No, British democracy isn’t safer than America’s

I read it somewhere over the weekend and thought, “Fair enough.” I heard it from a colleague, and went, “OK, but . . . ” By the time non-political friends were saying it, I knew the idea was so widespread that it must be shaky.

This is the claim that Britain is in better civic health than America. And that Boris Johnson’s resignation as an MP is proof. First, let us grant that Conservatives in parliament are less far gone than Republicans in Congress. Hail Sir Bernard Jenkin, for example, a pro-Brexit rightwinger and still a conscientious member of the committee that is holding Johnson to account. If we judge a polity on the comportment of its centre-right party at one point in time, Britain wins.

But why would we? Here are some other things to consider.

America evicted Donald Trump in an election. Britain didn’t do that to Johnson. This is because, when it had the chance, he was up against someone yet worse in Jeremy Corbyn. That 2019 election, the worst choice in the UK since the universal franchise, has no modern American equivalent. Both main parties in the US tend not to roll around in the ethical mud at the same time. Britain’s did. With the police investigating the Scottish National party, the three most important parties in the kingdom have malfunctioned within a few years of each other. There is no equivalent of the Democrats, a party with lots of silly ideas but also a bare minimum of standards that anchors the overall system.

What else might an American observer find off about UK politics? Well, the last premier to attain the job in a general election was David Cameron 13 years ago. Since then, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have reached 10 Downing Street through the internal workings of the Tory party, which has fewer than 200,000 people in a nation of 67mn. Imagine if the automatic prize for winning the Republican primaries was the White House.

The next UK election will be the fifth in my lifetime that might better be called a “ratification”, with voters keeping or ditching an unelected incumbent who has already changed their lives. When May closed off the option of European single market membership for Britain, and Truss did her tragicomic budget, each had fewer votes to their name than a Wyoming senator. In a parliamentary system, to be clear, this is legitimate. It is also licence for the utmost abuse.

And even this isn’t the most invidious comparison with America. That is the House of Lords. More than 700 unelected people can claim a tax-free sum of up to £342 a day for clocking in to an upper chamber that is — a global rarity, this — larger than the lower one. And they can do so forever. If this racket did no practical harm, you could string together some Burkean bromides about leaving well alone. But look around. The Lords is such a treat that politics is increasingly distorted by the clamour to get in. How much of the cringing deference to Johnson, or any leader, boils down to the hope that it will lead to ennoblement?

I suppose it comes down to this: if you were a demagogue, would you choose to operate in Britain or America?

Even with a Republican Congress, Trump was boxed in. His main legislative achievement was a tax cut that a Bush or Reagan might have passed. His wall never materialised. The Supreme Court trammelled him. It is true that a UK premier cannot infuse the judiciary or executive bureaucracy with allies. But in most other ways, the office is a megalomaniac’s dream. In normal times, there is a debate to be had between Britain’s Napoleonic executive and America’s separation of powers. In these times, when a rogue might be head of government, I’m not sure there is.

Britain is much too easy a country to wrench this way or that. It has changed relations with its own continent on the back of a 52 to 48 per cent vote in a referendum that was set up as an internal party management tactic. In the US, a mere amendment to the constitution must clear such daunting barriers that one hasn’t passed since 1992 (and even that just wrapped up an old proposal from 1789). In a sense, the UK has more democracy, which perversely imperils the democracy it has.

The US, no doubt, is more given to anti-democratic violence. But at times, from the British discourse, you wouldn’t know that MPs had been murdered, and the likely next governing party investigated for antisemitism. One other thing. Trump turns 77 on Wednesday. Johnson is 58. If each is determined to haunt their respective democracies for the rest of their lives, Britain has to settle in for the longer ordeal.

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