“There is a pattern here, if we’re only willing to see it. A populist government hobbling those bodies that exist to keep it in check, trampling on democratic conventions and long-held rights, all to tighten its own grip on power. We need to recognise it, even when it wears a smile and tousled hair, and speaks in the soothing cadences of Eton College.”
Jonathan Freedland www.theguardian.com
If this wasn’t us, how would we describe it? If this was Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, or Poland, what language might we use? Would an announcer on the BBC World Service declare: “Amid fuel and food shortages, the government has moved to cement its grip on power. It’s taking action against the courts, shrinking their ability to hold the ruling party to account, curbing citizens’ right to protest and imposing new rules that would gag whistleblowers and sharply restrict freedom of the press. It’s also moving against election monitors while changing voting rules, which observers say will hurt beleaguered opposition groups … ”
It doesn’t sound like us. We like to tell ourselves that we live in a mature democracy, our institutions deep rooted. Political competition is brisk, never more so than at this time of year, as one party conference ends and another begins. This is not a one-party state. All it would require is Labour to get its act together – to which end it made a decent start this week – and, with a fair wind, the Conservatives would be out.
It’s a consoling thought, but not a reliable one. Almost unnoticed, perhaps because it’s done with an English rather than a Hungarian accent, our populist, nationalist prime minister is steadily setting out to weaken the institutions that define a liberal democracy: the ones that might act as checks and balances on him. And he’s moving, Orbán style, to make it ever harder for his government to lose power.
Start with the courts. After all, that’s what Boris Johnson did. It seems petty to suggest that he is out for revenge after the supreme court delivered an 11-0 humiliation over his unlawful suspension of parliament in 2019, but Johnson is acting like a man determined to settle a score.
He set his sights early on a bill to reform judicial review, the process by which courts can overturn unlawful decisions by the government and others. The language is less overt than it was, but that bill stays true to its initial aim of declaring entire categories of government action off limits to judges – and it explicitly bans a particular, 11th-hour form of judicial review often used in immigration cases. No wonder the Law Society has been sounding the alarm, warning of a threat to essential curbs on “the might of the state”.
If that enrages you, think twice before taking to the streets. Under the new police bill, ministers will have the power to suppress pretty well any protest they don’t like. It makes it a crime, punishable by up to 10 years in jail, merely to cause “serious annoyance” to the public. The police will be able to clamp down on a demonstration, or ban it altogether, on the flimsiest basis. If they deem a demo sufficiently loud to cause someone in the vicinity “serious unease”, that would be enough.
Of course, no one goes on a march unless they know about whatever outrage the government or others has committed. That can take a whistleblower or journalist or both, and Johnson is moving against them too. He wants to widen the scope of the Official Secrets Act, applying it to more areas of government activity and increasing the punishment for breaking it. Crucially, he refuses to add any kind of public interest defence for journalists or their sources. Even the Sun calls the move a “licence for cover-up”, adding that a society where journalists and whistleblowers face jail even over leaks that are clearly in the public interest is “in the grip of oppression”.
But Johnson is bent not only on preventing his government from being held to account. More sinister, he is taking steps to ensure it can’t easily be replaced. He wants to tilt the playing field of electoral competition permanently in the government’s favour, and his first target is the referee.
The Conservatives’ elections bill hands ministers powers over what has, until now, been an independent Electoral Commission. Suddenly, ministers will be able to deploy the commission as they see fit, using it to define what counts as election campaigning. A minister could order the commission to impose a criminal penalty on a group that had been campaigning for, say, higher NHS pay, six months before an election was called, by retroactively defining that effort as election spending. It’s not hard to imagine ministers using that power selectively to hurt their opponents. Little wonder that an alliance of charities and trade unions, convened by the Best for Britain group, has called the change “an attack on the UK’s proud democratic tradition and some of our most fundamental rights”.
The same bill would require voters to show photo ID before being handed a ballot, a remedy for the nonexistent problem of voter fraud – and a practice known to exclude poorer voters less likely to back the Conservatives. Meanwhile, note who got the money from a £1bn fund set aside by the government for struggling towns: in a remarkable coincidence, 39 of the 45 towns chosen are in constituencies with a Conservative MP, even when that meant cash going to a Tory-held seat rather than the poorer place next door. That looks a lot like using public money as an electoral war chest to keep Tory seats Tory.
And let’s not forget a trick straight out of the Orbán or Donald Trump playbook. Ofcom, like the Electoral Commission, is meant to be independent. But Johnson persists in his determination to install in the chair an ideological ally: the former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre.
There is a pattern here, if we’re only willing to see it. A populist government hobbling those bodies that exist to keep it in check, trampling on democratic conventions and long-held rights, all to tighten its own grip on power. We need to recognise it, even when it wears a smile and tousled hair, and speaks in the soothing cadences of Eton College.