British democracy is at risk - but not from pandemic restrictions

British democracy is at risk - but not from pandemic restrictions

Catherine Neilan

16:22 27th November 2020

Boris Johnson is increasingly at odds with his own backbenchers over the restrictions being imposed on the country as he grapples with the second wave.

Yesterday he and Matt Hancock unveiled plans for what life will look like after the national lockdown lifts on Wednesday. But with just 1.27 per cent of the population in the lowest tier of restrictions, it was hardly surprising that people started dubbing this latest set of measures 'lockdown three'.

Cue outrage from the usual suspects: the lockdown refuseniks who have become emboldened as the pandemic drags on. Sir Graham Brady and Steve Baker - two of the most vocal Conservative critics - attacked them as "authoritarian".

Tensions have been building in Westminster for many weeks as MPs bemoan the infringement on our civil liberties that have come in the name of public health. The health secretary has been unequivocal about the need - temporarily - to do so for the greater good. But there are concerns that once the genie is out of the bottle it will not be squeezed back in.

Earlier this week another lockdown critic and Tory grandee railed against the "injustice" of an elderly lady being arrested and bundled into a police van for protesting outside Parliament.

Sir Charles Walker told the Commons: "I have just witnessed an elderly lady peacefully protesting with a handful of other people be arrested and carried spread-eagle to a police van just outside the precinct of the House of Commons.

"This is a disgrace. This is un-British. It is unconstitutional and this Government, our Prime Minister needs to end these injustices now...She was an old lady robbed of her dignity for having the courage to protest about having her fundamental rights and those of my constituents and others removed."

Speaking to journalists subsequently, he made clear it was irrelevant what the woman had been protesting but that under restrictions barring two or more people from gathering "the law is rotten."

MPs, particularly those on the libertarian right of the Tory party, believe that erosion of liberties is a fundamental attack on our democracy.

"I fear we are now so far down the rabbit hole that we have forgotten we even entered it," Baker, the former ERG chairman, said.

That might have been true under a different leader but Johnson does not seek the power that binds people in that way. He's too desperate to be liked.

Indeed, he has even gone so far as to suggest that the UK's poor fatality rate is in part down to the country's "freedom loving" nature - when compared to European neighbours such as Germany and Italy.

Telling the country about new restrictions has not sat easy with him, and his reluctance to do so is probably what has led us to acting late throughout the first wave.

So there is neither the inclination from the top, nor as is clear from the drop in compliance with the rules, acquiescence from the bottom, to have Big Brother become a permanent fixture in our lives.

All that doesn't mean that cracks haven't appeared in our democracy, and that some of these problems haven't appeared in recent months. But in many cases it is not the pandemic or the restrictions that are driving them.

Johnson might not want to tell people who they can and can't hug, but he has no such qualms about maintaining conventions that help to underpin the natural working of democracy.

Earlier this year he sought to undermine the independence of two parliamentary committees - which play a key role in scrutinising the work his government carries out - by planting lackeys as chairmen. In both instances, however, that seems to have backfired.

Far from giving him an easy ride the Liaison Committee's Sir Bernard Jenkin has so far proven a robust challenger. Number 10 had intended that the Intelligence and Security Committee would be chaired by Chris Grayling, however he lost out to Dr Julian Lewis who gazumped him by appealing to opposition MPs for votes. Dr Lewis was rewarded by losing the Conservative whip, a punishment with echoes of the treatment of the 21 Brexit rebels last year.

This might sound like a niche concern but both these committees have power and influence that very few others command: the Liaison Committee is the only one which can summon the PM; while constituting the ISC was the key to unlocking the damning report into Russian interference in our electoral system.

Mr Johnson and home secretary Priti Patel have pilloried human rights lawyers as "activists", "lefties" and "do-gooders", on the back of Tory MPs last year calling for the Supreme Court to be abolished after the UK's most senior judges found his attempted five-week prorogation to be unlawful.

An inquiry into the judicial review regime is now taking place, which is clearly aimed at denuding the process. Former Tory justice minister Lord Faulks, who is leading the review, has said he will not publish all the evidence received when he reports to the government by the end of the year.

And there's more. Once the UK has left the EU in full, there are plans afoot to radically change our approach to human rights, notably when it comes to immigration, but presumably that is not where it will end. The Conservative manifesto commitment to introduce voter ID also poses a threat by disenfranchising those in our most vulnerable communities.

As I have noted before, media access has been curbed with briefings granted to a select handful of journalists on the nice list, while those of us on the naughty list had to stand aside - a breach of the usual norms around access to neutral civil servants.

Far from fearing the transparent erosion of our civil liberties, by spring we may well find we can once again hug who we like, eat out not to help out but to enjoy ourselves and start joyfully complaining about the daily commute.

But behind closed doors, the challenges to our democracy might only just be getting underway.

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Tags: Boris Johnson Coronavirus Democracy Brexit Death threats Black Lives Matter