• In the Name of God, Go!

    As storm clouds gathered over Europe in 1938, Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, went to Munich where he believed that he had obtained undertakings from Hitler to the effect that Germany would not launch further attacks on its neighbours.  He returned, brandishing the famous “scrap of paper” bearing Hitler’s signature, and proclaiming that there would be “peace in our time”.

    Chamberlain argued that the Munich agreement justified his long-maintained opposition to rearmament; but, in a debate in September 1939, after Hitler had gone back on his word and invaded Poland, Chamberlain – reluctant to declare war on Germany – was opposed by many members of his own party and one Conservative MP, Leo Amery, called out to the deputy Labour leader as he rose to speak, “Speak for England!”

    Chamberlain’s position was further weakened when, in 1940, the British suffered military disasters in the battles of Narvik as they tried to prevent the German invasion of Norway.   The House of Commons responded to the debacle by debating a motion of no confidence in Chamberlain and his government.

    Again, Leo Amery made a telling contribution, quoting to Chamberlain Oliver Cromwell’s famous rebuke to the Long Parliament, “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

    Chamberlain could not survive the defeat he suffered, as many of his own party either abstained or voted against him.  He was forced from office and was replaced by Winston Churchill – the rest, as they say, is history.

    It is one of the great advantages of a Westminster-style constitution that a Prime Minister cannot remain in office if he loses the confidence of his colleagues in parliament.   He can, therefore, be removed at any time.  A decision to send him packing is an expression of the collective will of the House (and not just of a group of disaffected individuals) and will of course be reached only in the most extreme circumstances.

    The American constitution offers no such possibility.  A President’s occupation of the White House does not depend on the support of Congress (though it becomes very difficult to operate effectively without it) – so, what is to be done if a President, for reasons of personality, principle, policy or incompetence, loses the confidence of his colleagues, including those in his own party?

    The need to provide an answer to that question is now becoming especially pressing and must be occupying the minds of many in Washington and beyond.  President Trump’s problems – with Russian involvement in his election, with interfering with the processes of justice, with the nuclear war of words with North Korea, with his failure to condemn neo-Nazi White Supremacists – the list is growing longer day by day – now constitute an existential threat to his presidency.

    The problem is that, unlike Chamberlain, Trump cannot be removed simply because his colleagues have lost confidence in him.  If that were enough, the condition would be easily met.  The evidence is now overwhelming that even his Republican friends in Congress and in the wider worlds of business and the maintenance of civil law and order are desperately concerned about where he is taking them – and the American people.

    The USA’s leadership of the “free world” and its standing across the globe has been gravely compromised.  The moral leadership expected of a President at home is sadly lacking.  It is becoming increasingly clear that the US President lacks the personal, moral and intellectual competence and fortitude to discharge his responsibilities effectively.

    But the US constitution provides only limited grounds for removing a President.  He must commit an impeachable offence or he must be found mentally or physical incompetent.  So, what to do?

    The answer lies, whatever the limitations of the constitution, with the political intelligence and will of his Republican colleagues.  They might not be able to vote him out of office but they can at least make it clear to him that they see him as a liability (as he is surely becoming) and that he cannot expect to achieve anything in office except a reputation as a loser and as an obstacle to good government.

    They may not be able to use, in other words, an opportunity offered by the constitution.  But the necessary words do not have to be uttered at the end of a parliamentary debate.  Leo Amery can be emulated by a powerful deputation of senior politicians who can pick their moment.  Uttered at the right moment and by the right people, the message will be just as clear – “In the name of God, go!”

    Bryan Gould

    17 August 2017


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