21 March 2021 — True Publica
By TruePublica: This article about Britain’s democratic breakdown was first published 29th January 2020 – and is ever more salient as each month passes with yet more characteristics of an authoritarian government being exposed every week.
Award-winning British journalist Nafeez Ahmed calls the rise of Boris Johnson’s right-wing free-market Conservatives a bunch of “unabashed authoritarians.” Alex Eror at Foreign Policy says Johnson will “double down on culture wars and nativist rhetoric to hold on to his new electorate.” The FT asks if Britain can survive Johnson’s populism turning into authoritarianism. The New York Times postulates that a new form of political thuggery has arrived – going as far as saying – “his premiership could bring about the end of Britain itself” and even the right-wing Telegraph published a story that voiced its concern about Britain’s new authoritarian trend. Then there was the former chairman of the Conservative party (1990-92), an ardent Thatcherite politician and now Tory life-peer, Chris Patten, who has openly stated that under Boris Johnson – “it is reasonable to worry that the country will soon come to resemble a tinpot dictatorship.”
Authoritarianism is a form of government characterized by strong central power and limited political freedoms. There are a few versions such as oligarchic to autocratic. Broadly speaking, with any form of authoritarian government, the most notable loss to society is their civil liberty, most particularly towards real electoral pluralism.
There is no doubt that the arrival of Boris Johnson into No10 is more about how he and his team have undermined Britain’s democratic systems than about his overall policies – albeit that Brexit has provided an opportunist with a once in a lifetime event to capitalise upon. But now, Johnson intends to consolidate power and give himself new executive capabilities, whilst reshaping the state to keep him there.
Modern-day authoritarians rely on intimidation, manipulation, repression, corruption, divisiveness and co-optation to consolidate their power. In Britain, we are now seeing these characteristics more openly with a trajectory that is shifting further away from the norms of democracy. One of the easiest clues to the destruction of democracy is the flouting of the rule of law while maintaining a plausible veneer of order, legitimacy, and prosperity. Its endgame is as described by Freedom House – “The goal is to dominate not only the executive and legislative branches, but also the media, the judiciary, civil society, the commanding heights of the economy, and the security forces.”
Here are the ten steps to democratic breakdown – that spells out the danger of Britain being a society free of real political change.
Systematic efforts to manipulate the media
It is well known that there is an implicit deal between the government and the media. In return for access and information, the political media spins a pro-government narrative. And whilst that is a position that has existed for decades to some extent, the scale of manipulation has now reached a new zenith in peace-time Britain. From No 10 Downing Steet peddling straight-up propaganda and fake news to banning journalists who ask too many questions. From staged news events to gagging orders, from extreme libel threats to laws designed to have whistleblowers, journalists and editors imprisoned for daring to expose abuse of power.
These are the recent alarming words of award-winning journalist Peter Oborne. “It’s chilling. From the Mail, The Times to the BBC and ITN, everyone is peddling Downing Street’s lies and smears. They’re turning their readers into dupes. Dodgy stories and commentary linked to Downing Street or government sources started to appear in the press and media after Johnson installed his own media team, which was largely drawn from the Vote Leave campaign that won the 2016 Brexit referendum.”
Demonizing the opposition
The smear campaigns used by this government have been truly shocking. From slander and libellous allegations to outright lies. One only has to look at the massively hyped anti-semitism story, the smearing of former chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond and dismissal of life-long serving ministers who dared to depart from Johnson’s Brexit narrative. A recent in-depth analysis by the London School of Economics into the last election revealed that the mainstream media colluded to “delegitimise, ridicule, pour scorn upon and used personal attacks” on political opponents. The LSE referred to the MSM as an ‘attack-dog’ operation that “raised a number of pressing ethical questions regarding the role of the media in a democracy.”
Politicising the civil service, military, or police.
Since the arrival of the Johnson administration, the civil service has been heavily threatened with mass sackings via a ‘seismic shake-up.’ Downing Street has made no effort to disguise Dominic Cummings obsessive hatred of Britain’s impartial civil service that he publicly states is in a permanent ‘state of failure’. Over the next few months and years, the war between the government and the civil service will be painful to watch. The police service in Britain has been used a political football in the last decade with Boris Johnson now promising to fix problems brought about by his own party and was used as a central pillar of the last election campaign. And one would have to question why we have just seen the appointment of a right-wing Daily Mail journalist now heading up the Met Police press team (think Johnson London Mayor and London Met Police). In just one of many examples of how the military was being politicised – the right-wing Express newspaper published fictitious nonsense about the British army being forced into an EU army if we stayed a member of the bloc with national conscription to follow – stories pushed further by Brexit fanatics that saw Johnson levered into power.
Using the state against domestic political opponents
The British government has been found by the highest courts in the land to be breaking just about every privacy law there is. Political opponents have taken the government to court for their illegal overreach, spying and using personal information to smear. One month before the December election, a former boss of MI6 labelled Jeremy Corbyn a danger to national security and said he was unfit to lead the country, In another case, we saw a senior serving army General publicly warning that a Jeremy Corbyn government could face a backlash from the Army, even threatening ‘a mutiny.’
Think tanks and lobbyists
Think Tanks (the natural home of lobbyists) have caused considerable damage to democracy in Britain in recent years. A small group of establishment figures, funded with millions, often from places like the USA, are covertly pursuing a political outcome in favour of extreme free trade, acting in effect as lobbyists for secretive corporate interests. The scandal of the Institute of Economic Affairs is just one of many examples that have recently come to light where monied interests get direct access to government ministers (because they are being paid) who then shape policy. This is not democracy in action – it’s corruption with profound long-term political consequences. When the story about Tuften Street emerged it was clear that corporate power – the bedrock of authoritarianism was getting a very strong grip of centralised power in Downing Street.
The Initiative of Free Trade was another such think tank. It was launched in the British Foreign Office led by then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Trade Secretary Liam Fox. The IFT was formerly based at 57 Tufton Street, sharing an office with the Centre for Policy Studies. The IFT‘s president is Tory MEP and Brexit campaigner Daniel Hannan, who has spoken about fostering greater ties between post-Brexit Britain and America at events hosted by US thinktank the Heritage Foundation, a US think tank at the heart of Donald Trump’s transition team in the weeks before he became president. These links shine a light on the connections between people like Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson – all of whom seek a form of power that does not include democracy.
Challenging the Supreme Court
Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament for five weeks last summer over Brexit was unlawful, the Supreme Court ruled. The consequence is that new powers will be given to the lower courts to navigate around the Supreme Court when and where the government decides, very particularly on matters relating to Brexit. In addition, the government wishes to shape the legal system to suit with the PM’s spokesperson saying: “We will take back control of our laws, and disentangle ourselves from the EU’s legal order, just as was promised to the British people.” This is code for, the law is no barrier to our objectives.
In the last ten years, the government architecture of surveillance has gone extreme, especially against protestors and dissenters. Information compiled following investigations by the Undercover Research Group, a network of activists that scrutinises the covert infiltration of political movements is an eye-opener. From black family justice campaigns to women’s peace campaigners and as we have recently learned, anyone joining an Extinction Rebellion march. And with GCHQ’s skill sets, everyone in the UK is considered guilty until proven innocent. Operation Optic Nerve saw the state capturing millions of images of law-abiding people in their own homes. MTI – an operation to collect your emails. Tempora – designed to capture and store all your internet movements and IMP – a type of smash and grab of central databases. These examples are just a handful of the many law-breaking activities and abuses on behalf of a paranoid state. And all of these activities are designed to police the population for dissent. Make no mistake, there are plenty of government and police operations we have not heard about. Yet.
Rigging the system
The EU referendum was not a fair referendum. New technologies used such as data mining, the extreme use of social media along with systems developed by MI6, the military, America’s NSA and the Pentagon to change ‘hearts and minds’ in battlefield conditions were used against the civilian population in Britain. Other tactics designed to persuade and manipulate through disinformation, propaganda and fake news stories were rampant. Added to all that – at last December’s election, there are now emerging accusations that postal voting, that suddenly doubled from historical norms, was rigged. Since then, this government intends to legislate against certain groups in a voter suppression tactic and has confirmed that Britain’s now archaic and failed FPTP electoral system will stay. This will ensure that the Tories have a huge electoral advantage going forward. On top of this, the abolition of the Fixed-term Parliament Act is expected as Boris Johnson moves to lay the groundwork for a decade in office.
According to Antonio Cabrales, a professor of advanced game theory and the head of the economics department at the University College London, one way of looking at Johnson’s actions is resorting to the concept of “madman theory”. First coined to refer to US President Richard Nixon, the strategy essentially boils down to conveying an impression of volatility and borderline irrationality in order to scare one’s opponent into making concessions. And Johnson has even admitted to these tactics. One good current example is passing laws that press impossible deadlines being imposed upon EU negotiators to do a deal by the end of this year, whilst openly threatening to do a trade deal with the USA before the legal agreement comes to an end. It was Boris Johnson who brought back Project Fear from the Scottish Independence vote in 2014 to fight statistics, analysis and evidence-based commentary on the EU referendum.
When it comes to the Boris Johnson government, we do not have to say too much about corruption as most of us have heard the stories. But it shouldn’t be forgotten why we have Johnson in the first place – Brexit. And Brexit itself is mired in scandal after scandal – mostly around how Britain’s democratic system was corrupted by organisations such as Vote Leave which was fronted by Johnson and found to have broken electoral laws. Then there are the corruption allegations against other organisations and characters such as BeLeave, Arron Banks, Cambridge Analytica, SCL, various Tory ministers and peers and foreign backers like the Mercers and so on. The scale of corruption and use of ‘dark money’ with regards to Brexit is breathtaking.
Since then we’ve been subjected to yet more allegations of corruption. It was only a few months back that Johnson was referred to a police watchdog over allegations of corruption during his time as London mayor over the Acurri scandal – that is itself now a new scandal by being delayed with accusations of yet more malfeasance. This is about the abuse of office and public funding. However, the Prime Minister is also now also accused of suppressing the House of Commons Intelligence Committee report on Russian threats to our democracy. The dossier reportedly illustrates how the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 referendum – and names nine Russian donors to the Conservative Party.
And who could forget accusations of corruption over claims that several Brexit Party candidates were offered peerages and negotiating roles in return for stepping down in the general election race?
We are told so much that the UK is the Mother of Democracy, the oldest and most stable democratic state in the world and that we are free from the tyranny of Putin’s Russia or the authoritarianism of Erdogan’s Turkey. But what Boris Johnson amply demonstrates is that democracy in Britain is now failing. Far from being the ‘people’s prime minister‘ and ‘people’s parliament‘ – a blatant subversion of British politics is well underway. Lies, propaganda, rigging, manipulation, threats, corruption and the like are really just replacements for policy that the electorate would vote for in a more pluralistic political environment. The demonising and crushing of political opposition and arrest of protestors in challenging the status quo is a true characteristic of the death of democracy. Britain is now already recognised as being in the midst of a democratic crisis as it enters its own post-democratic era.
What this is about is big businesses overwhelming the political importance of ordinary working-class and middle-class people. The rot really got underway when the banks led us into a financial crisis and the politicians bailed them out at enormous public expense. In desperation, people have voted for opportunists who have promised a return to sunny uplands. They have promised to fix the crisis of everyday life – of health, education, welfare, elderly care, policing and housing and whilst they keep up that fiction (through Brexit and a new ‘golden era’ for Britain) – political power will change and corporatism will completely take over. By then, it will be too late.