The Conservative Party and Illiberal Democracy – Conservative Article
In 2014, Hungarian President Viktor Orbán made a speech in which he outlined a new form of democracy. Illiberal democracy. Orbán says that the 2008 financial crisis proved that liberal democratic states couldn’t remain competitive with illiberal states, citing Russia, Turkey, Singapore, and China as examples. Orbán explained that illiberal democracy wouldn’t deny the “fundamental values” of liberalism. In practice, this is a lie. Freedom of the press, freedom of the courts, and sexual freedom have all suffered under Orbán. Opposition parties are unable to compete on “an even basis” said observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. This is hugely frightening.
However, I don’t think it is just Hungary that is suffering from the ideology of illiberal democracy. The Conservative Party under Boris Johnson is also making some moves that look like it is starting down the illiberal path.
The first example of this is the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill (PCSC bill) This bill increases police powers around acts of protest. The bill would then enable Police to impose a start and finish time for protests and set noise limits. One person can apply restrictions to a protest. It will also become a crime if protestors fail to follow restrictions they ought to have known about. Finally, and perhaps most worryingly, it will become an offense to cause a public nuisance “intentionally or recklessly”. These obviously have dangerous implications for the nature of protest, as any could be deemed a public nuisance. In part, that’s what a protest is.
Our liberal, democratic right to protest is being challenged.
Another example is the terrifying new bill that would update the Official Secrets Act. Under this reform, the bill will make it illegal to make “unauthorised disclosures” or leaks of sensitive information. This has obvious consequences for journalists in the UK, as many news stories are brought about because of leaks. The 2009 MP’s expenses scandal was brought about because of an unauthorised leak. More recently, the story of Matt Hancock’s affair. Both of these brought relevant information to the public eye and so were vital to the public interest. Additionally, both proved embarrassing to the incumbents.
Under this new law, journalists could face up to fourteen years in jail for breaking such stories. The very threat of being prosecuted could mean that journalists don’t release these types of stories anymore. The media lose a key tool to inform the public about potentially damaging stories to the government. And in losing this tool, they are unable to hold the government to account. This challenges the freedom of the press, eroding another liberal freedom.
In Johnson’s COVID policy we can see more examples. While I have broadly supported the three lockdowns we have endured. (Though that is not to say they’re without their downsides.) However, I don’t support the legislation that allows for lockdown. The COVID Act was a rushed piece of powerful legislation that allowed for the side-lining of Parliament. This critique comes from the former Supreme Court President, Lady Hale, and it is hard to disagree. It allowed Johnson to rule by decree, just like Orbán in Hungary. The renewal of the act only a few months ago also demonstrates the reluctance of the state to give up newly-gained powers. A huge amount of uncertainty is created by this legislation, and it is simply no longer required. My criticism of the legislation is further fleshed out here.
Vaccine passports are another area that I disagree with. They are discriminatory and should not be mandated. It keeps state control where none is necessary.
Now, a difference between Hungary and the UK is that the opposition hasn’t been hampered by the government, at least not yet. However, the opposition is still laughably weak. Some of this is due to the fact that the Conservatives currently enjoy a large majority, which is out of Keir Starmer’s control. However, Starmer carries most of the blame for his party’s weakness. He has so far failed to meaningfully hold the government to account, apparently giving this job to Marcus Rashford and Andy Burnham. In fact, Starmer decided that it was better to abstain on the new COVID tiers back at the end of November, a significant piece of COVID policy. You’d think he’d care to share his opinion. But no. He did not, thus failing to show an ounce of leadership. Again, this gave the role of opposition away, this time to the Conservative COVID Recovery Group.
When it came to the PCSC bill, Starmer’s initial plan was to simply abstain, until he was forced to change his mind by the events at Clapham Common. Labour again failed to challenge the renewal of the COVID Act, saying that they would support the measures, but “not with any enthusiasm”. Time and time again Starmer has let the government roll over him to do what they want. If the opposition doesn’t hold the government to account, then the government will behave however it wants, knowing that there are no consequences.
The Conservative Party under Johnson is starting to apply its own illiberal democracy. Freedom of the press and our right to protest are slowly being eroded. Other freedoms such as going out and meeting friends could be taken away again at a moment’s notice with the power of the COVID Act. Our ability to go out has been hampered by vaccination passports. And finally, our opposition is standing up to none of this. If this is continued over the remainder of Johnson’s time as leader, then Britain’s democracy will be severely damaged, resulting in its own illiberal democracy.
Written By Senior Conservative Writer, Kieran Burt
Point of Information
The Situation is Already Far Bleaker – A Liberal Response
I find myself agreeing with a lot of what my colleague Kieran writes here. Long-standing ideals of freedoms are being carefully and subtly eroded by the Conservative Party. Unfortunately, the situation is already far worse than Kieran indicates.
Last week, the government announced plans to restrict the powers of the judiciary system by limiting the effectiveness of the judicial review. Judicial review is a process that allows the courts to check government legislation and ensure it is constitutional. The government wants to effectively negate this process by removing any retrospective applications of any decisions found to be unlawful. Essentially, this will allow the government to get away with any illegality on the basis that they do not do it again – a hugely illiberal move. Also concerning about this bill is that it sets a dangerous precedent for ouster clauses. Outsider clauses that remove certain decisions from court interference. This threatens the integrity of a balanced government.
Another concerning freedom-curbing move from the government is a review of the Human Rights Act. Any dilution of the HRA and how citizens can protect themselves from the state would be a huge dent in our personal freedoms. This, in conjunction with the weakening of judicial review, provides a scary insight into how our freedom, and the freedom of the judiciary, is being delegitimised by the Conservatives. If they stay in power for another 5-10 years, our civil liberties could be unrecognisable.
Parliamentary sovereignty still reigns supreme in this country. Thus, the courts are ultimately powerless against any legislation produced by the government. However, the executive is overstepping its mark here and eroding the balance of government. These are truly concerning times.
Written by Senior Liberal Writer, Luca Boyd
The Conservative party is becoming an enemy of democracy – A Labour Response
I praise my colleague’s efforts in holding the government to account. We must remember that while our ideological badges are the same names as the parties in parliament, it is down to each of us to assert our values against those who might masquerade them in order to justify tyranny.
What does the Conservative party stand for? Equal opportunity through meritocracy? Respect for the law and personal freedoms? On inspection of the modern Conservative party, these values are hard to find.
My own thoughts about the crime bill can be read in full here. This, and the Official Secrets Act are both dangerous pieces of legislation for people adjacent to our profession. Furthermore, restricting the judiciary system and revising the Human Rights Act is deeply worrying.
However, there is even more from the Tories which concerns me. Clearly not satisfied with the misery they have already caused for people living in this country, they turn on some of the most vulnerable people in this world, refugees and migrants. The new proposed borders bill by Priti Patel will give new powers to border patrols to turn away migrant boats already in our national waters, illegal under international law. As well as that, processed migrants may be sent away to camps set up on Atlantic island territories. Similar to Australia’s camps on Nauru or America’s camps at the Mexican border, both of those facilities have faced rousing condemnation for human rights abuses. Furthermore, the Tories have left the clause for punishing “assisting migrant travel” so vague that even our lifeguards could be prosecuted for saving drowning migrants.
Furthermore, the Tories have shown time and time again that there exists an economic system where the rich benefit and the poor are left to languish. Scott Benson, MP for Blackpool received thousands in freebies from gambling companies in return for campaigning for the construction of a super casino. Former Conservative councilor Steve Dechan received a PPE contract worth £120 million where only 0.23% of the stock was used. Former health secretary and white-hot sex bomb Matt Hancock was routinely under fire for failing to publish details of public sector contracts where some contracts were handed out to companies tied to his mistress and to his family.
The rich get richer, while the rest of us are left behind. The Tory party would rather let itself become a deep-seated pool of corruption than meaningfully help any decent working person.
Conservatives need to take a long look at themselves and their values and ask “does this cavalcade of donkeys really represent us?”. Are we nearing an “illiberal democracy”? While I’m sure I would disagree with how a Conservative would run the country any day of the week, those who are true to their values need a fair place in our society as well. We all seek to mold the very best future for our country. That bright future would be far removed from Boris Johnson.
Written by Senior Labour Writer, Joseph McLaughlin
Hello, my name is Kieran Burt and I am going into second year at Nottingham Trent University studying Politics and International Relations. I first developed an interest in politics through reading the Dictator’s Handbook by Alastair Smith and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, when I was 16, and have furthered my interest by studying politics at A level and now at university.