The Tories have made the UK more corrupt, unequal and authoritarian

Civil rights and the rule of law have been eroded

Rishi Sunak

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.

The last 14 years of neoliberal assaults have changed the UK. Under the Conservative government, the UK has become more corrupt, unequal and authoritarian; less open, and civil rights and the rule of law have been significantly eroded.

Openness and transparency are essential for public information and holding governments to account. In 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron promised to make “our government one of the most open and transparent in the world”. It hasn’t turned out that way as ministers make misleading statements, and government departments and regulators resist requests for information.  In 2014 the UK was placed third in the 2014 OECD Open, Useful and Re-usable data (OURdata) Index. By 2023, the UK fell to 25th place, and the UK is less open and transparent than Colombia, Denmark, Estonia, France, Ireland, Korea, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden.

Lack of transparency and public accountability always facilitates political corruption, and is made worse when parliament is emasculated. The government has used its parliamentary majority to curtail debates. Many bills have received perfunctory scrutiny. The Financial Times reported that the working day for MPs in the House of Commons has been shorter on average this parliamentary session than in any other in the past quarter century.

Public contracts continue to be handed to friends of the ruling party. Honours, peerages and knighthoods are showered on party donors. Against this backdrop the UK has sunk to 20th position, its lowest ranking, in the Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. The UK is seen as more corrupt than Uruguay, Estonia, Seychelles and Hong Kong.

Corruption provides cover for illicit practices. Ministers and regulators protect banks engaged in sanctions busting and illicit financial flows. In 2012, the UK-regulated HSBC was fined $1.9bn by US regulators for facilitating money laundering and faced prospect of criminal sanctions. The then Chancellor George Osborne and the financial regulators secretly intervened to urge the US authorities to go easy on HSBC. It was apparently too big to jail. Despite requests in parliament, no information or explanation has been provided. That pattern of indulgence has continued and unsurprisingly 40% of the world’s dirty money goes through the City of London and UK Crown Dependencies.

A kind of lawlessness has been normalised in other arenas too. Leading newspapers have engaged in phone hacking and police bribery in the pursuit of stories and profits. But corporations and their directors are rarely prosecuted.

Water companies have excelled by hiking customer bills and extracting dividends. They have failed to invest adequately in infrastructure and dump raw sewage in rivers, seas and lakes. The government allowed them to continue to do so until 2050.

The state-corporation nexus has corrosive effects elsewhere too. In March 2022, P&O Ferries sacked 800 workers without the required consultation. The sacked workers were replaced by agency staff on a fraction of their pay, and the P&O CEO said that he couldn’t live on wage of £4.87 an hour. P&O chief executive told a parliamentary committee that the company knowingly broke the law. The then Prime Minister Boris Johnson told parliament that the company has “broken the law” and the government would “take them to court”. Nothing happened. The lack of government action encouraged Body Shop and other employers to emulate P&O practices.

Workers have been impoverished by austerity, low wages, zero-hour contracts, fire and rehire, and unchecked profiteering. Wealth is concentrated in fewer hands as 1% has more wealth than 70% of the population combined. Work doesn’t pay enough. Median UK pre-tax annual wage in April 2024 was £28,572, and lower in real terms than in 2008. 38% of the people on Universal Credit are in employment and millions rely upon food banks and charity. The Bottom decile of British households have a standard of living that is 20% per weaker than their counterparts in Slovenia. Industrial action is about the only avenue left for workers.

The UK already has some of most stringent balloting requirements for withdrawal of labour, but the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 sought to make strikes almost impossible. It empowered minister to specify minimum service levels during strike action in six broad sectors. Employers could select workers who must cross the picket line to provide the minimum level of service. Those refusing would be sacked without compensation or any right of appeal, and trade unions could be sued by employers for losses. There are no sanctions for withdrawal of capital and closure of work places.

In 2019 the Supreme Court stated that the government illegally prorogued parliament. Ever since then the government has sought to enhance its dictatorial powers. The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 empowers the Home Secretary to remove people’s citizenship without necessarily telling them. There is a right of appeal against citizenship deprivation but sensitive evidence can be withheld from the appellant and their lawyer. Many of those deprived of their citizenship on ‘public good’ grounds are British Muslims. British citizens can also be refused a passport or have their passport withdrawn by the government. There is no right of appeal against having a passport withdrawn, but the person can ask for an internal review by the Government or apply for judicial review by a judge.

In November 2023, the Supreme Court judged that Rwanda was not a safe place for people seeking asylum in the UK. This went against the government’s policy of forced trafficking of refugees to Rwanda. The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024 states that Rwanda is safe because the Ministers say so, and no domestic court can consider any contrary evidence. The Act is in conflict with the UN Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights. UN Commissioner for Refugees said that “By shifting responsibility for refugees, reducing the UK’s courts’ ability to scrutinise removal decisions, restricting access to legal remedies in the UK and limiting the scope of domestic and international human rights protections for a specific group of people, this new legislation seriously hinders the rule of law in the UK and sets a perilous precedent globally”.

Courts were also ousted by the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill. Under this the government sought 24/7 powers to snoop on the bank accounts of anyone receiving social security benefits, including the state pension. There was no limit on the amount of information and how it might be used. No court order is needed and the parties affected had no right of appeal. The Bill was passed by the House of Commons but failed to clear the House of Lords and fell with the calling of the general election.

Dissent and protests are the foundation stones of democratic renewal. Through protests and related disruption people draw attention to grievances and make a case for change. That has now been changed by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. The Act empowers police to ban protests because they could amount to undefined “serious disruption”. Protests can also be banned for being “noisy”. Even one-person protests face ban and prosecution. Ministers, not courts, can unilaterally change the meaning of “noisy” and “serious disruption”.

The Public Order Act 2023 authorised police to stop and search people without any suspicion and on the grounds that they might commit a crime. People can be sent to prison for protests relating to locking-on, interference with key national infrastructure, obstructing transport work and tunnelling. The House of Commons and House of Lords Joint Committee on Human Rights said that the legislation would have a ‘chilling effect’ on the right to peaceful protest, putting fundamental democratic rights at risk, but the government ignored the objections. In May 2023, during King Charles’s coronation 64 people were arrested for anti-monarchy demonstrations on suspicion of conspiracy to cause a ‘public nuisance‘, to prevent a ‘breach of the peace‘, and for ‘being equipped for locking on‘.

The state is distinguished from other centres of power in that it has the authority to inflict violence and death on its citizens. The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021 has taken it a stage further. It enables government departments and selected regulators to grant “criminal conduct authorisation” to selected state and non-state actors i.e. power to commit murder, torture, rape and phone-tapping with complete immunity from prosecution. The chilling Section 1(5)(5) of the Act says that this is justified on grounds of national security, preventing or detecting crime or of preventing disorder, and because it is “in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom”.

The above has provided a brief glimpse of the massive social and political changes inflicted on the people. There has been a sustained attack on civil liberties and workers’ rights. The forthcoming general election presents an opportunity to halt the slide towards authoritarianism and rebuild society. This can’t be done without ending corporate sponsorship of political parties and a voting system that allows parties securing less than 50% of the popular vote to have a huge majority in the Commons.

Image credit: Simon Walker / Number 10 – Creative Commons

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