Liberty and democracy at death’s door

A murder was committed last night, and the victims were liberty, democracy and freedom of assembly and association. I am of course referring to the passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill at second reading, whose provisions include giving senior police officers and the Home Secretary the ability to shut down protests if they are deemed to be too noisy or causes “serious annoyance” or “serious inconvenience”. Such vague terminology means that this law can be used by the government to suppress any protest it wishes to. In effect, Parliament has just passed a bill which effectively kills the right to protest by a majority of 96 votes. 359 MPs (all of them Tories) voted yes, and 263 opposition MPs voted no, with a handful abstaining.

The new authoritarianism has begun, and contrary to what we were told by the apologists of the right, it has not been inaugurated by the “SJWs” in Labour, but by the same Tories who pretended to be defenders of free speech when justifying increasing government intervention in universities. All of their culture war posturing, their war on all things they deem woke and their declarations against cancel culture, all of it has built up to naked attacks on the civil rights of those that oppose them. It is because the Tories so badly want the power to oppress their critics that even supposed Tory libertarians like Steve Baker and Desmond Swayne (both of whom vigorously opposed the imposition of the second lockdown) ended up voting for this bill, as did Theresa May even after she warned of the “unintended consequences” of the bill.

It is for similar reasons that I have heard scant criticism of the new bill from the voices of the anti-woke left, and self-styled culture warriors against PC culture. Blue Labour has said absolutely nothing, and neither has the CPGB-ML or Galloway’s Workers’ Party of Britain. Thus far, the libertarians over at Spiked Online, usually stalwart defenders of civil liberties, have been silent, and so has the centrist Social Democratic Party. And then there’s Paul Embery, who was too busy condemning left-wing supporters of the Everard protests just because they happen to be vocally opposed to sexism and police abuse, and he even sided with the Metropolitan Police over its violent suppression of those demonstrators. And as the bill was being passed, he used his platform to virtue signal to the same conservatives who are now probably cheering that the government is stomping their boots on liberal and left-wing protestors they don’t like, harping on about how Labour’s candidate for Hartlepool should be someone who thinks almost exactly like the Tories on cultural issues and obsesses over waving the flag as if Keir Starmer hasn’t already tried the superficial flag-waving strategy and got nothing out of it.

And with that, we are approaching our era of illiberal democracy, with Boris Johnson joining the ranks of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Poland’s Andrzej Duda and Greece’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis, all of whom represent a new and vicious variety of right-wing politics, one which employs populist rhetoric and makes appeals to the culturally conservative segments of the working class (which it attempts to pass on as representative of all workers) in order to manufacture consent for a reactionary bourgeois agenda which entails economic austerity (however limited it may be), right-wing takeovers of institutions, scapegoating of foreigners, academics and minorities, and attacks on civil liberties. All of those people who have shown silence in the face of this transformation should lower their heads in shame, as should those who collaborated with the Tories in facilitating it and continue to side against opponents of the bill.

I cannot overemphasise the gravity of the situation here. The right to protest is but one target of the authoritarian Johnson government. They are already coming after the universities, and I would not be surprised if they took a page from Greece and started putting officers on campus. Soon enough they will further abridge the right to freedom of speech, conscience and association, and mark my words, they will attempt to attack democracy itself so that they can hold on to power just a little bit longer when Labour finally elects a leader that is actually capable of defeating them.

They want to turn Britain into an island prison, and in order to manufacture consent for this gruesome transfiguration, they will use every trick in the book. They attacked the right to protest while proclaiming that it is a cornerstone of democracy. They have already been abridging the right to freedom of speech in the name of national security or fighting extremism. They have already attacked the rights of trade unions under the pretext of democratising them. A few months before the last general election, they announced plans to introduce “voter ID” legislation, in effect copying the American right’s ridiculous rhetoric of election fraud, despite the warnings that it will rob groups least likely to possess the documents whose possession is to be made necessary of the right to vote (the fact that those people are less likely to vote Conservative is hardly a coincidence).

And they will not even stop there. In the name of fighting radical Islam they will abridge religious liberties, with France after all having normalised this already. In the name of preserving “sex-based rights”, they will attack the rights of LGBT people and those who wish to express their gender identity differently to how they are expected to. In the name of fighting cancel culture and wokeness, it will move to take control of the universities, and in the name of patriotism it will stifle public criticism. I worry that the cultural conservatives, be they on the left or the right, will have little defence against them because the Tories will appeal to precisely their concerns and beliefs. The very silence of people like Paul Embery and others stands as proof of this (although much credit should be given to Jon Cruddas for voting against the new policing bill).

What we must do is clear. We must stand with all those who seek to fight the new policing bill at the committee stage, and against all of those who seek to stamp out the right to protest, and anyone who defends their attempts. We need to demand and fight for better leadership from the Labour Party so that they may actually stand a chance at defeating the Tories and stopping this madness. Not content with a Labour government, however, we should work towards building a socialist future in which the spectre of authoritarianism may be banished to the dark recesses of history.

Marxist Humanist. For liberty, peace, democracy and socialism.