More Chaplin than Churchill? We will be laughing at Boris Johnson as the ‘Great Dictator’?

Peter Lomas argues prime ministers hold dangerous amounts of undemocratic and unilateral powers.

Questioned, at the G7 July summit, about the problematic status of Northern Ireland in the EU Withdrawal Agreement, Johnson hinted at ‘pragmatic solutions’. So far these have meant the UK government twice breaking the Agreement, in principle and in detail. Next step may well be denunciation of the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Agreement itself. But the chilling remark with which Johnson concluded his answer deserves more attention: ‘It is the prime duty of the UK Government to uphold the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom’.

In my experience, when political leaders talk about territorial integrity this invariably means a diversion from the issues at stake – a recourse to the absolute terms of state power. For Northern Ireland today, it means a refusal of a referendum on Irish unity – although a majority of Northern Irish might want one, and Irish unity would solve the province’s problematic EU status at a stroke.

More generally, ‘the prime duty’ of state governments is arguably not to defend the territorial integrity of the state, come what may – that was Machiavelli’s dictum – but to consult, and then respect, the interests and wishes of the people whose trust they hold. People and state are not the same thing. When dictators the world over appeal to sacrosanct territorial integrity, what they really mean is: ‘fight with your neighbours, or among yourselves, on my behalf’.

Territorial integrity is a shibboleth. Since 1750, a state called Poland has disappeared from the map of Europe and reappeared – sometimes in a slightly different place – while ‘Germans,’ ‘Russians,’ ‘Ukrainians,’ and ‘Lithuanians’ argued that ‘Poles’ did not exist as a people with the same patrimony as themselves. Meanwhile, life went on regardless. Farmers ploughed and grew the grain while others changed the nomenclature of their fields. States have no final shape; nor do nations, only an original one.

The principle is borne out in the history of the UK, as a voluntary association of original nations making up, in theory, a kind of super-nation above them sharing sovereignty. As a state, the UK is inherently open to dissolution or change. Like, in turn, the EU. But this is why Johnson is such a dangerous politician, because he denies both these expressions of democratic will, and he holds the power to do so, indefinitely. In 2019, he suspended the UK parliament in order to force through the UK’s exit from the EU, and in 2020 he refused, on wholly-bogus grounds, the Scottish First Minister’s request for a second referendum on Scottish independence.

In large part, his thinking is sound, because his personal power over the UK is almost unlimited. His post, as Lord Hailsham once said, is an ‘elective dictatorship’. Johnson is free to refuse a second EU referendum, or a second Scottish referendum; free to allow IndyRef2 and ignore its result; free even to override a Supreme Court order to implement an IndyRef2 vote in favour of Scottish independence. Free to do all these things until 2024, and free then to choose the date of the election to suit himself, because he’s an elected dictator. Elected, yes; but by a population, in England, which with eight votes to every Scottish one evicted Scotland from the EU. The two matters are, of course, linked which is why the two referenda have been, at Westminster, consistently refused.

Last November, I wrote to the House of Commons Committee on Constitutional Affairs, formally asking it to denounce the Prime Minister’s letter of January 2020, in which he claimed that the SNP leaders in 2014 had made a self-denying ordinance – in his words, a ‘promise’ – ‘for a generation’ not to seek a second independence referendum. This was false: they had merely described the 2014 vote as an ‘opportunity’ – to choose, or to decline, Scottish national independence. A promise binds me; an opportunity which I hold out to you sets you free. So, it would be with IndyRef2. However, the Commons Committee did not deign – or were intellectually unable – to reply to the logic of this argument. But then, what use is a constitutional committee in a country with no written constitution? The Scotland Act 2016, reserving constitutional matters to Westminster, is yet another violation of the free-association principle of the 1707 Act of Union.

The crude superiority of states and their ‘integrity’ over live nations’ democratic will is something that dictators instinctively understand. It is hard, therefore, to see how any democratic choice on independence, or EU membership, in the UK can be exercised when the UK government is personated by someone who opposes all forms of democratic change.

Philip Reynolds, a distinguished commentator on international relations, wrote courageously during the Cold War, when global fear seemed to stand in the way of fundamental progress in the condition of nations: ‘the ‘national interest’ which is at stake is that of people, not of the state, which is an abstraction. Service of the ends and values of people may require the submergence of the state. The state is not a person. It has no innate moral attributes. It has no honour. It has no inherent right to survive.’

Dr Peter Lomas is the author of Unnatural States: The International System and the Power to Change (Routledge, 2017).