How the Tories turned the UK into a repressive state

The Tories have been stripping away people's rights

Rishi Sunak

Dissent and critique have been the foundation stones of the age of reason, industrial and social revolutions. They provided the platform for anti-colonial movements; civil rights, feminism, environmental, gay rights, universal suffrage; employment, welfare and human rights, and much more.

The UK government portrays itself as “Europe’s biggest defender of democracy”, but after 13 years of Conservative rule, the UK has become a repressive state. Rights won after decades of struggles have been removed or diluted.

Here are some examples.

The Public Order Act 2023 has criminalised protests that can cause “serious disruption” to two or more people or to an organisation in a public place. This applies to even one-person silent protests. The Act authorises police to stop and search people without any suspicion on the basis that they might join a protest. Upon conviction, the punishment is six-month imprisonment, a fine, or both. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that the “UK law affecting people’s rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, is “incompatible” with the country’s international obligations”.

The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 empowers the home secretary to remove people’s citizenship without telling them and thus make them stateless and subject to permanent detention.

Over the years, the government has suffered a number of defeats in the courts over the unlawfulness of its actions. So, the government has enacted the Judicial Review and Courts Act 2022, which makes it harder for people to challenge the government’s decisions in courts.

The draconian Covert Human Intelligence (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021 authorises government departments and regulators, such as the Competition and Markets Authority, the Environment Agency, the Financial Conduct Authority, the Food Standards Agency and the Gambling Commission to use state and non-state actors to commit murder, torture, rape and phone-tapping without a court order and with immunity from prosecution. The justification is that this is “in the interests of national security; for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime or preventing disorder; or in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom”.

In 2019, at the height of the Brexit crisis, the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised the monarch to prorogue parliament. Subsequently, the Supreme Court declared the prorogation to be unlawful. Undeterred, the government used its parliamentary majority to push through the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act 2022, and give the Prime Minister the power to request the monarch dissolve parliament, even without a vote to that effect in the House of Commons.

The possibility of fair elections has also been dimmed by the Election Act 2022. It introduced the need for an approved photo identification to enable citizens to vote. The government claimed that this would reduce voter fraud even though fraud is extremely rare. For the 2017 elections, only one person was convicted. Four convictions were secured for voter fraud in the 2019 elections. Opponents argued that the need for an approved photo ID would dissuade the young, poor and minorities from voting. These groups tend not to vote for ruling the Conservative Party. The government was not persuaded. However, after severe mauling in the 2023 local council elections former Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said that the voter ID rule was an attempt to “gerrymander” the electoral system, suppress Labour vote and boost the Conservative Party’s support, rather than to reduce electoral fraud.

Worker’s rights have been relentlessly targeted. The government used its massive majority in the House of Commons to rush through The Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses (Amendment) Regulations 2022 to enable employers to replace striking workers with cheaper agency staff. This was done without any consultation, as required by Section 12 of the Employment Agencies Act 1973.  In 2023, the High Court declared the regulation to be illegal.

The right to withdraw human labour is a fundamental human right. Since the 1980s, governments have imposed stringent balloting requirements for a strike. For example, at least 50% of eligible members must respond to the ballot, and at least 40% of eligible members must vote yes if they work for an important public service. None of these thresholds apply to general, local or mayoral elections. Indeed, companies can withdraw capital without any vote. The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 makes it almost impossible for workers to withdraw labour. It empowers Ministers to specify minimum levels of service and upon instructions from employers trade unions are required to order their members to cross picket lines and break strikes. Failure to do so would lead to mass sackings and penalties on trade unions.

The Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Act 2022 empowers the government to override decisions made by pension scheme trustees. As Amnesty International puts it, the law gives the “government the authority to direct investment decisions made by fiduciaries on behalf of and with the financial contributions of pension scheme members simply because they are or were public sector employees. It would limit the ability of public sector employees and pensioners to express ethical choice in the investment policy of their pension fund”. Through such policies, the government will direct pension schemes to achieve its defence and foreign policies, but there is no assessment of the impact on the consequences for the financial health of pension schemes or fiduciary obligations of pension scheme managers.

The Illegal Migration Act 2023 enables the government to forcibly send asylum seekers to third countries. Rwanda has been identified as that country. The forced human trafficking poses threat to women, the elderly, children, minorities and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities. It is also contrary to the UN Convention on Refugees. The government’s Rwanda plan for asylum seekers has been ruled unlawful by the Court of Appeal. The government perceives human rights to be a barrier and plans to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights and be thus beyond the reach of the European Court of Human Rights. If successful, it will join Russia and Belarus as the only European countries outside the ECHR.

For decades, UK Ministers have lectured other countries on democracy and human rights. Such interventions seem hollow as human rights have steadily been eroded at home by a government dedicated to producing docile citizens, subservient to capital and a partisan state. Parliamentary scrutiny of the law has been perfunctory as the government has used its huge majority in the House of Commons to curtail debates. US President John Kennedy’s warning that “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable” should be heeded.

Prem Sikka is an Emeritus Professor of Accounting at the University of Essex and the University of Sheffield, a Labour member of the House of Lords, and Contributing Editor at Left Foot Forward.

Image credit: Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street – Creative Commons

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