If this wasn’t Britain, 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 … ”
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.
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.
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. 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.
Boris Johnson 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, Boris 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”.
Johnson is bent not only on preventing his government from being held to account. More sinister, he is taking steps to ensure he can’t easily be replaced.
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.
The same bill would require voters to show photo ID before being handed a ballot, a remedy for the nonexistent problem of voter fraud. This is 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.
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.