openDemocracyUK

The power of 'us' can stop this coup

We may not be governed without our consent. Leavers and Remainers together can insist on it. Based on a speech prepared for a ‘Stop the Coup’ protest, 31 August 2019.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
1 September 2019
Woman in a crowd holding a small sign reading "I am really cross"
Remember what happened to Charles I
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Ben Birchall/PA Wire/PA Images

In cities and towns across the country we are demonstrating today "to defend our democracy!"

This might seem a strange rallying cry when we have a House of Lords and a monarchy and winner-takes-all politics and no constitution we can call our own. Where is the democracy we are defending?

It's a strange one. One in which liberty and pride in self-government is deeply embedded. Strong and rooted, even if we lack the real thing.

The Leave campaigners exploited both our spirit of democracy and its lack of substance with their slogan "Take Back Control". They rallied our passion for self-government and turned it against the powerlessness everyone in Britain experiences, by blaming the EU. A deceit – as many who voted for Brexit are learning.

Now we have to make ‘Take Back Control’ our call for democracy. I mean all of us, Leavers and Remainers. Most of us here are Remainers but we must reach out to Brexiteers to join us in defending our democracy.

Yes, our democracy. It is a strange, historic force. I’ve never forgotten one expression of it. Some years ago I watched a TV programme on the English civil war. At one point they filmed a discussion in a pub near Naseby, where the parliamentarian forces won a decisive victory over the army of King Charles I. A local said, “When we got rid of divine right to rule.” As he did so he hooked his thumb in the direction of the battlefield. It was as if the defeat of royal forces in 1645 had taken place as recently as 1945.

It was his "we" that struck me. It was a quiet, inclusive, all-of-us kind of "we".

This is a country where the Queen is deeply popular. But we all know that when her predecessor became too grasping and tried to crush Parliament we chopped off his head.

Over there are two ladies holding a banner that looks as if they made it this morning. It says “OFF WITH HIS HEAD”. They are very peaceful-looking ladies with nice smiles who would be happy to make you a cup of tea. Yet they are holding a bloodthirsty slogan.

This is only possible because of our history. In any other country they could be arrested for incitement to extreme violence. But we all know they are not calling for the return of the death sentence. They are summoning up the spirit of the Levellers – the first modern democrats in the world. Those who before any other society called for political equality. They were women and men who in the epochal, seventeenth-century English of Thomas Rainsborough demanded “that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government”.

Let me repeat those fantastic words as we’d say them now: all of us who live under a government must first, by our own consent, agree to be ruled by that government.

And what we know up and down the land is that if indeed Parliament is shut down for five critical weeks as the future of this country is decided, then we will be put under a government that we have not consented to be ruled by.

For consent does not mean government you agree with. It means one that accepts the rules of democracy.

Even if it is only for five weeks, if the accountability of our government is frozen it will be five weeks of tyranny, every day of which will be an unacceptable experiment in modern dictatorship.

This is what our two ladies over there are saying with their banner. We have seen it before, and we have done it before. We have smelt the foul odour of unaccountable power and we have felled it. It shall not pass. Tyranny will not prevail in our land.

The spirit of our democracy has its heroes – Milton, Wilkes, Paine, Shelly, Pankhurst – and, as important, it has its unsung activists. The last time we stopped despotism in its tracks was when Margaret Thatcher pushed through a Poll Tax designed to drive the poor from the electoral register. The riots that followed had no leaders.

Now it is the turn of a new generation. To save our environment from extermination, to reignite our spirit of liberty, and this time to turn England into a real democracy.

For we can no longer abide a system where, since the Iraq war, prime ministers are not even checked.

Now the post-war culture of consent has been shattered by a polarisation over what kind of country we we will become. Our political system is broken. But our centuries-old democratic spirit is stirring. This is our land. On it we will create a modern liberty, international in spirit, open-minded, welcoming and intelligent. One that will bring together both Leavers and Remainers as we really start to take back control from the likes of Boris Johnson, David Cameron and Tony Blair to build a real democracy now.

Theirs has been a long, slow coup. It will be the fight of our lives to stop it. But we can win: OFF WITH ITS HEAD!

Based on a speech prepared for the Oxford ‘Stop the Coup’ protest 31 August 2019.

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