Illiberal Britain

Viktor Orban, with the hair of Boris Johnson

In June, the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, declared that, “for me, Hungary has no place in the EU any more”. He was responding to a new law banning the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality among under-18s, the latest in an ever-lengthening catalogue of discrimination against minority groups.

His was not the first such call. In 2016, Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister, remarked that “anyone who, like Hungary, builds fences against refugees from war or who violates press freedom and judicial independence should be excluded…from the EU.”

Indeed, since Viktor Orban’s return to power in 2010, Hungary’s constitution has been subverted, its justice system politicised and government cronies placed in key positions; public media organisations and state-owned businesses have been co-opted, the independence of the universities and other major cultural institutions has been compromised and funding diverted from mainstream civil society organisations to right-wing groups. Meanwhile, the ruling Fidesz Party has harnessed the worst kind of popular prejudices in support of its nationalist and increasingly authoritarian agenda.

Not so long ago, those despairing of this growing illiberalism might have urged that Hungarians – and Poles too – be guided by the British model of democracy. But much has changed over the last five years, and especially in the last two. Now, it seems, the UK is reading from the Hungarian script.

From the earliest days of his premiership, Boris Johnson has displayed an Orban-like disregard for constitutional constraint. Within two months, he had prorogued Parliament. Just weeks later, when Conservative MPs sought to subject him to the kind of Parliamentary scrutiny he had gone to such lengths to avoid, he simply threw them out of the party.

Now, his judicial review ‘reforms’ propose to restrict the role of the courts’ in weighing the lawfulness of Government decisions. And, for good measure, the Conservatives’ long-cherished review of the Human Rights Act will likely further dilute the statutory protections we enjoy as citizens.

These assaults on our constitutional conventions are serious enough. But the increasingly unaccountable conduct of those in high office is equally corrosive. Ministers may bully their civil servants, intervene in the planning system to the advantage of Conservative donors and award multi-million pound contracts to associates with impunity. Billionaire members of a secretive club pay the Conservative Party for regular access to Cabinet Ministers while other benefactors are elevated to the House of Lords or given charge of Government agencies. The Ministerial Code is airily waved aside by the Prime Minister who is supposed to police it; the Nolan Principles of public service are confined to the bin.

The Government which pledged to restore the sovereignty of the British Parliament has emasculated it. Ministers conduct public business by private email. Policy announcements are made at press conferences. Ancient, absurd Parliamentary conventions are relied upon to protect from censure Ministers who deliberately mislead MPs and the public.

And just as the governing parties of Hungary and Poland seek to control the terms of public debate, so the Conservatives have sought to bring the UK media to heel. Party supporters already occupy senior positions at the BBC. Now Johnson seems intent on manoeuvring another into the chair of the media regulator Ofcom and on privatising the editorially independent Channel 4.

If the Government’s contempt for the free press it purports to champion were not sufficiently clear, its review of the Official Secrets Act proposes a crackdown on both whistle-blowers and journalists when the public interest they seek to serve does not coincide with its own.

Even this does not go far enough for a Government increasingly intolerant of dissent. Its Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill proposes new, ill-defined police powers to restrict the public’s right to protest if exercising that right might cause “serious annoyance”. And, ostensibly to counter the non-existent problem of electoral fraud, it’s planning to introduce a requirement for voter ID which will likely disenfranchise many of the millions, among them the most disadvantaged, who do not have photo ID.

And like Fidesz in Hungary and the Law & Justice Party in Poland, the Conservatives in the UK are waging culture wars exhorting citizens to take sides against imagined enemies both without and within, from asylum seekers to liberal ‘elites’. The consequences are all too apparent in the sheer nastiness of much of what passes for debate on the internet – and we have seen in the US how quickly and easily that nastiness can spill onto the streets.

Four centuries ago, Thomas Hobbes warned that without reasonable institutions of government, the rule of law and public respect for them, our lives would inevitably be “nasty, brutish and short”. It is precisely these safeguards that the Governments of Hungary and Poland, and now the UK, are eroding. The strongest will flourish without them, but perhaps the cruellest irony is that the powerless have been persuaded that this retreat from democratic principles represents for them the ‘taking back’ of a control which they never had and certainly never will so long as Boris Johnson and his allies remain in office.

As Britain follows Hungary and Poland into the barren landscape of illiberalism, we may at least have stumbled across one, perhaps the only, benefit of Brexit: for while our Government reneges on the treaties it has signed and trashes our once-admired democracy, at least we need not fear expulsion from the European Union.