Britain is a country ripe for capture by authoritarians – so claimed the prominent legal commentator, David Allen Green, in an article for the magazine Prospect this week. “An Enabling Act could happen here,” he asserted. Lord Neuberger, the supreme court judge, has said the UK is on “a slippery slope” to “tyranny” and “dictatorship“.
This hyperbole is fast becoming a defining trait of the UK’s left-liberal intelligentsia. One of our most celebrated historians, Simon Schama, dubbed Prime Minister Boris Johnson “Duce” in a nod to the preferred epithet of the fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. Meanwhile, the Guardian’s Martin Kettle opined that “the political landscapes of Brexit Britain and Weimar Germany are scarily similar”.
Seeing such distinguished individuals reduced to crying “fascist” or “Nazi” underscores the extent to which the last half-decade has degraded political debate – not least, our ability to disagree civilly without impugning the faith of one’s opponents. (It is worth pointing out – for the sake of balance – that Brexiteer allusions to ‘the EUSSR’ and Nazism are just as jarring). As Brexit has wound on, there has been a steady proliferation of commentators playing the Nazi card (a phenomenon known as Godwin’s Law – the principle that the longer an online discussion goes on, the more likely it is that somebody will reference Hitler or the Nazis).
This Conservative government could justifiably be described as many things. Populist, arrogant, and nativist are but three regularly recurring charges from both sides of the left-right divide. Totalitarian it is not.
The Government has already been slapped down by the Supreme Court for an “unlawful” parliamentary prorogation and is currently fending off rebellions from backbenchers furious over its cautious Covid-19 policies. It cannot even control the media narrative, let alone every institution of the state.
These episodes – along with U-turns on a host of Covid measures compelled by external pressure – hardly suggest a democracy on the brink. If anything, they demonstrate how the conventions and customs that underpin the UK’s anarchic political system are still working, despite various Brexit- and Covid-related challenges.
Nor is the Government’s penchant for Statutory Instruments (SIs) the smoking gun for some great democratic backsliding, either. While it is true that the Coronavirus Act did indeed give the Government far-reaching powers unprecedented in peacetime, these were necessary in the face of a virus that was sweeping the country. Moreover, the Act’s powers were not more draconian than those in legislation enacted by other western democracies.
As has been pointed out on these pages before, only in a democracy like the UK – relatively untouched by occupation or revolution (1688 notwithstanding) – could some commentators pontificate about perceived authoritarianism.
Certainly, there is merit to the argument that the Government is high-handed and needlessly confrontational in its approach to institutions and legislation. It also stands that rules are important in a democracy – and are only as good as the politicians and officials who oversee them. Yet what left-liberal Godwin’s Law flouters forget is that the Weimar Republic had a constitution guaranteeing civil rights and checks and balances on power – it wasn’t enough. Ultimately, codified constitutions with strong oversight powers will never stop an executive with enough intent and support from pursuing authoritarian ends. If the Government was as bent on this as detractors suggest, would Parliament, the judiciary, and the media have been able to compel the changes to policy that have characterised Johnson’s premiership? The answer is, obviously, no.
Although analogising the actions of successive Conservative governments since the EU referendum to those of the Nazis has become something of a reflex for certain bien pensant types, doing so belies both poor taste and poor historical understanding in equal measure.
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