Thu 28 October 2021

In the past week, the police was deployed as an instrument in Boris Johnson’s increasingly authoritarian agenda, argues Maheen Behrana

Strongman politics is firmly embedded in British politics, as the past week has confirmed.

Shocking scenes at the Clapham Common vigil held for Sarah Everard last weekend reveal the shaky foundations of Britain’s notion of ‘policing by consent’. As Londoners took to the streets the following day to protest the use of excessive force by police, the country looked on in bewilderment as police officers stood guarding a statue of Sir Winston Churchill – something that was neither the focus of protestors nor the locus of a particular safety threat.

Just days later, the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which will increase police powers to curb protests and offer extra protection to statues, passed its second reading.

In essence, over the past week, the police have been deployed to the frontline of a phoney ‘culture war’ – not as a passive bystander, but as an aggressive actor.

When we saw the police move in to the centre of Sarah Everard’s vigil and physically remove protestors, this was not a tactical error. It was a deliberate decision made with the aim of depicting the force as powerful and able to crush dissent. When the same police force decided to guard Churchill’s statue the very next day, the message was clear: power, tradition and the trappings of British vanity are to be upheld at all costs.

Yet these actions are not just empty gestures – they obstruct progress. For example, if the Metropolitan Police were genuinely concerned about COVID-19 safety, it would have allowed the crowds at Clapham Commons to naturally organise and disperse through the night. Pushing into the crowd and stirring up tension had an actively detrimental effect.

The Government has now suggested placing plainclothes police officers in nightclubs to protect women. Once again, this seems to be an attempt to use the police as a symbol of authority, without actually considering the intended outcome – keeping women safe. Charities and campaigners very much suggest that it won’t.

Authority and Disillusion

The police are being used as a vehicle through which the Government can drive forward the narrative that Britain is torn between ‘woke’ leftists and ‘common-sense’ ordinary people on the right.

However, in manufacturing and stoking this ‘War on Woke’, the Government is dancing with authoritarianism.

This isn’t a surprise, given the events of recent years. A 2016 study found that American voters with a propensity for authoritarianism were far more likely to vote for Donald Trump. Such affinities also correlated with a high fear of terrorism – with this actually pushing former non-authoritarians into modes of authoritarian thinking. It is therefore no coincidence that Home Secretary Priti Patel recently announced a new state-of-the-art anti-terrorism centre.

Indeed, similar surveys carried out in the UK suggest that pro-authoritarian attitudes are uncomfortably mainstream. A Hansard Society study from 2019 found that 54% of the Brits surveyed felt that the UK should have a “strong ruler willing to break the rules”.

The actions of the Government and the police over the past week are actively, shamelessly playing to this latent authoritarianism – what Hardeep Matharu has called the “soft fascism within“.

This trend has been seen since Boris Johnson took control of Downing Street in July 2019 and shows no signs of reversing.

Also in the news again this week was Shamima Begum, who left the UK aged 15 to join ISIS in Syria. Her citizenship has been revoked, despite the fact that she now repents of her choice and has essentially been left stateless. This was a rule-breaking decision that might have brought the Government some short-term popularity, but the longer-term consequences for democracy could be highly damaging.

There was also the recent story of a school which finally dropped legal action against a family after sending their daughter home repeatedly for wearing a skirt that was “too long”. Muslim student Siham Hamud was sent home every day for three weeks on account of her skirt length, something that she had chosen for religious reasons. Not only was her school clearly intolerant of her expression of her religious beliefs, it used the same strongman tactics currently deployed by the Government.

Sending Siham home will have eroded the chances of co-operation between her school and family and severely disrupted her education. Yet, despite these obvious negative consequences, the school opted to appeal to the idea of a culture war – benefitting absolutely no one in the process and stalling genuine progress.

Bad leadership is sadly a strategy in itself. The 2019 Hansard Society reports speculated that this could be explained by the way that trust in the political system has been systematically eroded in recent years. When people begin to doubt politicians and to tire of a barrage of failed policies, they turn to alternative modes of governance – including authoritarianism.

The events of the past week appear to be the opportunistic endpoint for a nation that has been browbeaten by so many failings that it just wants simple answers. And strong but simple answers that sidestep meaningful reform are something that Johnson’s Conservatives are all too happy to provide.


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