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What the U.K. gets right: Our system could learn a thing or two from how Parliament handles the prime minister

2019-09-10

I’m beginning to think the American Revolution was a mistake. Much would have been different, some things for the better and some for the worse, but at this moment, we’d have politicians willing to resign over matters of principle. Donald Trump would learn the meaning of pride.

As it is, the president has abased his office and the people who serve him. They grovel, they agree, they applaud, they make all sorts of excuses for their service — look, he’s lowered taxes and is building that wall — but they do not have the fundamental backbone or integrity to simply quit.They serve a fool and they know it.

The willingness to say enough is enough turns out to be a distinctively British thing, like driving on the left or beginning a dinner party with a toast to the queen. In recent days, a good number of British politicians have simply said they’ve had it with the quirky and autocratic Boris Johnson, the current prime minister, and his quirky and autocratic ways. They have upped and quit, with one of the quitters being Johnson’s own brother, Jo, a member of Parliament and minister of state for universities, science, research and innovation. It turns out one of his innovations is the well-timed resignation.

Jo Johnson followed other members of Parliament, some of whom resigned from Johnson’s Conservative Party, others of whom were kicked out by Johnson himself. One of the latter was Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames, whom Johnson removed for opposing a no-deal Brexit. Johnson wrote a biography of Churchill and likens himself to the great wartime prime minister. Apparently, Churchill’s grandson begs to differ. The man was violating well-established norms of political behavior, such as asking Queen Elizabeth to suspend Parliament for five weeks and purging his party of rebels who, as fairness demands, had only done what Johnson himself had done in the past as an MP.

When I asked a well-placed English friend of mine to describe the essence of the charges against Johnson, he ran down the list of Johnson’s tradition-busting actions and pronounced, “This is not British.” It was a succinct and grave indictment, a severe accusation and, embedded within it, an adamant refusal to accept Johnson’s way as the New Normal. The Normal Normal will do just fine.

Where oh where are Republicans with a similar revulsion regarding Trump? In Congress, they whisper their dissent and then flock to CNN to praise Trump and his weird ways. In the Cabinet, those who have resigned have essentially been pushed out, and even then they insist their differences were limited to policy.

OK, policy’s important. Tariffs are important, the wall is important, climate change is important, voter suppression is important and even the independence of what used to be called the weather bureau is important. But tone, manners and the dignity of the presidency are also important — maybe the most important of all.

The president is a liar. The president traffics in racism. The president bullies, threatens, insults his political foes and encourages a heel-clicking kind of chauvinism. The president pads his own pocket, intimidates witnesses and rewards the obstinacy of others. He mocks the First Amendment while extolling the Second. He traduces worthy alliances and even slimes the memory of John McCain, whose bravery and honor Trump cannot even begin to fathom.

Isn’t all of this un-American? If so, where are the Republicans who, like their British cousins, have the pride and guts to say so? Why have they allowed incessant lying to become the New Normal? Shall I call the roll of Republicans who waxed indignant because Bill Clinton was seen in running shorts and boasted about a carpeted pickup? Where were they when Trump made Clinton seem like a stuffy headwaiter? Carpeted pickup? What about "grab them by the p---y”?

The American political system is significantly different from the British one, and those differences have to be taken into account. (For instance, some of the resigned MPs can soon stand for reelection.) But the perks of office — cars, drivers, nifty phones and dreadnaught desks — are the same on both sides of the pond. What’s missing here is pride, a reverence for the Old Normal and a thrilling willingness to declare, This inch and no further.

“Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” the hapless Henry Higgins cries in “My Fair Lady.” Silly question, my good man. Let me rephrase. “Why can’t an American be more like a Brit?”

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