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How Should We Respond to the Conservative Party’s Authoritarian Turn?

David Lowther speaks to experts in national identity and authoritarianism, to shed light on how progressive forces should react to the debasement of democracy under this Government

Foreign Secretary and Conservative leadership candidate Liz Truss. Photo: Simon Dawson / 10 Downing Street

How Should We Respond to the Conservative Party’sAuthoritarian Turn?

David Lowther speaks to experts in national identity and authoritarianism, to shed light on how progressive forces should react to the debasement of democracy under this Government

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Boris Johnson’s Government has wilfully defenestrated the democratic rulebook. Johnson, the figurehead and the harbinger of this desecration of political probity is set to go, but only to be replaced by one of two individuals who served dutifully (for the most part) in his Cabinet.

The question is therefore whether they will seek to reorientate the moral compass, or whether they will follow Johnson’s lead?

In Peter Oborne’s ‘The Assault On Truth’, he refers to his time working under Johnson when the latter was editor of The Spectator magazine. “Johnson’s Spectator was politically eclectic and omnivorous, so much so that one or two critics said it was hard to discern where the paper stood on any subject,” he writes.

Johnson may have started as a liberal pragmatist – the man who Oborne worked for – but time and ambition steadily eroded his moral fortitude.

Oborne makes a multitude of references to the Ministerial Code throughout his book: the code has been a cornerstone of political veracity since its inception in 1992 – hardly an archaic convention. It is known now that Johnson, unable to meet the challenges set by the previous version of the Ministerial Code has “watered down” the wording to make it more achievable for his Government.

Meanwhile, the parliamentary benches creak under the weight of those accused of sexual misconduct, bullying staff and drug misuse.

Johnson’s demise was dramatic – a slurry of scandals leaving the Conservatives trailing decisively behind Labour.

Yet, for a long while, it seemed as though he was immune – his illegal asylum plans, his attempts to curb protest, and his death-inducing COVID policies barely making a dent in his party’s standing.

Johnson has turned the Conservative Party in a more authoritarian direction, breaching democratic conventions, extending the hostile environment and attempting to change electoral rules – not least by introducing voter ID measures.

There is enduring hope that the end of Johnson will lead to the retrenchment of this authoritarian instinct. But, if not, how should the opposition respond?

“Legislative steps taken by the UK’s current, Conservative Government are decidedly authoritarian in nature. A single, authoritarian bill passing through Parliament doesn’t necessarily mean the entire government or political system is authoritarian. What we are seeing, however, is not just a single, authoritarian bill passed by the Conservative Party, but many and in quick succession,” says Abbey Heffer, a PhD student studying Chinese authoritarianism.

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“The Conservative Party has passed legislation that makes it harder to remove them from power through elections, revoked the legitimate rights of already-vulnerable minority groups, and criminalised the act of peaceful protest,” Heffer told Byline Times. “Their upcoming legislation aims to increase Government oversight and ability to propagandise in education at the expense of parental rights, and they are going against democratic due process in trying to rush through a ‘Bill of Rights’ which revokes the human rights of those the Conservative Party deems undeserving,” she adds.

Beyond electoral politics, there are ways to resist this authoritarian turn, Heffer says.

“It is possible to submit a complaint to the UN Human Rights Council either on behalf of ourselves or those most affected by this legislation,” she notes. “If you know someone who has been impacted, like members of the traveller community, people of colour stopped and searched without suspicion, or protestors punished since 28 June, you can file a complaint.”

Heffer continues: “those who wish to exercise their democratic right to protest but can’t afford to under the Policing Bill: exploit the loopholes. Organise a silent protest outside your local MP’s office or Westminster; get active on social media. Citizens living under authoritarian regimes across the world have learned to adapt and express themselves according to the regime’s rules of the game. We can do the same.”

A New Alternative

In America on January 6 2021, then President Donald Trump riled up his base in an attempt to overrun democracy by force – claiming that the presidential election had been “stolen”, and that he had a mandate to govern from the “silent majority” of Americans.

Boris Johnson has shown this same level of self-delusion, claiming before his resignation that he possessed a mandate to govern from the 14 million people who voted for the Conservative Party in 2019 – despite the fact that 15.4 million people voted for opposition parties that were calling for a second referendum on Brexit.

“The Tories have done a very good job of appealing to populism, placing themselves as ‘the Party of Britain’ via Brexit, while casting the other parties as ‘the parties of the Remainers,’” says Dr Maria Norris, a specialist in national identity and national security.

Dr Norris confirmed that this isn’t a new phenomenon – there have repeatedly been moves towards authoritarianism in Britain as well as pushbacks against it.

On the question of the future, Dr Norris confirms that progress isn’t as straightforward as a “fight back”, but about presenting a new, better way to “be British”, behind another party. This is reliant on opposition parties proposing a new vision and a new narrative of what it means to be British.

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But as individuals we must also “present our own idea of Britishness: deconstruct and free ourselves from the old idea and ideals of Empire and be and live inclusivity,” she says. We must, Dr Morris says, present a viable alternative of Britishness that allows us to learn from our past, to redress those we have mistreated historically, but also to no longer be obsessed by national myths of past glories.

Of course, the past does provide some instruction for the left as well as the right. Moments of national crisis have precipitated progress and reform – not least in the post-war years. These must be used as sources of inspiration, but not infatuation.

Ultimately, Dr Norris says, Labour must up its game. “The Labour Party must embody a sense of pride and unity in national progress and step away from echoing the line of the Conservatives in terms of immigration, equality and the likes… The lesson we should have learned is that Jeremy Corbyn was an alternative, not the alternative. Now is the time for the left to provide a new answer”.

Finally, Dr Norris turns to the topic of how we can all help: “When it comes to the everyman, we need hope… We can do better than our past and create a new, better future, a Britain and a Britishness we can be proud of. Once we do that as individuals, our minds can broaden, we can move forwards together to cement change through the grassroots. It takes a village”.

“We need a revolution in our heads before we can have a revolution in our politics,” she says.

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