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‘We Must Defend Our Democratic Space Before It’s Too Late’

Caroline Slocock – director of think tank Civil Exchange – explores how politicians’ respect for our democratic institutions has shifted since she was the first female private secretary at No. 10 under Margaret Thatcher

Then Prime Minister and Chancellor Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak. Photo: Leon Neal/Reuters/Alamy

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Another week, another story demonstrates a loss of standards in political life, attempts to sow division, shut down voices or reduce accountability.

This week, Grant Shapps called Labour “the political wing of Just Stop Oil“. Last week, the Prime Minister used his official twitter account to say that Labour and a subset of lawyers were on the same side as criminal gangs

Last month, the UN Commission on Human Rights said that the Government’s Illegal Migration Bill, now part of UK law, breaks international law. And in June, the Government introduced regulations – which cannot be amended by Parliament and receive limited scrutiny – that overturned a Lords Amendment to primary legislation to change the threshold for restrictions on protests from ‘serious disruption’ to ‘more than minor’. And so it goes on.

It’s easy to lose the bigger picture in the face of so many examples, but our report out today – ‘Defending our Democratic Space: A Call to Action‘ – joins the dots and documents the many threats over successive administrations to what we call our “democratic space”.

This space is where people and organisations help shape our policies, services, laws and culture. It’s threatened when – as has already happened – peaceful protest is restricted, charities fear to speak up, government makes it harder for its decisions to be reviewed by the courts, standards of behaviour in public office are ignored and politicians foment division. 

It’s a new phrase designed to make more visible those elements of our democracy that, collectively, often go unnoticed.  

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To judge the temperature, we talked to people in civil society and beyond, from national leaders to grassroots campaigners. We heard serious concerns about specific threats, but the bigger picture emerged as the greatest concern. Those we spoke to believe the overall problem is serious and growing– one interviewee likened it to a boiled frog failing to notice the water heating until it is too late.   

I have been watching that metaphorical frog for some time and I am seriously concerned.

More than 30 years ago, I served as a private secretary to Margaret Thatcher and then, briefly, to John Major when they were Prime Ministers. I can testify that both had a strong respect for our democratic institutions, whatever you think of their political record. 

Deliberately misleading Parliament, as Boris Johnson did, was unthinkable. Official resources were not used to make political attacks. Both had great respect for the law. Mrs Thatcher once wrote: ‘The first duty of government is to uphold the law. If it tries to bob and weave and duck around that duty when its inconvenient, if government does that, then so will the governed, and then nothing is safe.”

Times have changed. Sir John Major raised serious alarm bells in a lecture last year, pointing to a loss of integrity, the Government’s lack of respect for the law, its assaults on civil rights, the criminalisation of migrants, and a style of government that “looks for enemies where there are none” – including complaints against the civil service and the BBC.

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Charities and others in the not-for-profit or social sector are part of this bigger picture but are often overlooked.  For the people they serve, they are a vital channel into Parliament, government and the media. But many charities are increasingly afraid to speak up about the problems they see, partly because of the chilling effect of legislation (the so-called Lobbying Act), partly because of restrictions when they receive government money, and partly due to the hostile political rhetoric they can encounter.

The contractual relationship between government and many charities for the delivery of services that started under Labour has contributed to a view that charities should not criticise the state.  

Attacks on our democratic space are continuing – even when those in charge change – as our current situation shows, and a recent Labour attack tweet has raised eyebrows about standards too. Our interviewees pointed to longer-term drivers, including the disproportionate influence of media moguls and vested interests and the polarising effect of social media.

We are now at a tipping point where politicians risk losing their legitimacy and damaging democracy, if they continue on this path. Too many people already feel they’re not listened to, that their everyday concerns are ignored, and that they lack control. Politicians must arrest the decline and renew our democratic space so that people’s voices count and our democratic institutions are truly accountable – goals our research tells us cross political divides.

We’re also calling on anyone concerned about threats to our democratic space to come together to defend it. We need an effort that bridges party politics and crosses sectors – civil society, business, the arts, media and more.  If you’d like to join us, do get in touch.

Caroline Slocock is the founding director of the think tank Civil Exchange, which is jointly publishing ‘Defending our Democratic Space’ with the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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