Democracy at crossroads in the heartlands

January 31, 2020, was a momentous day on both sides of the pond (Atlantic Ocean). Brexit happened and the United States (US) Senate, controlled by Trump’s Republican Party, voted that no witnesses or additional documents were needed for President Trump’s his trial by that body following his impeachment by the US House of Representative, controlled by Democrats.

Subsequently, on Wednesday, 5th February, the senate acquitted Trump of both charges that he had been impeached for by the house of Representatives. Brexit was the decision by the United Kingdom (UK) to break away from the European Union (EU) after 47 years as part of the EU. President Trump had been impeached on two counts, namely, for abusing his power by withholding funds that the US Congress had allocated for military aid to Ukraine as that country fights off Russian attacks. The second count stated that Trump had prevented Congress in its oversight role of investigating the president’s actions in his refusal to comply with the congressional budget mandate.

The two countries have been at the forefront of the democratic project. The UK’s parliament as the mother of all parliaments, having initiated the modern democratic process that has spread around the world and the US has initiated a written constitution mandating this process with powerful representation in Congress, an independent judiciary and press. It should be noted that there are significant caveats, notably, there were other experiments such as the Greeks, Romans and other less known and/or documented democratic projects around the world. Britain had colonies where the democratic rights, particularly for the native populations did not apply and even in the UK itself there were restrictions based on property and women were excluded until the early part of the 20th century.

In the US African Americans and indigenous (Indian) Americans were excluded, the former as slaves and when that ended numerous restrictions, particularly in the south, were applied to prevent African Americans from fully participating in the democratic process until well into the 20th century. And even now efforts, mostly by Republican-controlled state governments on restrictive voter rolls, effectively disenfranchise African Americans and other ethnic minorities in the US. Despite these caveats, the two projects have been beacons of the democratic process.

In the UK Brexit, the country’s break from the European Union has happened because of the country’s ambivalence towards the EU project, as noted in a previous paper of mine and, recent developments and plans spearheaded by the two key drivers, namely Germany and France, for a more integrated union. The freedom of movement clause which resulted in high levels of immigration into the UK from other EU countries in the last decade and a half was a key factor in the Brexit decision but other issues had always irked the British public, notably, the European court’s decisions, seen by many as undue meddling in the affairs and sovereignty of the UK. For many Britons, this proud country that once dominated much of the world is now free from the shackles of the Brussels bureaucrats.

The UK has been sharply divided and for remainers who make up nearly half of the country, the benefits of EU membership far outweighed the drawbacks. The issue is complicated by the fact that the UK is made up of four nations, namely, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. While the majority (52%) of Britons voted for Brexit, support was not overwhelming for the UK as a whole, as the remainers are a sizable (48%) portion of the population and cannot simply be dismissed.

The Brexit supporting Wales was less than that thin UK-wide vote and, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain, by a significant majority in the former. This indeed is one of the negative repercussions of Brexit. The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), which runs a devolved parliament and increased its majority in that body the last general election significantly, strongly believes that Scotland has been taken out of the EU by the UK government against the wish of Scotland.

In Northern Ireland where the electorate voted to remain in the EU, Brexit could unravel the peace process because the Republicans are very much against restrictions imposed by Brexit with Eire while their opponents, the Unionists, are aghast at restrictions placed with the rest of UK by Brexit. Brexit in dramatically increasing these tensions has the potential to break up the UK, with the SNP demanding another referendum to become independent and the Republicans in Northern Ireland increasing their demands for a united Ireland, joining Eire. Democracy in this heartland has won in the form of Brexit but it has rekindled a democratic process that is shaking the foundations of the United Kingdom.

This EU is not exempt from this turmoil because of the Scottish and Northern Ireland nationalists get their way, it might encourage fragmentations of other nation-states, namely, Catalonia in Spain, the Basques straddling France and Spain, the Flemish and French regions of Belgium that have had a fractious relationship. The EU has a part to play in this potential fragmentation of nation-states by its policy of engaging regions rather than national governments in many projects. Interestingly, when the UK government took back control from Brussels, the Scottish and Welsh governments demanded those powers that they had ceded to Brussels.

In the US Donald Trump’s acquittal by the Republican-controlled Senate is a travesty of justice because a mountain of evidence was provided that the president had abused his powers to pressure the Ukrainians to go after his potential rival and he prevented officials from cooperating with the investigation.

For the first time ever in impeachment, the Senate voted against allowing witnesses or documents in such a trial despite significant and growing evidence of relevant information from sources not used by the house in its impeachment proceedings. John Bolton, Trump’s former National Security Adviser had stated in a forthcoming book that Trump held up the Ukraine aid to pressure the Ukrainians to investigate the son of Joe Biden and indicated his desire to testify.

The Senate and Trump opposed testimony from Bolton as they did from his budget director who made a public statement to the media saying that the administration did exactly that, a position confirmed by many careers and political staff in hearings in the House of Representative. Trump’s personal lawyer who acted as his de facto representative to the Ukrainian government, Rudi Guliani and Lev Parnas, a Ukrainian born US citizen, and former Trump operative, also confirmed the pressure by Trump on the Ukrainian government in media statements but were also not been called to give evidence; the former through his actions and information obtained from his correspondence with Ukrainian authorities. Mr Parnas expressed a desire to give testimony and provided documentation that was very relevant to the trial but again was not called to give evidence.

The vote in the Senate against additional witness testimony and documents action was were key to the trial because Republican’s had argued that testimonies during the House’s impeachment proceedings had been from people who were not directly involved in the decision-making process and there had not been documentation to prove the president’s guilt.

The Senate’s decision t prevented people directly involved in the decision making process or documentation to confirm statements made by officials in the House of Representative impeachment. The Republican-controlled Senate therefore effectively aborted the trial they were supposed to be conducting.

The positions of Republicans on the impeachment went from denying the allegations, sayings that statements made at the house proceedings were hearsay, to say that even if the allegation of abuse of power (withholding congress mandated aid) by Trump was true it did not meet the standard of an impeachable offence; privately a number of Republicans admitted that Trump’s actions were not right but apart from one, Senator, Mitt Romney all of them voted to acquit the president on both counts. Those arguments were not only flimsy but they had not addressed the second part, Trump stopping his staff from giving evidence and not providing documentation. In accepting Trump’s decision to prevent staff testimony and release of relevant documents, the Senate effectively acquiesced to its emasculation as a co-equal branch of government. One of Trump’s lawyers equated Trump’s alleged action to the national interest of the US and so it could not be an impeachable offense.

To be continued tomorrow

Rogers is principal consultant, Media and Event Management Oxford (MEMO)

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