openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Boris the liberal is dead. Boris the authoritarian reigns supreme

This week’s Queen’s Speech exposed an increasingly intolerant government, set on cracking down on civil liberties and demonising minorities

Nadia Whittome
Nadia Whittome
13 May 2021, 1.41pm
Boris Johnson is at the head of an increasingly authoritarian government
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

If any illusion remained that Boris Johnson was a liberal, Tuesday's Queen’s Speech should have shattered it.

As Mayor of London and then as a backbench MP, Johnson cultivated a mythology of himself being far more liberal than many of his Tory colleagues. Indeed, in a 2016 speech at the Vote Leave HQ, he told the audience it was “probably true” that he was a “liberal cosmopolitan”, and railed against being thought of as a “small-minded xenophobe”. He even sang ‘Ode to Joy’ in German, in a characteristically eccentric turn.

But anyone who still thinks the prime minister fits the liberal label probably hasn't been paying close attention to politics for the past five years.

This week’s Queen's Speech included headline plans to make photo ID compulsory to vote in elections. The plan is ostensibly to counter voter impersonation – yet the government admits that at the last general election there were only six cases of ballot fraud. In 2015, the Electoral Commission found that 3.5 million people don’t have any form of photo ID. This new law would make it much harder for them to vote. But that’s the whole point: to disenfranchise young people, poor people, trans and gender diverse people, and people of colour. Not only are they less likely to hold a current passport or driving licence – they are also less likely to vote for the Tories. This is voter suppression straight from the American playbook.

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The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is also making a return. Already the focus of significant opposition, this bill represents the biggest threat to the right to protest in a generation. It threatens to criminalise protesters who are noisy, disruptive or even ‘annoying’, while effectively outlawing Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities’ way of life.

The government’s plans for immigration are particularly disturbing. Having already closed the door on freedom of movement within Europe, they are now introducing a system that ties people to their employers, is unresponsive to labour needs within the economy and shuts out working-class migrants.

As for those seeking refuge, the government seeks to further differentiate ‘good’ asylum seekers who have come to the UK through practically non-existent “legal” means, and ‘bad’ asylum seekers who arrived on Britain shores outside of these approved routes. In practice, the vast majority of refugees would fall into the latter category and will, if the government manages to implement these plans, be automatically denied the right to refugee status in the UK, regardless of the validity of their claim.

In the early 2000s, Johnson compared gay marriage to bestiality. In 2016, he said the problem with Africa is that 'we are not in charge anymore'

In higher education, the government is introducing legislation that would allow people blocked from speaking at events to sue universities and student unions. This would undermine universities’ independence and potentially force them to platform anyone invited by student groups, no matter how dangerous their ideas. This could see far-Right nationalists or Holocaust deniers being allowed to speak or suing universities if their invitation is withdrawn. This Bill will create more problems than it resolves, and is a distraction from more pressing issues facing higher education, such as concerns over funding, fees, academic job insecurity, and student mental health.

A Judicial Review Bill is also being introduced, supposedly to “protect the judiciary from being drawn into political questions and preserve the integrity of judicial review for its intended purpose”. In reality, this is an attack on the power of ordinary citizens to challenge a government that acts unlawfully, following a number of embarrassing defeats for the government over recent years. The highest-profile case may have been the defeat over Johnson’s proroguing of Parliament during the Brexit debates. But judicial review has also been used to stop unlawful deportation flights, and to protect people on benefits from being kept in destitution by unlawfully high deductions for fines.

These measures announced in the Queen’s Speech are a collective attempt to undermine the very foundations of our democracy, with particularly ferocious attacks on the rights of those from minority groups or marginalised backgrounds. They are dangerous. And they must be fiercely opposed, in Parliament and by wider society.

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Boris Johnson’s domestic priorities are becoming clear: reward those who vote Conservative, and suppress those who don’t

So what happened to the ‘liberal’ Boris Johnson of yesteryear? However he might have described himself, the signs of intolerance, of demonising minorities, and of curtailing the rights of others have been littered throughout his comments over decades.

In the early 2000s, Johnson attacked what he called "Labour's appalling agenda, encouraging the teaching of homosexuality in schools” and compared gay marriage to bestiality. In 2016, he said that the problem with Africa is that “we are not in charge anymore”. In 2005, he described Islamophobia as a “natural reaction” and said that the country must accept that “Islam is the problem” in the wake of the 07/07 bombings. The list could go on.

Now in power, he has surrounded himself with politicians and advisers on the extreme Right of the Conservative Party. The result is a government growing ever more intolerant and authoritarian, demonising minorities, cracking down on civil liberties and rigging elections in their favour. Boris the liberal cosmopolitan, if he ever existed, is dead. Boris the authoritarian reigns supreme.

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