As America celebrates the 244th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised that July 4th will also be “independence day” for the United Kingdom by reopening the country for business.
Yet, in both countries, coronavirus cases are soaring, particularly among American youth. In Bournemouth on England’s south coast, the BBC reported, “hundreds of thousands” of holiday seekers crowded the seafront last weekend, largely disregarding safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The disease takes up to two weeks to manifest itself. By mid-July, statistics will show how much these reopenings have refueled the virus and affected infection and death rates.
For the two greatest democracies of the last century, how each is coping with multiple crises does not rise to what Winston Churchill once called “our finest hour.” Beyond coronavirus, economic meltdowns, domestic racial protests in America and Brexit in Britain have not been well-handled.
Ironically, one crucial line in the Declaration of Independence may be very applicable to today’s crises. That line is not “all men are created equal.” It is this: “When government becomes destructive, it is the right of the people to alter and abolish it and establish a new one.” Today, both the U.S. and U.K. governments are pushing that boundary, raising politically existential questions.
Are the U.S. and U.K. political systems constitutionally capable of responding effectively to the crises and demands of the 21st century? Or have the bases for American and British representative democracies become obsolete and in a practical sense destructive?
The American Constitution rests on checks and balances among the three branches. Today, checks and balances are becoming increasingly unchecked and unbalanced. In the United Kingdom, without a written constitution, “government” means the prime minister and the Cabinet, where the Parliament, especially with a large majority, is more rubber stamp than active legislative body.
In the United States, the traditional values-based Republican Party is gone. The Grand Old Party — GOP — is now the TOP — Trump’s Own Party. Democrats have lurched to the far left. Partisanship has destroyed the measures of civility and compromise vital to ensuring divided government works.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has pushed the limits of his authority more than any prior peacetime president. Some 200 lower court and two Supreme Court judges of conservative leanings were appointed. Cabinet secretaries, especially at the Justice Department, seem to show greater loyalty to Trump than to constitutional oaths. And the president has fired significant numbers of inspectors and U.S. attorneys general who were investigating cases potentially damaging to him or his associates.
None of this may be illegal. But these and other Trumpian actions have certainly contributed to making government more disruptive and destructive. Congress cannot be spared from this critique. The House and Senate exist on separate planets. Failures so far to contain exploding debt, pass a policing reform bill and, worse, to write an infrastructure law illustrate how this branch of government has become impotent and thus destructive by inaction.
In the United Kingdom, Johnson has bungled the pandemic. Forcing Brexit to occur by year’s end could become a nightmare if agreement with the European Union is not reached — a task made more difficult by the pandemic. While Labor has rejected its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition is in disarray.
In the United Kingdom, a dual track approach is being considered to resolve potential cracks in its political system. The first would be a commission to investigate how well (or badly) the government was prepared for and reacted to coronavirus. That no national strategy was produced suggested that the Cabinet was not fully engaged. And reports of the Cabinet Secretary and National Security Adviser Sir Mark Sedwell resigning from at least one post, suggest all is not well at Number 10.
The second track is a constitutional commission to examine political structure. One upshot could be empowering both Houses of Parliament with greater authority for long-range planning and strategy, as well as revisions to the cabinet system and strengthening the National Security Council. Of course, the other issue is ensuring the best of the best enter politics. No reforms can guarantee that.
The United States is not following Britain’s lead. Thus far, no commission has been established, although the Democratic House will likely put in place an investigation into the U.S. pandemic response. As the 9/11 Commission was scathing in its findings, no doubt a COVID-19 panel will be equally or more critical.
In the time since 1776, perhaps most worrying is that the Declaration of Independence’s guidance on destructive government may never have been more relevant.
Harlan Ullman is UPI’s Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist, senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and author of the upcoming book, “The Fifth Horseman: To Be Feared, Friended or Fought in a MAD-Driven Age.”