openDemocracyUK: Opinion

British democracy is under attack - we must fight to protect it

Everyone knows Boris Johnson is an amoral liar with no respect for standards. But if we don’t act now, his power grabs will be fixed in law

Peter Geoghegan
Peter Geoghegan
23 December 2021, 12.00am
Boris Johnson's government is set on a sudden assault on our democracy

There are two ways you go bankrupt, Ernest Hemingway once wrote. “Gradually, then suddenly.” It’s the same with how our democratic rights are taken from us.

As prime minister, Boris Johnson has gradually chipped away at norms and standards. Parliament has been prorogued. Electoral laws broken. Rules trampled on.

Now his government is set on a sudden assault on our democracy.

Forget the pantomime in Downing Street. Let’s look instead at the ghost of Christmas future made flesh through some of the egregious pieces of legislation that will be winding their way through the Houses of Parliament in the coming months.

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There’s the Policing Bill that criminalises protest, and could lead to protesters being sentenced to 51 weeks in prison. An Elections Bill that will give the prime minister control over the elections regulator and force voters to carry ID to exercise their franchise. A Nationality and Borders Bill that could strip British citizenship from people at the flick of a pen.

That’s not all. An extension of the Official Secrets Act will place legal constraints on journalism and whistleblowing. The Human Rights Act is to be ripped up. Ministers will be given the right to throw out judgements made under judicial review.

Channel 4 is to be sold off by a culture secretary who is on record misleading the public about the finances of a broadcaster that has long been a thorn in Johnson’s side. Meanwhile, a cabal of anti-lockdown Tory MPs – with longstanding ties to the dark money-funded American Right – increasingly dictate the government’s pandemic policy.

This is what democracy dying suddenly looks like. And we need to act now before it’s too late.

Corrupting democracy

As with anything that happens gradually, then suddenly, it is easy to become inured to just how broken Britain’s democracy has become.

This is a government that ripped up parliamentary standards in a doomed attempt to save the disgraced MP, Owen Paterson, who had lobbied for companies that paid him hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The Downing Street parties – and their cack-handed cover up – are more a symptom than a cause of the rot, but they are indicative of a morally bankrupt elite. While many in the media talk of ‘sleaze’, the reality is that Johnson has presided over a culture of corruption and clientelism. What other words are there to describe a politics in which political donors are given privileged access to a VIP lane for lucrative COVID contracts?

openDemocracy first started reporting on irregularities in COVID contracting in April 2020. When we revealed that a PR firm close to Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove had been given a bumper contract without any tender, the Cabinet Office dismissed our questions. Earlier this year, a court found that Gove broke the law in awarding Public First a public contract.

There are so many examples that it’s hard to keep track.

Take David Frost. He has flounced off as Brexit minister, but the good lord will remain a peer for life. Evidently, the animus of right-wing Tory MPs towards “unelected” health experts does not extend to former Scotch salesmen now selling Singapore-on-Thames.

Of course, Frost will have plenty of like-minded company among the ermine. As openDemocracy revealed recently, £3m is the going rate for Tory donors who want a seat in the House of Lords. The Met Police declined to investigate “peers for sale”. Plus ca change.

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State capture

The fish rots from the head. Johnson has presided over a regime made in his own image: venal, vacuous and in contempt of checks and balances.

This is a prime minister who ignored his independent adviser on ministerial interests when it was found that the home secretary Priti Patel had breached the ministerial code, and who elevated the Tory donor Peter Cruddas to the House of Lords in defiance of advice from the House of Lords Appointments Commission.

There is a phrase to describe all of this: ‘state capture’. As Liz David Barrett explained in openDemocracy in November, state capture is “a type of systematic corruption where narrow interest groups take control of the institutions and processes that make public policy, buying influence not just to disregard the rules but also to rewrite the rules”.

Just like Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Johnson has launched attacks on the judiciary and tried to silence the media. Right now, he is changing the rules for our elections, in his favour.

Whatever other reservations Johnson’s troops may have, they are right behind him on this. While over 100 Tory MPs rebelled against COVID restrictions recently, few on the government benches have opposed legislation that will make voter ID mandatory – even though at the 2019 general election, there were just 33 allegations of impersonation out of 58 million votes cast. Whose votes will be lost as a result? Inevitably, those who are already excluded from full participation in society: ethnic minorities and immigrants, the poor, not to mention all those inconveniently progressive students.

The Elections Bill also gives the government the power to set the “strategy and policy” of the Electoral Commission. That’s the same Electoral Commission that senior Conservatives have called to be abolished.

Under Johnson, the British government’s woeful transparency record has gotten even worse. When openDemocracy revealed the existence of a secretive Freedom of Information Clearing House in the heart of government, Whitehall responded by calling our journalism “tendentious”.

That was nonsense – a parliamentary inquiry has since been launched into the Clearing House – but the problems remain. Any administration in which special advisors can control what information is released is deeply compromised.

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The fightback

It’s easy to be gloomy right now. The backlash against democracy is global and organised. The anti-abortion activists peddling LGBTQI ‘conversion therapy’ in the United States and around the world are part of the same anti-democratic nexus that suppresses and disenfranchises minority voters.

The same dark money playbook of anonymously-funded think tanks and client media that openDemocracy has done so much to uncover is now being used by vested interests to fight everything from climate change action to mask mandates.

Now we face the gravest of challenges: the fight to protect the fabric of our democracy.

openDemocracy is fundamentally a response to the crisis of democracy, in the UK and internationally. With a dedicated team of independent journalists and a worldwide network, we have a track record of uncovering the scandals that really matter.

Knowledge and action are the key tools in our arsenal. Uncovering what’s really going on is vital. People need to know that their rights are being eroded and how the rules that govern their democracy are being broken.

But information alone isn’t enough. We need action.

There are steps we can take. Last month, more than 4,000 openDemocracy readers wrote to their MPs calling for parliamentary standards to be strengthened. That’s a start, but there is so much more to do.

You, our readers, have a vital role to play. It is only by working together, as citizens, that we can turn back the anti-democratic tide.

Hemingway’s law of bankruptcy holds for democracy too. Now the time for gradual action has passed. We need to act suddenly, and collectively, to protect our rights. Before it’s too late.

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