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Orbanizing England: are we sliding into autocracy?

January 15, 2022

A friend emailed me the other day to ask what I thought of an article in the New York Times about the current state of my country. He’s an expatriate Briton who has lived in the US for a number of years. I suspect he’s as well-informed about the UK as I am – he in his North Carolina redoubt and me in my Surrey bunker. Anyway, we share an interest in politics on both sides of the Atlantic, so it’s always good to bat ideas back and forth.

The article in question is by Maya Lothian-McLean, a British journalist I’d never encountered before. She seems quite proud that she’d never been tainted by association with the so-called mainstream media. Her thesis, which clearly went down well with the NYT people, is that Britain, or more specifically England, is sliding towards authoritarianism. She rolls up all the proposed legislation that Boris Johnson’s government has tabled into a package of evidence pointing in that direction. Her view is that new laws allowing the government to strip dual nationals of citizenship, clamp down on protests, overrule inconvenient decisions by judges, deter social media criticism and lock up refugees as criminals are part of a strategy. The Orbanisation of England, if you fancy using Hungary’s creeping descent to illiberal democracy as an analogy.

I think she’s wrong. What passes for strategy on the part of Boris Johnson’s government seems to me like a series of political sandcastles liable to be washed away by each incoming tide of events that are only dealt with by improvisation and tactical response. In other words, government by the current crowd is a game of political whack-a-mole.

There might be one or two clever people in and around the centres of power with an overarching vision of hostile environments, but collectively they don’t have the wit or the will to hack through the political undergrowth and achieve their aims. Ask Dominic Cummings about the limitations of the machete.

Will they pull off this potpourri of regressive law? Maybe. But Lothian-McLean in her article imagines only extreme examples of what the authorities can do with their new powers. In the real world, if, say, someone who holds British citizenship since childhood and breaks some law unrelated to the original trigger for the measure – terrorism – has their citizenship revoked on the whim of the Home Secretary, the result could be a wave of outrage, and not just among the usual suspects who lurk in the dark ponds of Twitter. And if a group of people who lie down on a motorway in protest against something or other are given substantial jail sentences, their supporters will find other ways to protest. The government would face an endless procession of appeals and angry headlines. How would that go down at a time when successful prosecutions for rape are at an all-time low, when burglaries and car theft are rarely investigated and when the courts are barely able to function without defendants having to wait months and sometime years to come to trial? And when some lockdown parties are punished and others aren’t?

To establish a truly and permanently repressive state, you would need to get the police, the judiciary, the civil service and the armed forces on board. But Boris Johnson and his last two predecessors have all managed to upset powerful factions in each of those institutions in one way or another since 2010. Their cooperation would be far from guaranteed.

So would the removal of the posturing buffoon at the head of our government slow down the widely-feared march towards autocracy? Maybe not. There might be a watering down of some measures. This would allow the new leader to differentiate from the previous regime. But the fact remains that whoever replaces Johnson is going to have to deal with a large tranche of members of parliament who share the authoritarian instincts of Johnson and his Home Secretary, Priti Patel.

The ultimate question is this: do the voters share those instincts in sufficient numbers to return yet another Conservative government at the next election? If not, I’m pretty sure that the worst excesses of the proposed legislation, if passed, can be unpicked by whatever government replaces them. My guess is that the electorate will, unfortunately, stand for an authoritarian agenda promoted by a competent government. After all, Mussolini made the trains run on time. But a combination of heavy-handedness and incompetence? Highly unlikely.

Ironic though, that 150,000 COVID deaths, policing and justice failures, the cladding scandal and the disastrous handling of the Brexit negotiations have not so far brought down this government, but the amorality exemplified by a bunch of parties in 10, Downing Street threatens to do the job. Whether the next election reduces the Conservatives’ grip on power or wipes it out altogether remains to be seen.

But like it or not, it won’t be a set of reactionary and poorly-conceived laws that will see them off. It will be that every time the voters listen to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s supercilious drawl, or see red-faced, blustering back-benchers like Sir Edward Leigh sounding off about their pet obsessions, they will be reminded that Nero fiddled while Rome burned.

From → Politics, UK

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