As I write this our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, hangs onto office by a thread. Since October he has been buffeted by a number of scandals, almost all of his own making. Of all the issues swirling around him it seems likely that lying to Parliament will be the one that might finish him off. It would be an unedifying conclusion to the reign of Britain’s worst ever Prime Minister.
And then we can all breath a sigh of relief.
But not for very long. There is a serious anti-democratic strand to this government, much of it borrowed from the US Republican Party, and that strand will not disappear if Johnson crawls back to Fleet Street. Almost all his potential successors will be supporting these initiatives probably with greater enthusiasm than Johnson. It is not an exaggeration to say that a raft of bills likely to pass this year will set Britain, self-professed beacon of democracy, on the road to autocracy. Once in place, the legislation will be very hard to shift.
First, there’s the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, a draconian and broad piece of legislation that effectively bans protest in England and Wales. The police would be equipped to shut down demonstrations that create “serious disruption”, such as making a noise. The penalties for breaking this law are harsh – the House of Lords last week called them disproportionate. This entire attack on centuries of civil liberty is focused on Extinction Rebellion’s highly effective direct action campaigns, and a horror of seeing statues of slave owners pulled down. This would be laughable if it wasn’t actually true.
Another strand of the bill is aimed at destroying the lifestyle of our nomadic communities, Gypsy, Roma and Travelers. Few of us enjoy the sudden invasions on our public space by such communities, but outlawing their existence is an outrageous response to an irritation. Gypsies and Roma have been a part of our society for centuries – why does this Conservative Government feel it has the right to eradicate them?
Similarly punitive is the Nationality and Borders Bill. This seeks to criminalise asylum seekers who take unsanctioned routes, such as refugees who arrive by boat. These people, fleeing persecution abroad, could face up to four years in prison, regardless of the validity of their claim for safe haven. This is a classic Catch 22 situation. Refugees cannot reach this country by legitimate means, so can’t claim asylum; but if they use other means they get locked up anyway!
Another clause in the Bill allows the Government to remove British citizenship from dual nationals without notice. Those singled out might not even have recourse to the law while proposed reforms of the Human Rights Act would make it easier for the government to deport foreign nationals and deny them claims of mistreatment.
Then there is the Elections Bill which will potentially disenfranchise millions through the introduction of mandatory voter ID, and which also aims to furnish the government with new powers over the independent elections regulator; modern Tories do not seem to recognise separation of powers – they want it all.
This urge to centralise power also underlies the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which would enable Johnson and his ministers to overrule judicial review findings that challenge their agenda. Johnson has not forgotten that judges found against him during the fraught Brexit votes, and this is his revenge, but one which goes down well with his fellow ministers.
This is all exceptionally dangerous because this authoritarian assault is so comprehensive that once settled as law, it will prove very difficult to unpick. We may soon see the back of Johnson – if not this scandal then the next one will take him down – but his legacy will be a lasting assault on democracy that will rob our country of some of its fundamental freedoms.
Written by Brian Creese