Is Britain experiencing a (slow-moving) power grab?

Occasionally, the stars align into suspicions constellations. Several factors have united over the past couple of years, suggesting nothing alone, but unravelling a problematic trend when combined. The UK is witnessing a gradual yet inexorable swing further right, in rhetoric and crisis management, underlined by increasing government powers as the expense of civil liberties. Furthermore, influences from the radicalised American system are percolating through British politics, all culminating in what might be characterised as a slow-progressing, seemingly accidental, power grab. 

Disregard for the rule of law 

Look no further than Boris Johnson for the utter disregard the British government demonstrates for laws they impose with respect to their personal conduct. More than enough time has been dedicated towards criticising his lockdown parties and casual corruption, all speaking to leaders openly believing they should be unaccountable for their actions. 

Travelling this vein, it’s worth remembering Matt Hancock blatantly ignored his own lockdown rules as well, as did Dominic Cummings, all those many crises ago. The longer Johnson resides in his post, the clearer it becomes how meaningless the concept of rules are to them. This holds especially true since Hancock is still an MP, and dangerously close to a relevant one at that, with Johnson set to follow suit.  

Of course, these are mere appetiser for the latest report that exposes Raab, deputy PM, for attempting to curb judge’s powers so it would become more difficult to bring legal challenges against the government. This perhaps is not so much a disregard for the law as it is a proactive attack against it. Within the context of the UK abandoning the Human Rights Act, and both prospective candidates for PM pledging to eventually leave the European Convention on Human Rights, the UK Bill of Rights and our relationship with civil laws should be under intense scrutiny.  

This episode additionally relates to the government’s ongoing efforts to deport migrants to Rwanda, still a bizarre, inhumane, and hopelessly impractical solution, and wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Priti Patel. She was accused by police leaders just last month of a “power grab”, after the government redrafted a written protocol attempting to define where the responsibility for policing falls. Naturally, the hope was the absorption of police powers into the government remit. 

These cannot be viewed in isolation. Ministers evidently want fewer checks and less transparency, in a calculated bid to be held less accountable, whilst enhancing their own powers, presumably so abuses might be committed in secret. 

Sir Chris Bryant recently presented an analytical report into the government transparency register. His investigation discovered Truss apparently held just two meetings over the past few months. Bryant’s presentation, since, to clarify, ministers are supposed to actually record their meetings, found it was “extremely unlikely to be accurate” implying a “consequent lack of transparency at the heart of government”. I’d much rather assume Truss has literally only held two meetings as Foreign Secretary, allocating the rest of her time (and a healthy dose of taxpayer money) towards expensive social outings and photoshoots. In the same report, Bryant criticised some meeting descriptions as “curt in the extreme”, which is a humorously eloquent means of saying the description was: “meeting”. 

Laziness, incompetence, or a concerted plot to conceal their activities from the public? 

Echoing America 

Britain is very much not the US, nor a direct reflection, but the two nations do share cultural symmetry, many of the same foreign policy objectives, and a curious proximity of events. Most recent was the coincidental timing of Boris’ downfall and the House committee investigating the 6th of January insurrection and Donald Trump’s involvement. After each evading consequences for so long, both suddenly faced simultaneously reckoning.  

The American Republican party appears to have fractured into distinct groups, one holding to traditional, conservative values, and the other enthralled by Donald Trump mythology, determined to perpetuate both the false election claims and the assertion that he deserves to be reinstated as President. Currently, Republican primaries, in which Republican candidates vie for their party’s nominations, have exemplified this battleground between sanity and the perverse, baseless faith in Donald Trump as the one, true, glorious leader. 

Last year’s insurrection was critical, but not the exclusive event in cultivating the false narrative of Donald Trump’s presidency. He spent most of his presidential years lying about the media and other opponents, casting them as unrepentant liars obsessed with attacking him. 

Again, Britain is not the US. Politics have not degenerated to this extent. Our democracy, flawed though it might be by hereditary peers in the House of Lords and the interesting footnote that for the third time in six years our leader won’t be publicly elected, is relatively intact. I still, however, found Truss’ attacks on the ‘media’ alarming. There was no justification, only ire. It made little sense, and Truss was even overheard apologising to the debate moderator on Tuesday (09/08) when she believed herself out of earshot. Delegitimising opponents is not good news and needs to be called out early before it’s normalised and instilled as belief. Many American voters no longer trust any of their news outlets, and therefore don’t believe the reality unfolding in their country, because Trump has conditioned them to assume only he is telling them the truth. 

The conditions in the Conservative leadership race are ripe for disaster. Both candidates have happily engaged in disgracing their opponent, with irrational vitriol entering the discourse. Additionally, Sunak increasingly has less to lose. Truss is so obvious a front-runner his campaign will require a drastic boost, which might just be provided by something unnecessarily controversial with damaging ramifications later. That’s pure speculation, of course, but he did opt to randomly lash out against the ‘woke’, so desperate was he to gain attention.  

Once the respect for important institutions that hold governments accountable, like multiple parties, multiple candidates, and the media, is eroded, it’s much harder to restore. 

Restrictions on Protests 

I’m a little fatigued on this subject, especially since there’s been no update since it was last mentioned on this site, but it always bears consideration. By denying the right to free protest, and improving means of police oppression, the Police, Crime, and Sentencing Bill is another instance of controlling the populace and monitoring dissent.  

It’s another piece contributing to the overall puzzle image of a government hoping to dictate the public narrative of events whilst suppressing opposition and reducing accountability.  

Realistically, that banning protest is unhealthy to democracy is pretty self-explanatory. 

Lockdown measures 

Dredging up memories of lockdown might be unsavoury, but they did once happen, which is to say the country will submit to extreme government measures in times of crisis. That’s not inherently a bad thing. We accept a number of government measures on the condition they keep us safe. Most are so ingrained in our daily routines they’re barely noticed, and indisputable on the grounds of public safety. We all drive on the same side of the road, for instance. Others are more conspicuous by their scarcity, and remain temporary, like the recent hosepipe bans.  

But if the only thing between democracy and authoritarianism is a crisis, that’s an issue, because, not only can crises can be fabricated, a very real series might afflict the UK in the imminent future. Climate breakdown. How could I go five minutes without mentioning it? Heatwaves push the limits of what can be withstood, and, playing with this scenario to the extreme, official suggestions to remain indoors during peak sunshine hours could evolve into mandated daytime curfews. In the interests of public health.  

That sounds unfeasible even to me, yes, but it’s to demonstrate how events can be capitalised upon as ammunition if the desire is there. Had that pitch been delivered by a panel of scientists, it would have been an awful lot more convincing, too.  

Lockdown deserves a wealth of research, into its impact on the climate, the collective psychology of accepting or ignoring it, our deciding to discard it despite having not outlasted the pandemic, and for many other reasons. But more than anything, the legacy of permitting ourselves to be bound into our homes and submitting to increased police powers during that period, should be remembered.  

Are we in trouble? 

Ultimately, that the government is swinging to the right feels an almost unsubstantiated statement. That’s not to contradict my opening, but to temper it. There might be an enhanced focus on repression and fighting needless culture wars, certainly indicating more extreme tendencies, but it’s far from an indisputable fact. Whether levelling up, offering tax cuts, proposing plans to support to the poorest in the UK, it’s most clear there’s simply no conviction amidst anything offered. Johnson in his wake left no semblance of coherent economic plan, whilst neither Truss nor Sunak ever bother to elaborate on the gritty details of what they might offer. 

I would never use the word ‘coup’, as has been readily employed in America. In the UK, it’s more akin to selfish individuals promoting their own interests at the expense of their constituents. In other words, nothing new. 

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