As the economy unravels, we are seeing an increasingly aggressive government squaring up to an expanding list of enemies, heedless of legal and moral restraints and of the impact on country and people, argues Frances Webber.
‘Move fast and break things’ used to be the mantra of tech whizz-kid entrepreneurs. It seems to have been adopted as the motto of the government, which in the course of the past year has continued casually breaking laws, promises, conventions, codes, human rights obligations, and people, as it lurches along apparently heedless of everything except its hard-right donors and supporters. By November, Council of Europe human rights commissioner Dunja Mijatović was noting ‘what appears to be an increasingly antagonistic attitude towards human rights by the UK government’ which was threatening ‘both the overall system for protecting human rights, and the rights of specific groups’. From one year’s end to the other, Boris Johnson and his successors in government have pursued authoritarian responses to every issue they have confronted, with ‘crackdowns’ announced or promised on protesters, investigative journalists, university campuses, striking nurses, ambulancemen, teachers, rail and postal workers, and ‘human rights’ – against a background of an impoverished and anxious population, a public sector in shreds, where morale and productivity are on the floor, beaten by a decade of cuts, and backlogs of cases in the courts and operations and appointments in the NHS at equally insurmountable levels.
The ubiquity of coercion gives the lie to the market fundamentalists’ claims of self-regulation.[i] The populist slogan of sovereignty, ‘Take back control’, underlies one of the headline issues of 2022: the treatment of asylum seekers, from the Rwanda deal, through Manston, to new prime minister Sunak’s ‘stop the crossings’ pledge. But the attack on universal human rights in the Bill of Rights Bill; the pursuit of extreme policing of protest through the Public Order Bill, the muzzling of journalists through the National Security Bill; the onward march of digital policing, from facial recognition to GPS ankle tags; proposals to outlaw industrial action in the face of increasing poverty, desperation and unrest; assaults on local BDS initiatives and on student unions; more political tampering with the electoral system – all these reveal the emptiness of the slogan, or rather its exclusive application to the executive, at the expense of the community.
Where does race fit in to this? Race is certainly not on the agenda so far as the government’s stance on equality is concerned, after 2021’s Sewell report banished the concept of institutional racism, and those who claim otherwise are derided as whinging losers in a meritocracy, or condemned as criminals, extremists or both. Diversity in the cabinet, as Aditya Chakrabortty pointed out, allows ‘black and brown ministers … to front up attacks on black and brown people’. Sivanandan’s 2012 article ‘The market state vs the good society’ described how, as ‘the tectonic plates beneath the state had shifted from serving the nation to serving … big business and the banks’, a popular culture of ‘anti-immigrant, anti-scrounger patriotism’ was promoted to mask rising inequality and justify the ‘heavy manners’ used to keep the electorally unimportant in their place. Now, as austerity bites and resistance grows, this fake patriotism has become yet shriller, deployed to justify the repression and demonisation of an ever spreading range of enemies, seemingly regardless of their electoral importance as an increasingly panicked government tries to repair the leaks in the sinking ship of Britannia.
On the ground, though, amidst the disgust for the corruption, self-seeking, cruelty and venality on display at the top, a vibrant counter-culture is growing, as climate justice, women’s and LGBTQI rights, BLM, anti-racist and migrant rights activists, trades unionists increasingly see the commonalities of their struggles and open out to each other. Abolitionist ideas spread through Black and women’s and climate movements all at the sharp end of policing; nurses and ambulance staff take a leaf from the outsourced migrant workers’ strikes; practices of solidarity learned during the pandemic are revived for the benefit of those struck by poverty. A turn towards the collective is detectable.
Britannia Enchained is the latest four-part series examining the state of human rights in the UK, by IRR Vice-Chair and retired barrister Frances Webber. Parts one and two will be published week commencing 13th February 2023. To receive each part direct to your inbox, sign up to the mailing list. You can also read last year’s series, Impunity Entrenched.