You’ve all seen the video by now, I’m sure. A Handforth parish council meeting descends into chaos, with snickers and interruptions, before coming to a climax as the Chair and Vice-Chair are thrown out of the meeting. At the centre of it all is Jackie Weaver, host of the Zoom meeting and now widely believed to be the hero of the story. Twitter for the last few days has been abuzz with people ecstatically giggling at the way she dealt with supposedly ‘disruptive’ councillors. Op-eds in major newspapers have praised her for “standing [her] ground with pompous and aggressive men’. She has even been acclaimed as a “feminist icon”: she might one day become Dame Jackie.
But what few people have thought to ask is, why was Jackie Weaver in that Zoom call in the first place? Presumably she was a councillor, hence her virtual hosting of the council meeting? Well, no. Jackie Weaver is an unelected officer of the ‘Cheshire Association of Local Councils’, which is not an official government organisation. It seems she doesn’t live in Handforth, or even in Cheshire! She was invited by a number of Handforth councillors to ‘support’ them (a slippery phrase if ever there was one), according to Channel 4 News. She had no democratic mandate in that meeting whatsoever; she was there for her supposed ‘expertise’ in local politics. Yet she unilaterally silenced and excluded the elected and representative Chair and then the Vice-Chair from that meeting.
Many of you have heard the imperative “Read the standing orders, read them and understand them!”, but how many of you actually heeded this call? Well, I did. Under those standing orders, the Chair (the enigmatically named ‘Handforth PC Clerk’) must express the opinion that councillors have displayed disorderly behaviour, and the entire council must vote to agree with that opinion, before a person can be silenced or excluded (§10.B). Members cannot simply be excluded according to the will of one individual, and certainly not an unelected individual. Furthermore, if the Chair is removed, the Vice-Chair does indeed take over (§1.O); yet Jackie Weaver attempted to undermine this basic rule by calling for the election of an entirely new Chair, and silenced the Vice-Chair ‘Aled’s iPad’ when he tried to exercise his legitimate democratic authority. While Aled’s iPad was mistaken about the letter of the law when he asserted that the meeting had been called illegally (§17.B says that an extraordinary meeting can be called by two councillors), he was right about its spirit: the meeting grossly violated the most fundamental laws of the council and allowed an unelected technocrat to take over.
In simple terms: what we all watched, retweeted, laughed at, was video of a coup in progress.
In simple terms: what we all watched, retweeted, laughed at, was video of a coup in progress. No blood was shed, sure – but then, none was shed in Myanmar last week. Several politicians, perhaps frustrated by the way in which those pesky ‘democratic processes’ slowed down their ability to push through their policies, invited in an unelected technocrat to take power, suppress dissent, and implement a new agenda. We’ve gone to war over less.
Many people associate technocratic power with liberalism: ‘liberal technocrats’ is a phrase that’s thrown around a lot. But nothing could be further from the truth. In a liberal democracy, the powers of technocrats are clearly specified and must follow the rule of law and the norms of the institutions they work within. Central banks are a great example: while unelected technocrats at the Bank of England do wield a lot of power, this power is defined by democratically implemented regulations setting out what the Bank of England can (and can’t) do and what goals it must pursue. No, the best examples of the exercise of unbounded and arbitrary technocratic power can be found in the fascist and communist regimes of the twentieth century. When she used her supposed technocratic mandate to silence democratic representatives, Jackie Weaver reminded me much more of the head of the Politburo than the head of the Bank of England.
This was not the first time this had happened, either: Handforth PC Clerk sought assurances that he would not be thrown out of this meeting, as that was what had happened to him and another councillor last time around. (The fact that councillors knew from a previous meeting that Weaver was entirely willing to exercise undemocratic power might go some way towards explaining their aggressive tone in this meeting.) Weaver’s response, demanding “reasonable behaviour” as a precondition for councillors to be allowed to represent their constituents (that is, as a precondition for democracy itself), is a perfect example of the logic of tyrants: because, as you may have guessed, the person who decided what counted as “reasonable” was Jackie Weaver. Speaking truth to power—in this case, expressing the simple fact that Jackie Weaver had no democratic authority—was enough to get Handforth PC Clerk declared “unreasonable” and removed, thrown out of a meeting he was supposed to be chairing. Perhaps certain councillors were being disruptive; but what they were disrupting was an assault on democracy. My two cents is that in such cases, being disruptive is a good thing.
Jackie Weaver has been praised for being “unflappable” and “resolute”. But it’s very easy to be calm and unperturbed when you have the power to silence anyone who opposes your wishes, without any accountability.
Jackie Weaver has been praised for being “unflappable” and “resolute”. But it’s very easy to be calm and unperturbed when you have the power to silence anyone who opposes your wishes, without any accountability. The anger, frustration, and desperation of Aled’s iPad, of Handforth PC Clerk, of the other councillors, was not a sign of their fragile egos or pent-up anger: it was the natural reaction to seeing democracy crumble and being helpless to do anything about it. To see so many people praising the iron gaze of a dictator, while mocking the emotional vulnerability of those under her rule, is a horrific indication of the prevalence of authoritarianism in our political culture.
Yet this praise of Weaver is not just on the internet: it is her side of the story that has been amplified in the media. She has appeared on Sky News and BBC Woman’s Hour, as well as The Last Leg, to push her propaganda and attempt to legitimate her undemocratic takeover to the British public. Nobody has interviewed that real hero of democracy, Aled’s iPad, whose rallying cry “Read them and understand them!” should go down in history with slogans such as “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” and “To each according to his need”. Nobody has invited Handforth PC Clerk (who is a democratic representative) to give his side of the story, to speak up for what is right and true and just. No, the media has decided that Jackie Weaver was in the right, a hero standing up to the toxic culture of local politics, and has refused anyone who might have evidence to the contrary a platform to make their case.
Jackie Weaver had no authority in that meeting. With no democratic mandate, no constitutional legitimacy—nothing more than the fact that she hosted the Zoom call—she silenced the legitimate bearers of power in Handforth, crushed opposition, and implemented her own will. And the country has cheered her on. In the face of a desperate plea for constitutionalism and the rule of law (as embodied in the standing orders), we laughed and jeered. Jackie Weaver herself might just be a minor official in local politics in Cheshire; but in today’s politics there are many Jackie Weavers, too many to count, willing to attack and silence legitimate democratic government in the name of some greater good. When we laugh at those who speak truth to power, who tell Jackie Weaver and others like her the plain fact that they have no legitimate authority—that is when democracy dies.