PThe art of mythology surrounding Boris Johnson is the idea that his politics is, at heart, liberal. Moderate conservatives regard the prime minister’s record as mayor of London, where he was careful not to offend the capital’s cosmopolitan culture, as the guide to their leader’s true instincts. Their reluctance to impose anti-Covid measures is also said to stem from a principled dislike of state control over the individual.
In reality, Johnson is a rake and believes in his own freedom to do as he pleases. That only superficially resembles concern for the rights that protect society against authoritarian rule. If the prime minister were sincerely interested in freedom, this week his party would not have given Commons its consent to a law that rewrites the terms in which citizens can peacefully protest against the government.
The police, crime, sentencing and court bill (now with the Lords) would create a new legal offense of causing “public nuisance,” defined so broadly that “grave nuisance” appears alongside causing harm or death. The police would enjoy an almost unlimited license to act against public gatherings that are deemed inconvenient.
Also this week, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, unveiled the nationality and borders bill, with the apparent purpose of fixing a “broken asylum system.” In liberal hands, that ambition would mean reforming cruel detention practices that treat vulnerable refugees like hardened criminals. Instead, Patel risks stepping up that approach with plans to process asylum seekers abroad, combining the legal status of the method by which a migrant reaches Britain with the legitimacy of their refugee claim and making entry difficult. legal.
The Home Office already has power over Britain’s borders, all the more so since the end of free movement from the EU. A new crackdown does not speak of a new threat, but of a political drive to revisit the greatest successes of the Brexit campaign, maintaining and aggravating anti-immigrant sentiment for political expediency.
This is the populist playbook and it has little connection to the ideals of freedom and traditions of British democracy that feature so strongly in the pompous pronouncements of Conservative MPs when the subject is business regulations or public health. If those same MPs were concerned about the vitality of democracy, they would disagree with the government’s plans to require photo identification at the polls over the misleading claim that fraud is a systemic problem. The creation of administrative barriers that could later suppress electoral participation is the most plausible government motive. There has been some concern expressed in conservative banks on that point, but not enough to dissuade ministers from introducing the parliamentary elections bill this week.
In a party committed to democratic accountability, there could also be more objections to a bill that proposes to weaken the Electoral Commission, taking away its power to prosecute violations of the law. Some Conservative MPs want the independent watchdog removed. It is a perverse but not mysterious fixation. This is a vendetta. The commission has launched an investigation into the controversial financing of Johnson’s remodeling of his Downing Street apartment and previously fined Vote Leave, the pro-Brexit campaign, for breaking spending limits during the 2016 referendum.
Any illusion that Johnson harbors liberal instincts was shattered by his extension of parliament in 2019, which was later declared illegal by the Supreme Court. The prime minister certainly has a fondness for freedom when it is defined as the absence of restrictions on his whims. When faced with such obstacles, he easily slides into an authoritarian mode. That is the most consistent character of his government, revealed in a pattern of legislation driven by no nobler ethos than an appetite for power without accountability.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism