In Britain, executive government has often, and with good reason, been seen as the main source of tyranny. Parliament and the courts developed to restrain it, usually in response to public outrage. Boris Johnson’s administration legitimately gained sweeping powers to run the country during the pandemic. But this seems, unfortunately, to have given ministers a taste of ruling by decree. The government appears all too often unwilling to compromise, to shape laws as inoffensively as possible to the opposition, or to abide by parliamentary norms like truth-telling. Instead, Mr Johnson seems encouraged to get rid of checks and balances by polls that give the Tories a growing lead thanks to a successful vaccine rollout.
The purpose of government legislation seems frequently designed to polarise debate and create social divisions. The government’s own analysis of the key measures in the new police, crime, sentencing and courts bill says there is little evidence they will reduce crime. By Whitehall’s own reckoning, the proposals will entrench racial inequalities. In the Commons, the message from Priti Patel, the home secretary, was that her bill would see sexual offenders face longer sentences and new crimes. What she skipped over was that the legislation would give police powers to tackle non-violent protests that have a “significant disruptive effect on the public or on access to parliament” – including setting conditions on the duration of protests, maximum noise levels and locations. These would have a chilling effect on peaceful protest.
Should ministers not constructively address in good faith deep discontent and unease? The 296-page bill suggests they will not. Women in particular have good reason to be angry. Recorded rapes have doubled since 2014. Ministers reckon longer sentences work only when they serve a political purpose. So the government wants people who damage the statues of slave traders to be locked up for 10 years while rape sentences start at half that length. More than 1.6 million women experienced domestic abuse in 2019 but only a tiny fraction of attackers are charged. The government’s response to falling charging rates is, inexplicably, to cut the Ministry of Justice’s budget. A new bill will allow ministers who have failed to address violence against women and girls to curb their right to protest about it.
The police had asked for more powers after Extinction Rebellion’s civil disobedience to highlight perceived inaction in the face of the existential planetary crisis. But there is a recognisable tradition of protest and “public nuisance”, one that common law is familiar with, as legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg points out. This weekend’s events showed the police are not up to the job of patrolling dissent. The worry is not about the nature of protest today but the turn democracy is taking. Ms Patel’s response to demonstrations is to denigrate them – she described the Black Lives Matter protests as “dreadful” – and then take up an intransigent position that does not contemplate reasonable solutions.
Mr Johnson’s government aims to channel his supporters’ nationalism and to rally behind them behind a cry of order. It is this form of authoritarianism that can unite two seemingly antagonistic groups – free marketers who despise state interference and unskilled workers who seek protection from globalisation. It is easier to say who this electoral coalition is against than what it is for: the elites, experts, judges, and civil servants; as well as protesting young people, remainers, women and ethnic minorities. Whatever pieties the government cloaks its proposals in, a partisan systematic reduction in civil liberties is a very dangerous thing for a democracy.