When Donald Trump was driven out of office, many of us hoped that would be the end not just of the man himself, but of the politics he represented. In the U.K., however, Trumpism has continued to gain momentum. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party, the U.K. government has taken a distinct authoritarian turn, using the pandemic as a cover for introducing laws and regulations to criminalize protest and facilitating police repression against communities of color.
At the center of the left’s complaints about growing state power is the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. It is intended to map out the relationship between police and protesters in our new post-COVID world. The bill would extend police powers to ban protests. If it is passed, a protest could be banned if a senior police officer believes that the event would have “a serious disruption to the activities of an organisation.” Any effective protest would be, potentially, unlawful.
In a little over a year, since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.K. government has issued 70 coronavirus regulations, with little if any oversight by Parliament. The state has introduced new laws that are far more draconian than anything required by our health emergency. The laws have, for example, made all protests during the COVID surge unlawful, even where protesters have been socially distanced and those participating have worn masks.
The laws also have been unevenly applied: In the first nine months of the lockdown, police in England and Wales have issued 32,000 Fixed Penalty Notices for breach of the COVID lockdown rules. Young Black and Asian men have been twice as likely to be fined as their white counterparts.
The moment at which most people became conscious of all these laws occurred last month, after 33-year-old Sarah Everard disappeared from her South London home. A serving police officer was arrested and charged with her kidnapping and murder. A crowd of several hundred people gathered for a vigil to express solidarity with Everard. They were attacked by police officers, who stormed the park’s bandstand, trampled on the flowers left by well-wishers, and made numerous arrests. Conservative Home Secretary Priti Patel first authorized the police attack and then sought to distance herself from it.
This is not the only instance of the COVID rules being used to punish social justice causes and to forgive those close to the governing regime. When Dominic Cummings, the chief adviser to our government (the Steve Bannon to our Boris Johnson), was caught driving around the U.K. 200 miles from his home, in open breach of the COVID rules, Johnson insisted that his adviser had “acted responsibly, legally and with integrity.” When the prime minister himself was caught outside his permitted local travel area, ministers defended him, saying that the word “local” in the rules didn’t mean local after all.
After a year in which the left has been largely absent from the public eye, protests have begun again, warning not merely against the bill but the authoritarianism which underpins it.
The U.K.’s authoritarian turn was strongly fuelled and shaped by the rise of Trumpism in the U.S.
Trump always recognised an affinity between his project and his imitators in the U.K. After the British voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, Trump claimed that the result proved his own politics could win. Trump said that he stood for “Brexit plus, plus, plus.” Trump told a rally of his supporters, “They voted to reclaim control over immigration, over their economy, over their government,” and predicted that U.S. voters would do the same. After the rally, Trump tweeted, “They will soon be calling me Mr. Brexit.”
It took another three years for the U.K.’s Conservative Party to choose a leader capable of ruling along Trumpian lines. However, since Boris Johnson became prime minister in summer 2019, U.K. politics has lurched to the right.
Just as Trump governed not through Congress but through executive orders in the U.S., we have also seen an unprecedented expansion of secondary legislation in the U.K.: laws made by the executive rather than the legislature. Their expansion reaches towards the limits of what ministers are allowed to do under Britain’s unwritten constitution. The justification for this shift to executive government has been the same in the U.K. as it was in the U.S. Recall Executive Order 13769, under which President Trump banned immigration to the U.S. from seven predominantly-Muslim countries back in January 2017. One justification given for that change was that, under the U.S. Constitution, the president has absolute power over foreign affairs and national security: He could do whatever he liked.
In Britain, the equivalent measure was an attempt, in summer 2019, to “prorogue” Parliament (in other words, to prevent our legislature from sitting) for fear that it would pass laws preventing Johnson from crashing out of the European Union without an exit treaty. Just as in the U.S., those defending this move argued that the government was free to do what it liked; that Johnson (and not Parliament) was sovereign when it came to foreign affairs.
The U.K.’s Supreme Court found that the attempt to prorogue Parliament had been unlawful. That move was, however, the first step in an ongoing battle.
In the U.K., as in the U.S., the government is trying to rewrite history. The U.S. saw Trump’s 1776 Commission, which tried to sanitize the role of the so-called founding fathers in upholding slavery. In Britain, we have had a Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which argued that, “the slave period [was] not only about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain.”
The formative experience which holds the government together is the involvement of its best-known figures in the Brexit referendum. The politics of Brexit share with the rise of Trump the idea that international institutions are an enemy to the nation state, and that economic success in the U.K.’s case requires breaking from the European Union, just as Trump constantly fought the World Health Organization, the UN and a series of other international bodies.
There are admittedly certain differences between Johnson and Trump. One is that our government has no major movement supporting the QAnon conspiracy, no Breitbart, no army of supporters willing to stage a coup on its behalf. Another is that in spring 2020, after responding to the COVID outbreak with an initial burst of denial, Johnson changed tack: He has held power by accepting the reality of COVID and belatedly funding a vaccine program. While Trump lost the support of some older voters, fracturing his coalition, Johnson has not made the same mistake.
The left remains weak, following Labour’s heavy defeat in the 2019 general election. The opposition Labour Party has drifted not just to the right but also into incoherence, with its new leader Keir Starmer seemingly incapable of formulating any clear understanding of Boris Johnson, or of the defeat of Starmer’s predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, or indeed of Corbyn’s previous strong performance. After a long period in which both main parties were stagnating in the polls, the Conservatives have begun to draw ahead again. In that context, the growing number of people taking to the streets against can be seen as a rebuke not merely to Johnson but to parliamentary politics as well — as if hundreds of thousands of young people were determined to prove the unpopularity of the government, and to force Labour to do its job of opposition.
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