23rd November 2020
The internet and modern communications technology mean that it has never been easier to to mass shame those with political power.
Only twenty-five or so years ago it was virtually impossible for any person to publish anything critical about politicians without going through a traditional ‘gate keeper’ – you could write a letter to a newspaper, send a manuscript to a publishing house, or telephone a radio or television show.
But it was almost always a decision of somebody else if your critical views got wider circulation.
Determined people could, of course, publish their own pamphlets, or publish a book through a ‘vanity press’, or start their own pirate radio station in the English channel.
Such eccentricity, however, was relatively rare.
Now anyone with everyday electronic devices can publish their views to the world.
It has been an extraordinary development in the history of communications, akin in its significance to the developments of writing and then of printing.
(And a development the implications of which have perhaps not been fully worked through socially, culturally, or legally.)
Alongside this development seems to have been an opposite and equal political reaction.
For, although it has never been easier to mass-shame those with political power, it appears that those with political power have never been so shameless.
As long as their (minority) political blocs are mobilised and committed, various populist politicians – from Trump and Bannon in the United States to Johnson, Farage and Cummings in the United Kingdom, and others elsewhere – do not care that there is mass online criticism of their positions.
Indeed, the loud ‘liberal’ reaction is taken to validate and enhance their political appeals to their bases.
And it may be that this shamelessness is affecting constitutional practice.
Until fairly recently constitutional practice in the United Kingdom and the United States, and perhaps elsewhere, rested on constitutional conventions.
Such conventions do not have the force of law and so cannot be litigated.
Instead, the conventions were followed partly because their overall utility was considered obvious (any government minister who might have flouted a convention would realise she or he may be in opposition again one day).
But conventions were also followed because a failure to do so would lead to significant political disapproval.
Others would ‘tut’.
And in a small self-contained political world, such tuttery mattered.
But now, when there is constant appeals to political bases, such tuttery does not matter at all.
The Bannons and the Cummings of the political worlds do not care about disapproval of political elites.
Nor do the Trumps and the Johnsons.
And so we have one paradox of modern politics: never have politicians been more accountable on an everyday basis for their actions, and never have they seemed so indifferent to accountability.
This, one hopes, may be a short-term thing: the opportunism of a certain group of political charlatans at a particular time.
Perhaps constitutionalism and respect for constitutional norms will reassert itself after this rush of heady populism.
Perhaps things may get back to normal.
But, if not, we need to work out better ways of enforcing constitutionalism and the respect for constitutional norms than tutting.
For even with the amplification of internet and modern communications technology, mere mass-tuttery will not be sufficient.
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