“Meddling” and the mindset of Trump and Johnson-Cummings

11th August 2020

President Trump says a lot of tosh but sometimes a word or phrase is telling.


Here Trump goes on to make a partisan point about the Democrats “wanting and insisting on sending mail-in ballots, where there’s corruption all over the place”.

An opposition party in a democracy seeking to encourage the turnout for a vote is not, of course, sinister.

That is what political parties do in a democracy.

And if there is corruption or other irregularities then that is what electoral law is there to regulate. 


But this is to take his substantive point too seriously: the issue is the ease with which he adopted the word “meddling” from the question and employed it in his answer against the party challenging him in November’s election.


The impression he gave is that he considered the legitimate political activity of a political party as a hindrance – a wrongful intervention in the natural order of things.

And this impression is similar to the impression given by the Johnson-Cummings government in the United Kingdom in respect of constitutional checks and balances on the power of the executive.


Before the general election, when Johnson-Cummings did not have a majority in parliament there was the attempt to bypass the legislature with the (unlawful) use of the prorogation.

After the election, now they have a majority, the main attacks are on the independent judiciary and the impartial civil service.

The impulse is always the same: the desire to remove formal impediments.

There often seems to be no greater purpose – no particular policy to be driven through – than unrestricted executive power as an end in and of itself.

The objective is the elimination of anyone in a structural position to say ‘no’ or even ‘please think about this carefully’.


By framing any such restraints as “meddling” the executive-minded, such as Trump or Johnson-Cummings, are doing three things.

First, they are seeking easy claps and cheers and nod-alongs from those in politics and the media who should know better, as well as from voters generally.

Second, they are signalling that they consider any form of opposition to them getting their way as inherently illegitimate – and so that there are no constitutional or democratic principles of more import than the government just getting its way.

And third, they are converting basic constitutional or democratic principles into partisan devices – and so those who support and defend certain political fundamental norms (regardless of party) become part of a perceived opposition.


The worry is that they can and will get away with this for as long as possible.

There are, of course, often short-term political advantages to be had for the knave or the fool by undermining any political and constitutional system.

And one hopes that the system would be self-correcting, and that basic constitutional and democratic norms will somehow reassert themselves.

But what happens when, as now seems to be the case in the United Kingdom, such opportunism and cynicism become the ongoing policy of the government?

Will basic constitutional and democratic norms reassert themselves this time?

Or will this ‘executive power project’ carry on and on?

And, if so, wouldn’t that be genuinely ‘meddlesome’ behaviour?


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18 thoughts on ““Meddling” and the mindset of Trump and Johnson-Cummings”

  1. Historically, I suppose, the power of a rampant executive has tended to be checked either by outright physical opposition (eg. Civil War) or, more prosaically, by the executive’s need for money, usually to fight foreign wars. Crown borrowings had to be underwritten by parliament. Taxation had to be approved by parliament. No longer could the King attempt to tax at will and no longer would the merchants lend him money without some guarantees. Thus did parliament finally win the long struggle against overweening executive power in the late seventeenth century.

    I wonder if there is any way of applying financial and fiscal pressure of this sort on an overweening executive in the twenty first century.

  2. One has formed the impression that Johnson-Cummings seem rather unconcerned about winning the next General Election or even any in the period between now and then.

    We should not forget these words from Cummings’ “Weirdos and Misfits” blog post, “c) a new government with a significant majority and little need to worry about short-term unpopularity while trying to make rapid progress with long-term problems.”

    I am not sure if the likely fierce reaction to the wide ranging changes in the planning laws will amount to a pre-emptive self correction, but I suspect it may prove to be Cummings ‘ Poll Tax moment. Another reminder of his complete lack of emotional intelligence as any changes are unlikely to result in just short term unpopularity.

    Contrary to the opinion of some on the Far Left, the Poll Tax was not set aside by a handful of them throwing a few scaffolding poles at the end of a mostly peaceful demonstration, but by sober citizens sidling up to their Conservative MP in the Association bar or down the golf club for a quiet chat.

    “Up with this we will not put, old chap.”

    Not so long ago, a certain Conservative MP, representing a rural seat in Sussex, was a big fan of fracking. Until that is someone applied to frack in his constituency. Now imagine any suggestion of changes in the planning regulations making fracking easier than today.

    The legion of NIMBYs, NUMBYs and BANANAs await.

    And Johnson, a fierce opponent of the extension of Heathrow Airport ought to know all about those chaps and the influence some of them wield.

    And planning is one of the few major roles remaining for local Councillors …

  3. Correction: “One has formed the impression that Johnson-Cummings seem rather unconcerned about winning the next General Election or even any election in the period between now and then.”

  4. I’m not sure how much of this is genuinely new, or whether most of it isn’t our having to readjust for the first time in a decade to having a government with a secure majority. The fundamental problems with our constitutional arrangements seem to me to be, first of all, our lack of a written constitution. Secondly, our first past the post electoral system that has customarily produced single party majorities for parties that secure greatly less than 50% of the votes.
    I say this as a retired senior civil servant who spent most of his career in a government department whose culture included a contempt for Parliament.

    1. Your first point is a weak one. Both the Coalition government and the Cameron-May government to 2017 had secure majorities, as did Blair-Brown. So that explanation fails.

      A written constitution by itself makes no difference – some highly illiberal regimes have had codified constitutions.

      And your last point seems to be in tension to your first: “first time in a decade to having a government with a secure majority” v “customarily produced single party majorities”

      1. I take your first point, that it all depends on what is in the written constitution. But our lack of one exposes us to too much danger from governments like the present one, for example on trying to limit judicial review. The coalition government had the (limited) ability of the minor coalition party to reduce the power of the larger party.
        Looking at the broad sweep of the last century also, we have had a single party government more often than not.

      2. I gather that Johnson has admitted that Cummings’ proposed changes in planning law were not mentioned in (any detail in) their 2019 General Election Manifesto?

        If that is correct then the House of Lords may, I gather, pray in aid our Unwritten Constitution when subjecting any legislation on the matter to more detailed and lengthy consideration than had it been in the manifesto?

        Johnson-Cummings may not simply say it is the Will of the People as manifested at the ballot box?

      3. “makes no difference”

        “Clearly” it depends just what is codified and how.

        But a plainly codified constitution *does* help to provide more direct and straightforward access to constitutional protections and other machinery to ordinary citizens and civil society, and more immediate and concrete barriers to executive excess and *blatant folly*, without the obligation to invoke the arcane mysteries of ancient writ whose recondite status and applicability can frequently be mediated only through lengthy and esoteric rites of high judicial procedure.
        (I might also gently suggest that such simplification and plain exposition of the workings of the state can help foster a more healthy sense of national identity and solidarity.)

        I would point out, for example, that holding a referendum without anything resembling a defined outcome —”And now we’ll decide what you voted for!”— would be constitutionally impossible in most European countries, particularly in those where referendums are a regular element of political life — in Italy, for example (whose constitution I have to hand) there would have been multiple blocks making such an ill-considered question as Brexit impossible!

        In addition, the constitutionally defined safeguards which elsewhere enable *citizens* to petition for referendums to abrogate unwise or intensely unpopular laws could have seen off the entire misconceived affair by confronting it directly, without leaving us all hostage to the vain ambitions and manœuvering of cults within the ruling party and the democratic vacuum of an opposition more fixated on assassinating its own leadership than such mundane considerations as an onrushing national catastrophe.
        In Italy, again, the number of signatures collected by just one of the UK petitions to hold a confirmatory referendum —which the Government could effectively dispose of summarily— would have been sufficient to trigger *twelve* such referendums!

        As you intimate, the mere fact of a written constitution does not automatically solve all ills —and we need only look across the Atlantic to see that even an exemplar with a reasonably sound historical record can find itself in difficulty— but it is surely hard to deny that the UK’s archaic constitutional plumbing —while perhaps a wonder of its era— has now been tested and found direly wanting in our modern world (pace some narrowly effective rearguard skirmishing by the Supreme Court).

        There remains, of course, a *vastly* more difficult question as to how any such mythical beast could come about. Who among today’s superficial political generation of charlatans, spivs, and lightweights whose profundity of self-esteem mocks the shallowness of their insight and applied intellect, could be entrusted with such a task? In today’s political climate it seems impossible to imagine such a broad and inclusive body as, for example, the Scottish Constitutional Convention being allowed to deliberate freely and to elaborate the subtle nuances of a finely-balanced consensus.
        Yet how else to avoid a terrible monster roughly stitched together from the noxious cadavers of ancient prejudice, populist sloganeering, and barely covert tribalism and vested interest?
        (Vide ultra, ‘British Bill of Rights’, coming soon(?) to a legislature near you.)

        Sound constitutions seem most likely to be drafted in stable epochs when the sun shines on the affairs of the nation (when, of course, such measures seem least urgent) or, failing that, in the aftermath of dramatic historical events —often disastrous reverses— whose culmination has substantially united the understanding of a large proportion of the population. That’s not going to be the UK any time soon!

        1. Germany had two excellent (and of course, written) constitutions. The post WWI, mainly designed by Weber, lacked the institutional and especially political context to prevent the ascent of Nazism as a government ideology. The second, post WWII, designed under Allied supervision, has produced a country singularly unable to deal with forsign policy problems, despite excellent surrounding institutions, a diverse press, thorough civic education and a traumatic experience.

          Nevertheless, combined with good institutions, universal suffrage and access to at least secondary education, a proper constitution can help reducing government capacity to do wrong. It cannot make government do good, that is the politician’s job and in the right environment, better politicians will outcompete the bad ones. In the right environment that is..

  5. I agree with your assessment. I am afraid there is little to stand against them as long as the voters who back them continue to back them, whatever they do. That surely is the lesson of Trump. The problems isn’t Trump, isn’t Johnson: it’s the millions who look at them and like what they see. In our favour, our judiciary is much less politicised than in the US – but eventually Cummings will fix that. How utterly un-Tory both Johnson and Cummings are! For their agenda of unfettered executive power, and the subjugation of lw to Government, hasnt been mainstream Tory since….1688. I grieve for this country, set on destruction of all that is best in its values and history. Why? That is the unanswerable question, that historians will ponder in 2120. If we still have historians.

  6. Harking back to 1688, or even back to the last century, is all very well, but we should take a wider look at the rest of the globe in this 21st century. Going just a little bit further in the direction you accurately describe takes us into the New Normal world dominated by the regimes of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, plus the numerous “wannabe Putin/Xi”-type rulers such as India’s Narendra Modi, Turkey’s Erdogan, etc, etc. If that is not the future people want, they had better do something about it – and fast!

  7. In my opinion shutting down legal scrunity of executive power and calling every legal action of the opposition as illegal „meddling“ is the first or perhaps just the second step towards destroying democratic institutions. Looking back to history Hitler‘s first steps when becoming Chancellor were starting to paint the opposition as illegal and to bring into line the judiciary. And his words followed more and more repressive actions ending up in dictatorship. By some of Johnson-Cummings actions as especially the unlawful prorogation and their behaviour against lawful opposition remind me in so many aspects to Hitler’s „Machtergreifung“ (power grab) when becoming Chancellor that it frightens me. And until now the backlash from freedom pampered English voters is just minor: They take their rights and freedoms for granted and do not see the oppression looming in the actions of Johnson and fellow Tories! It’s like English voters would prefer a strongman system to real democracy!

  8. Some of the centralising tendencies are, of course, in part old school Whitehall.

    The devolved from Whitehall via Brussels pots of ERDF and ESF monies being replaced by a fund whose allocation will be decided upon by those at the centre.

    Who knew taking back control would include taking it back from the regions and nations?

  9. I would not expect too much from the self-correcting mechanism. Democracy is a fragile thing and robust democracy (underpinned by a written, clear constitution, truly independent courts with constitutional jurisdiction, diverse and independent media plus a well-educated population and most importantly, actual rotation between opposing parties) is rare. This process for governing with the consent of the people is fairly new (in its universal suffrage form) and it appears that in many countries where the practice was absent until fairly recently, would-be autocrats, aloof technocrats and crony-capitalists seem to be on the ascendency. For the UK and US the third pathology seems to be the most feasible, but for different reasons. Do not expect the US democracy (a very recent phenomenon anyway and weak in many states) to be immune and self-correcting. The UK has important gaps that can be exploited by unscrupulous governments, as we have seen not too long ago.

    1. “There often seems to be no greater purpose – no particular policy to be driven through – than unrestricted executive power as an end in and of itself.”

      If Cummings’ (and Gove’s) free schools policy (too insignificant to feature in their cvs these days?) is anything to go by then perhaps we should be thankful for small mercies?

      Will Cummings flounce off, again, when Johnson (and the Parliamentary Conservative Party) wants practical policies to address mundane issues like the explosion of the demographic time bomb, congested roads in the South East and so on, when Brexit really kicks in?

      UK Governments usually have 18 months after a General Election to get (potentially unpopular) policy enacted before thoughts turn to the next General Election, currently scheduled for the first Thursday of May 2024.

      What little time has been left available by the pandemic has hardly been used to much practical effect as far as many voters would see it and there are only about ten months of the 18 left to go.

      As with Brexit, winning the General Election has proved all that Cummings seems to have really been concerned about. There being little thought about what to do next.

      For someone who claims be a no nonsense type, who just wants to get things done, he has done precious little of general public note to date, apart from break rules he helped to fashion.

      The need to urgently address issues he has partly helped to bring about may deflect him, at least temporarily, from his current obsessions?

      Perhaps, rightly or wrongly, “Events, dear boy, events!” are partly a self-correcting feature of our system?

      An issue like the demographic time bomb, being triggered by the looming end of Freedom of Movement, is like the tide and, as King Canute illustrated for the sake of the Cummings amongst his courtiers, not subject to the exercise of any degree of executive power.

      Time for Cummings to court some real unpopularity amongst the 600,000 new voters Johnson picked up last December?

      May be they would then get back some of the 300,000 they managed to lose at the same time …

  10. What i wonder at is the inability of the Trump/Cummings opposition to use effective language; they should remember that they address the same people as Trump/Cummings, or Orban, do.

    andrej. slovenia

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