Before criticising democracy abroad, Britain should take a look at itself

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Political Capital
Nic Cheeseman
By Nic Cheeseman

Every month 'Political Capital' tracks which leaders' political stock is rising, who is on the slide, and what this means for democracy and development. Focusing on the trends behind the headlines, Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) highlights the political power plays and events that will shape the future of Africa. He is Professor of Democracy at University of Birmingham and Author of 'How to Rig an Election'. Founder of www.democracyinafrica.org. Co-producer of Resistance Bureau.

Posted on Monday, 23 May 2022 13:39, updated on Wednesday, 25 May 2022 09:55

Protesters march during a 'Kill the Bill' demonstration, against plans for increased police powers during protests, in London, Britain, January 15, 2022. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

The UK is quick to offer advice and criticism to African countries struggling with democracy. But a new slew of anti-democratic bills from the 'mother of parliaments' in the UK suggests that critics should search closer to home.

The government of Boris Johnson has just forced through a Police Bill described as a “dark day for democracy” by leading charities. This comes hot on the heels of an Elections Bill that “will undermine the very essence of our democratic rights, values and practice”. Worse still, basic respect for the rule of law has deteriorated, facilitating corruption.

It is easy to be complacent in the face of waning respect for democratic principles in a “consolidated” democracy like the United Kingdom. After all, there is no risk of the next election collapsing into violent acrimony due to vote rigging, or the security forces closing down parliament. So why not just keep calm and carry on?

Though this might be tempting, it would be a mistake. Recent changes to British law make it harder to fight for some of the most important causes of our time. Take the Policing Bill: whether you care about climate change, institutional racism, fuel costs, or just the state of your local schools, it is now easier for the government to silence your voice. After all, the 2021 U.S. capitol riots serve as an important reminder of what can happen if you allow threats to democracy to go unchallenged.

These changes also have important implications well beyond the borders of Britain. In the fifteenth year of a global democratic recession, one thing it has taught us is that our struggles to protect political rights and civil liberties are connected – a loss for one is a loss for all.

Policing protest

Parts of the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill are explicitly designed to prevent people from protesting in the most disruptive – and hence effective – ways. Under the old system, if the police wanted to restrict a protest they had to show that it could lead to “serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community”. They also had to demonstrate that protestors were aware that they had been told to disperse to prove they had broken the law by remaining in place.

The new rules change this. For protests based at a single location, the police will be able to impose a start and finish time and set strict noise limits. They will also be able to apply these rules no matter how many people attend – even if it is a protest of one. Worse still, the police will no longer need to show that protestors deliberately failed to follow instructions. Instead, it will be a crime not to have done what the police wanted if you “ought” to have known – a term so ambiguous it is ripe for abuse.

The reactionary nature of the legislation is clear from some of the specific measures it contains, which are intended to criminalise #BlackLivesMatter and Extinction Rebellion protests. Following the changes, toppling a statue – like the one of slave trade Edward Colston that was destroyed in Bristol – could lead to 10 years in prison. That is three years more than the minimum sentence for rape.

It is not hard to see why Sacha Deshmukh, CEO of Amnesty International UK, thinks that “The Policing Bill is part of a hugely worrying and widespread attack on human rights from across Government which will not only see basic rights reduced … but will also strip people of the means to challenge or contest their treatment.”

A ‘nefarious piece of legislation’

The government’s Elections Bill isn’t much better. According to Alina Rocha Menocal, who knows a thing or two about democracy, three parts of the legislation are particularly bad: “First, the need to show approved photo identification to be able to vote. Second, the rules on campaigning. And finally, parliamentary oversight of the Electoral Commission, the agency that regulates party and election finance and sets elections standards.”

The need to show ID in order to be able to vote sounds like a great democratic measure to safeguard elections. But as there is no evidence that significant numbers of people have been voting fraudulently, what it really represents is an attempt to block certain types of people out of the democratic process. This is especially worrying because the people least likely to have an ID are those who are already vulnerable and marginalised. The Elections Bill, therefore, reinforces their political alienation.

So why is this measure being introduced? As the recent efforts of the Republican Party in the United States demonstrate, the right of centre parties introduces these kinds of restrictions because they look democratic while serving to disenfranchise the working class, Black, Asian and other minority voters who don’t tend to vote for them.

The Bill’s other problems are too numerous to list, but one of the biggest concerns is that it undermines the independence of the Electoral Commission. In a move that UK representatives would criticize if it happened in Africa or Asia, politicians have been given greater control over how the Commission works. In particular, the Bill hands the government the authority to issue a “Strategy and Policy Statement” setting out its electoral priorities, which the Commission is expected to follow.

Even more shocking for those of us who have studied electoral manipulation is the removal of the Commission’s ability to bring criminal prosecutions when parties fail to respect campaign finance regulations. This is particularly striking because the weakness of the Electoral Commission in this area – and in particular the meagre fines that it can hand out to rule-breakers – has already facilitated delinquent behaviour.

In 2017, Johnson’s Conservative Party was handed the highest ever fine for failing to “declare or accurately report more than £275,000” of campaign expenditure. Just think for a minute about what that means: a British government has deliberately weakened the power of the Electoral Commission in precisely the area where it was caught flouting the law. No wonder Lord Wallace of Saltaire was moved to brand the Elections bill a “nefarious piece of legislation”.

Democracy and the rule of law

Maintaining the right to protest is particularly important because there has been a decline in basic standards in British public life. Back in December 2020 a group of researchers – including this author – wrote to the Financial Times to express their concern at the “apparent reluctance of the current UK government to uphold the Nolan Principles … established in 1995: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership”.

Declining democratic standards in one country further lower the bar that leaders around the world think they need to meet.

That was before the infamous “party gate” and the growing list of revelations about corruption in the procurement of covid-19 equipment. It is hard to imagine an improvement in this situation – or a severe government effort to prioritise dealing with climate change – without public protest.

Declining democratic standards in one country further lower the bar that leaders around the world think they need to meet. Corrupt politics makes it easier for authoritarian regimes to buy influence abroad and facilitates transnational criminal networks. And double standards between what the government does back home and what British representatives call for abroad will lead to accusations of hypocrisy, making it easier for the likes of Vladimir Putin to mobilise support in the parts of the world already suspicious of the motives of “Western” governments.

Weakening democracy in one country hurts the fight for freedom everywhere.

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