British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, battered by scandal and facing an alarming rise in coronavirus cases, refuses to change course. “We have a chance,” he proclaimed optimistically on January 4, “to ride out this Omicron wave without shutting down our country again.”
Public health experts may disagree. Yet Mr Johnson is at least consistent – not only with his conduct throughout the pandemic, where lockdowns were a last resort and restrictions had to be dropped as soon as possible, but also with the political platform that raised him to the highest position. After all, he was the man who came to power – bringing about Brexit in the process – on the promise of restoring ‘freedom’ and ‘taking back control’.
Undeterred by the pandemic, Mr. Johnson is quietly pursuing this agenda. But instead of reforming the country’s creaky democracy and strengthening the rights of Britons, he and his lieutenants are doing the opposite: taking control for themselves and denying others freedoms. A series of bills likely to pass this year will put Britain, the self-proclaimed beacon of democracy, on the path to autocracy. Once in place, the legislation will be very difficult to change. For Mr Johnson, this amounts to a concerted power grab.
It is also an answer. A political chameleon, Mr Johnson’s true ideological bent – liberal? One Nation Tory? English nationalist? – has long been the subject of speculation. Now he has, no doubt, revealed who he really is: a Brattish bossy who puts his personal quirks above anything else. And whatever his future, Britain will be remade in his image.
Amid the chaos caused by the pandemic, the tumult of Brexit and growing questions about the stability of Mr Johnson’s individual position, the scale of the impending assault on civil liberties has – understandably – not yet been developed for much of the British public. The list of legislations is long and deliberately overwhelming. But reconstituted, the picture is darkly repressive.
First, there is the Policing, Crime, Punishment and Courts Bill, draconian and sweeping legislation that effectively bans protests in England and Wales. Police are said to be equipped to stop protests that create “serious disruption”. Those who violated this condition, which could be done simply by making noise, would face prison sentences or heavy fines. Combined with other measures, such as banning traditional direct action tactics like “lockdown,” the bill could eventually make it nearly impossible to attend a protest without committing an offence.
Yet it goes beyond protest, putting minority groups in the crosshairs. New trespassing provisions, which make “residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle” a criminal offence, would essentially eliminate nomadic Gypsy, Roma and Traveler communities from public life. And expanded police powers would not only allow officers broad access to private education and healthcare records, but also open the door to unsuspecting stops and searches. Minority ethnic communities, disproportionately targeted for police attention, are likely to bear the brunt of these excesses.
The Nationality and Borders Bill is equally punitive. Bolstering Britain’s already hawkish immigration policy, it seeks to criminalize asylum seekers who take unauthorized routes: refugees arriving by boat, for example, could face up to four years in prison, regardless of the validity of their refugee claim. And if the claimants escaped traditional prison, they would be held in concentration camp-style accommodations and offshore treatment centers, sites long denounced by human rights activists.
Even British citizens are not safe from the net. A provision slipped into the bill in November by its architect, Home Secretary Priti Patel, would give the government the power to strip British citizenship from dual nationals without notice. Those targeted may not even have recourse to the law: the proposed reform of the Human Rights Act would make it easier for the government to deport foreign nationals and deny them allegations of abuse.
Such drastic measures, over time, will certainly be challenged. But the government has a plan for that: to drain the blood of democracy. There’s the Elections Bill, which – as well as potentially disenfranchising millions through the introduction of mandatory voter ID – aims to give the government new powers over the independent election regulator, sealing the political process. Unless substantially amended, the consequences of the bill could be constitutionally significant.
The urge to centralize power also underlies the Judicial Review and Tribunals Bill, which would allow Mr Johnson and his ministers to overturn judicial review findings that challenge their agenda. The Online Safety Bill, ostensibly designed to regulate Big Tech, has yet to be introduced in Parliament. But many free speech advocates fear it could be used to silence critics on social media, censoring those report details that Mr Johnson’s government would prefer to keep out of public view. No more pesky judges or nosy reporters interfering with government business.
It is a truism that nations sleepwalk into tyranny, and England – the most politically powerful of nations including Britain – is no exception. For decades, it has possessed all the necessary ingredients: an increasingly resentful nationalism, a loyalty to the press sold to the highest bidder, and a fervent and misplaced belief that authoritarianism could never take hold here, because we don’t. we just wouldn’t let it happen.
In this case, however, the concerted opposition to Mr Johnson’s plans did not materialise. Establishment politics have failed to match the resolve of Mr Johnson and his allies: a massive and broadly supportive Tory majority means that even when Labor decided to oppose the legislation, his votes barely counted. And despite the valiant efforts of a coalition of grassroots groups and the initial groundswell of “Kill the Bill” protests, a mass movement opposing these bills has failed to come together. Instead, a miasma of sinister inevitability has set in.
It is dangerous, not least because this authoritarian assault is so complete that once established as law, it will prove very difficult to thwart. Like many leaders who seek to transcend the constraints of democracy, Mr Johnson cannot foresee a future where he is not the one pulling the strings. But the miserable shadow his takeover will cast over Britain is likely to last far longer than the term of the so-called ‘king of the world’ himself.
Its place in the history books, however, is assured. He will forever be the libertine whose pursuit of personal freedom and “control” saw his countrymen deprived of their own.