Is creeping consolidation of power in the Executive a sign of authoritarianism in post-Brexit Britain?

Timing the Brexit deal so Parliament has no choice between this and the disaster of “no deal” is the latest in a long series of steps that look like a consolidation of power in the Executive. This is dangerous.

Downing St entrance

The leader article in The Economist for 21 November, “remaking the state”, offered a chilling and credible reading of the present government’s attempt to reform the state — by concentrating power in the Executive through a mix of reducing the power of judges, pushing back against devolution, reforming [sic] the civil service and tipping power from parliament to government. It comments (rightly) that “The Tories are right to advocate constitutional reform, bit their proposals take the country in precisely the wrong direction”.

I share the diagnosis from The Economist, but am less optimistic.

Writing about the government’s mishandling of the pandemic (by pushing “obedience to the rules” over medical objectivity) I found myself thinking in terms of the French pychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s “discourse of the hysteric”, where a raft of unconscious anxieties are in the driving seat. Lacan comes up with four discourses, which are a fairly elaborate way of saying that the dominant “discourse of the master” — however it seems to be “how things are” — never has the whole story.

My sense is that the attempt to concentrate power in the Executive is doing something profoundly dangerous. This isn’t simply that I don’t like it. It isn’t even just that it undermines democracy — a people need a way to choose their government but I can live with this not happening as I like (as I do in living with the dysfunction of “first past the post”).

The problem is that it’s pandering to a raft of unconscious anxieties and using these to confer power on the Executive. It’s repeatedly creating situations that have a semblance of acceptability until one looks closely. The government is certainly part of the problem, but it’s not the whole of the problem in as much as there are not vast protests on the streets and opposition parties keep being put in a place where they have no room for manoeuvre (hence the absurdity of the 2019 General Election and the impossibility of doing anything other than support Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal).

This is pointing to a deep dysfunction — an obvious explanation is that Europe provided the container for British politics for a very long time, and in voting to leave the EU and then actually doing that, we’ve attacked that containment and left our political system struggling.

The December 2019 General Election might be a good example. A small increase in the Tory vote gave them a big majority, though arguably this is as much an anti-mandate for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn as it was a mandate for Boris Johnson. In the finer detail of that, a sense of difficulty comes from near-impossibility of a meaningful discussion of Brexit, even though the result was taken as a mandate to leave.

This comes on the back of judges being branded as “enemies of the people” for concluding that the government was acting illegally over Brexit, and an extraordinary shamelessness over the government’s illegal silencing of parliament in 2019 by proroguing it. The role of the courts is to administer the law: something is badly wrong when government sets itself above the law.

Here are some thumbnail sketches of where power seems to be being consolidated in the Executive:

  • Before the 2019 General Election, all Conservative candidates were required to pledge to support Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal — contradicting the idea that an MP represents their constituents. This didn’t just silence dissent, it removed a swathe of highly able Tories who were willing to think for themselves — such as Rory Steward and Dominic Grieve.
  • To handle the mass of legislative decisions needed to navigate Brexit, the government is resorting to “Henry VIII” clauses — weakening or removing parliamentary scrutiny from a large swathe of changes made as a result of the legal consequences of Brexit.
  • A Brexit deal was announced on Christmas Eve 2020 — with the possibly-not-accidental consequence that this stymies debate over Christmas. As this has to get through parliament by the end of the year, the timing means MPs have no chance to examine the deal or do anything other than chose between it (however bad) and the “nuclear” option of “no deal” and there’s no chance of a public debate on whether this is consistent with what voters were promised in the referendum.
  • There’s been barely any comment on the implications for Northern Ireland or Scotland — though this deal pushes towards Irish unification and Scots independence — as if this dissent can be ignored.
  • There were wide and legitimate calls for a referendum on any Brexit deal. Even Jacob Rees Mogg once suggested this. Instead of asking the British people whether the deal negotiated is preferable to remaining in the EU the government has contrived a situation where a referendum is impossible. If it were confident that what it’s negotiated is “the will of the British people” there would be no problem in putting it back to the people. If, instead, the 2016 referendum is being taken as license for the government to do what it wants, we are in a dangerous place. The 2019 General Election doesn’t constitute a new mandate for the “oven-ready” Brexit deal that took another year to negotiate because it was about many other things — and there’s plenty of evidence of people voting Tory because they didn’t want Jeremy Corybn in No. 10, rather than because they did want whatever turned out to be Boris Johnson’s vision of Brexit.
  • What triggered my last blog post was a sense that Covid 19 is being navigated in terms of telling people to “follow the rules”, giving the rules priority over medical necessity. There’s a marked contrast with Angela Merkel’s apologies for curtailing freedoms — because she knows what it is like to live under an authoritarian government. A pandemic is bound to limit people’s freedom, but Boris Johnson’s government seems almost to revel in this.
  • In the late spring of 2020 Boris Johnson was speaking as if we’d beaten Covid19. Recently he was talking as if it would be over “by the spring”. In both cases he’s claiming “victory”, which might appeal to people’s hopes, but doesn’t mesh with reality. We’ve seen ministers claim to have got a vaccine in terms that imply Britain is better than other countries, and talk of the start of vaccinations as “V day”, with clear wartime parallels. That sets people up to think of a “victorious” government, though this has little to do with medical reality, or the fact that all countries are facing this.
  • In local government, the planned changes to the planning process reduce the influence of councils which effectively transfers some of their powers to central government, ahead of the suggested introduction of unitary authorities.
  • Devolution, for all the profile of “metro mayors” like Andy Burnham, is so piecemeal that it doesn’t transfer much power from London — the pointed contrast is between this and the Blair government’s proposal for devolution, which would have created regional bodies all with comparable populations to Scotland, and real potential for devolution. Having, for example, an elected mayor for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough may sound good, but Cambridgeshire and Peterborough is too small a unit to have the powers devolved to the Scottish parliament (the economy, education, health, justice, rural affairs, housing, environment, equal opportunities, consumer advocacy and advice, transport and taxation) so it keeps these centralised in Westminster.
  • Following the announcement of the Brexit deal, Priti Patel announced that the new arrangements would make the UK safer by enabling a tighter enforcement of its borders desit ethe National Crime Agency having said that withdrawing from Europol will make many invstigations harder. “Enforcing the borders” is a way for authoritarian regimes to project their strength. Investing crime is what the police do to enforce the law and give the reality — rather than the illusion — of safety, so the NCA’s concerns should ring alarm bells.
  • Just before the Brexit deal was announce, news came out that the controversial data firm Palantir had been awarded a two-year contract to handle NHS data, extended from a temporary arrangement from March 2020 to form a Covid19 datastore which would be destroyed at the end of the pandemic. Palantir get heavy mention in Chris Wylie’s book Mindf*ck: inside Cambridge Analytica’s plot to break the world, and have been accused of feeding racist feedback loops in the USA. If we were still under the EU data protection regime this might be fine, but with a government moving things into UK law with limited parliamentary scrutiny and trying to stop judges “interfering” things feel rather different.

A warning from history

At the back of my mind is the way in which what is now the European Union came about out of the wreckage of the second world war, to ensure that such a thing couldn’t happen again. Its core values are expressed in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union, with a mechanism for dealing with states that are drifting away from those values in Article 7. Article 2 reads:

“The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.”

My own reading of the narrative of “ever closer union” is that nations are never static: they are heading towards war or towards piece. Far from being sinister, this phrase catches a commitment to peace and stability. In leaving the EU, the UK has turned away from that commitment.

In turning its back on the EU, I fear that the UK has also turned its back on the core values in Article 2, which would act against the consolidation of power in a government seeking to be above the law and parliament. Brexiteers unfairly accuse the EU of wielding excessive power in an undemocratic way. What they actually do is project their own tendencies onto Brussels. The danger now is that post-Brexit Britain heads off on the authoritarian path the EU would have resisted.

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