The UK government’s handling of Brexit and the health crisis has been undeniably chaotic and venal. In a bid to distract the public and shore up its own power, the government has sought to exploit cultural issues to the detriment of democratic rights and norms, putting already vulnerable groups further at risk. This has led to an increasingly authoritarian turn against minority rights, civil liberties, and the rule of law.
The battle over Brexit has reshaped British politics. Multiple studies have shown that voters now identify more as “Leavers” or “Remainers” than they do with a particular party, building on a long-term shift away from rigid party affiliation. The Conservative (or Tory) Party, traditionally the party of the wealthy and established, has become the Leave party. The move was key to smashing the “red wall” – Labour’s heartland in northern England, including many former mining and industrial seats – in the 2019 general election. To appeal to these voters, who share little of the economic interests of traditional Tories, the government has doubled down on “culture war” policies, throwing out traditional constraints from the rule of law and human rights. Targeting Gypsy and Traveller communities, further eroding migrant rights, and criminalising protest – its actions can only be described as those of a far-right government.
Successive British governments have fuelled the flames of deeply embedded anti-Gypsy and anti-Traveller racism while doing their best to destroy a traditional nomadic way of life by forcing communities into settled homes. In 2021, new policing legislation could take the official targeting of Traveller communities to new heights, criminalising trespass and allowing for the seizure of family homes. By removing spaces for travelling families to stop and live, a centuries-old way of life could be ended – discrimination of a most obvious and pointed kind, against a community long targeted around the world, to the depths of genocide.
The same legislation also aims to destroy the right to protest. Explicitly aimed at the Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Black Lives Matter movements, it gives police powers to set noise limits, break up “static protests”, impose a start and finish time, and move on solo protesters. It also gives the home secretary the power to determine which acts constitute “serious disruption”, which could lead to demonstrators facing up to 10 years in jail.
Throughout the pandemic, high-level cronyism has been evident at the top of the British government.
Home Secretary Priti Patel has described XR as “a shameful attack on our way of life, our economy, and the livelihoods of the hard-working majority”. The moves come in a wider context of government demonisation and abuse of asylum-seekers, particularly those risking their lives to cross the Channel. The number of people making the crossing has been steadily growing since 2018. Those intercepted are detained in horrendous conditions and, in some cases, prosecuted and jailed without just cause. In future, permanent settlement may be denied even to those reluctantly acknowledged as entitled to refugee status. In proposals published in March 2021, the government seeks to restrict people who arrive by boat, even if accepted as refugees, to limited temporary leave to remain and to deny them most welfare benefits.
Together, the proposals represent the persecution of the most vulnerable minority groups in society and the repression of democratic rights. Meanwhile, government ministers compete to see who can appear on Zoom in front of the largest Union Jack – a kind of flag-waving nationalism that once seemed entirely foreign to the British character, and the teaching of “British values”, as defined by ministers, has been imposed on schools, taking up time that might otherwise be used to encourage political engagement and critical thinking.
Yet while senior government ministers seem to relish these actions and appear to hold extreme views, this is not a government made up primarily of people of a far-right persuasion. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was once seen as a relatively liberal mayor of London. So why is the government pushing at the boundaries of what has been considered acceptable mainstream political action in a democracy?
Britain’s unwritten, accidentally accreted constitution has always relied on politicians doing the right thing rather than rules seeking to ensure it.
The obvious answer is that it sees this as the best way to hold up its vote in the current political landscape. The Tory party is pursuing a Trump-style core vote strategy. The idea is to rev up a relatively small number of voters (and particularly social media users). These supporters then do the campaigning work for the government – spreading its message – while many moderate voters turn away from politics in disgust. The strategy aims to sustain the Leave coalition from the 2016 Brexit referendum and divert public attention away from the UK’s disastrous, tragic pandemic death toll by focusing not on economics but culture.
The moves against Gypsy and Traveller communities, migrants, and protestors are only part of a wider far-right shift, also seen in a mooted increase in Britain’s nuclear weapons cap, cutting spending on international development (a potentially unlawful move long advocated by parties such as the UK Independence Party), and passing an intelligence bill that would allow official agents to commit hideous crimes with impunity and use child spies.
Orbán in Number 10?
The agenda is matched by dangerous erosions of respect for due process and the rule of law, regulatory independence and oversight, and media freedom.
Throughout the pandemic, high-level cronyism has been evident at the top of the British government. Friends and allies of government ministers enjoyed fast-track access to lucrative contracts, breaking the law in the progress. The New York Times noted the scale of the looting, reporting how “politically connected companies reaped billions”.
The Commissioner for Public Appointments was scathing about the perversion of appointments to public bodies, pointing to “packing the composition of interview panels with allies”.
Former editor of the Daily Mail Paul Dacre is being lined up to be the new head of Ofcom, the broadcast regulator. Under Dacre, the paper had a clear xenophobic and far-right editorial line, famously running a front page emblazoned with the faces of three high court judges and the headline “Enemies of the People” amid a court battle linked to the Brexit process in 2016.
The broadcast regulator will oversee a period in which the UK faces the arrival of two new media players. Foreign hedge funds are backing a new Fox News-style channel, GB News, with one of its planned highlights being a regular “Wokewatch” segment. Times Radio is a new, well-funded Rupert Murdoch vehicle. This while the BBC is visibly wilting under intense government and right-wing pressure, with academics concluding that Boris Johnson is “the most hostile prime minister the BBC has ever faced”.
Nor is the political system itself spared. US-style voter suppression tactics are being imported into plans for the widespread use of voter identification. Britain has never had an ID card system and an estimated 3.5 million Britons – overwhelmingly the poor and the young – lack photographic identification. The gerrymandering of electoral boundaries due in 2023 is further expected to give the Tories an extra 10 seats at the next election.
A broken non-constitution
Back in 2019, no less an establishment source than The Economist concluded that the UK’s “good chap” model of government was falling apart. Britain’s unwritten, accidentally accreted constitution has always relied on politicians doing the right thing rather than rules seeking to ensure it. Rules for operations in parliament and in relations between government and civil service rely on understood practices and culture, rather than written guides. This good chap model rests comfortably on the nature of the British political class, which has reverted overwhelmingly to private-school and Oxbridge- educated men from wealthy backgrounds. It has been suggested that Boris Johnson is “too posh to fail”, with his appearance of amateurism and bumbling humour a cover for ruthless ambition.
In much of the rest of the world, the nature and face of political leadership are changing. From the 38-year-old Kosovan president Vjosa Osmani-Sadriu to the widely admired New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, leadership looks, sounds, and is different to that of the past. But in the UK there is not – in government or the official Labour opposition – any kind of vision to deliver the change that is so evidently needed in a society crushingly divided by inequality, particularly regional inequality, and in a deeply degraded environment (the UK is ranked 189th of 218 countries for its biodiversity).
Britain’s crumbling democratic institutions are mirrored in a neoliberal economic model that has clearly failed. The government’s vague and unevidenced promise to “level up” the country and address regional inequality is a recognition of that fact. Even traditionally neo-Thatcherite outlets like The Financial Times and The Economist are increasingly questioning neoliberalism’s tenets.
But without an alternative direction, the field is left to people (largely men) of rampant ambition, without the conviction or desire to deliver for the common good, but simply aiming to enjoy power and to deliver returns to themselves and their friends.
How do we oppose?
In the struggle against an increasingly authoritarian government, there is a risk that the wrong lesson will be drawn from the success of Joe Biden’s Democrats in – very narrowly – defeating Donald Trump’s Republicans. In the US, victory came from lying low. It was enough to defeat the chaotic, discordant Trump campaign, but only just. In the UK, the Conservatives are more ruthless about winning. Some opponents are tempted to sidestep the “culture war”, arguing that challenging the government on its own turf by speaking up for Black Lives Matter or the right to protest simply allows it to control the agenda. The Labour Party in particular is keeping its head down. But if we do not call out the far-right nature of this programme and stand up for the vulnerable, Martin Niemöller’s “First They Came…” unavoidably comes to mind.
What Greens are doing, with increasing effectiveness, is both challenging the far-right, authoritarian positions, and directing equal or greater efforts at developing an alternative, positive vision of the common good based around stopping the looting of public and natural resources, while delivering a better life and a more equal society. It is a direction that looks forward, acknowledging through support for a universal basic income that contributions come in many forms outside paid employment, focusing on the need for a just transition to a carbon-neutral society, and highlighting the tight link between public and natural health.
Britain’s crumbling democratic institutions are mirrored in a neoliberal economic model that has clearly failed.
Part of that vision is also about fulfilling the promise of British democracy. Today a government that won 44 per cent of votes wields 100 per cent of the power. Making the UK a true democracy means introducing a proportional voting system for the Commons – a key Green demand that is shared by highly effective, relatively new grassroots organisation Make Votes Matter; a proportionally elected House of Lords (rather than the current mix of feudal aristocracy and 18th-century- style patronage); and curing the disease of centralism. Local governments in England and even recently established city region mayors have little power, authority, or crucially – money.
How this will be delivered, step by step, is hard to map out, but constitutional turbulence is a certainty. Scotland looks set for a new independence referendum – something the Greens are pushing hard for. Wales is now highly “indy-curious”, with the Welsh Greens deciding to campaign for that status in any referendum there. Northern Ireland faces serious instability and significant violence – as it struggles to deal with the broken promise that is its new status post-Brexit with a “border down the Irish Sea”.
The status quo – not significantly changed in Westminster since women won the vote a century ago – is profoundly unstable. Devolution to Scotland and Wales and constitutional arrangements (combined with Brexit impacts) in Northern Ireland are clearly unfinished business. Leavers, split heavily towards older votes, become more outnumbered every year. With this instability, the risk of culture wars, far-right politics, and authoritarianism racks higher.
In the last days of neoliberalism, looking back to the political philosophies of the 19th century will not deliver the change that so many people, wracked by poverty and insecurity, threatened by environment-linked disasters such as Covid-19, and fearful of the future, are seeking. Offering something new, different, inspiring, and hopeful is the key.