trampling over legal and democratic norms in democracies of all shapes and sizes. And instead of reviling men like Trump, Erdogan, Modi, Putin, Orban – and Johnson – their voters often support them, or believe that their autocratic tendencies are a justifiable means to an end.
Indeed, even amongst people my age in the UK, there is a marked decline in support for liberal democratic principles. Onward, a leading moderate conservative think tank, showed in a report last year that 66 per cent of 25 to 34 year olds favour “strong leaders who do not have to bother with parliament” and 26 per cent believe democracy is a bad way to run the country.
To undermine one democratic institution may be regarded as misfortune. To trample over pretty much all of them is definitely not careless. It’s deliberate, and we should all be concerned.