The new Tory authoritarians are trying to gag debate

Ministers want to silence charities and social groups for daring to highlight the damaging effects of Conservative policy.

The government’s sinister gagging Bill created an almost unprecedented outcry last week as a broad coalition joined together to tell the government to go back to the drawing board. Organisations as diverse as Shelter, the Royal British Legion and the Taxpayers' Alliance slammed the plans as undemocratic.

Everyone had a very clear message for David Cameron: don’t gag democratic debate just because you might not like what people have to say.

Over the last three years, charities and campaigners have played a crucial role in holding this government to account. It was a coalition of professional organisations including the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of General Practitioners that helped lead the charge against David Cameron’s wasteful and damaging reorganisation of the NHS. The Citizens Advice Bureau who sounded the alarm over the introduction of Universal Credit. Shelter that described the bedroom tax as "devastating". Crisis who criticised housing benefit changes for increasing homelessness. And a raft of childcare charities who warned about the closure of Sure Start centres.

It is no wonder that the government want to make it more difficult for charities and campaigners to make their voice heard.

This Bill says it all about this government. They have the wrong priorities and they stand up for the wrong people. Instead of listening to valid concerns from organisations across civil society, they are just trying to ram through legislation to make it harder for them to have their say. Instead of writing a Bill that would stand up to Lynton Crosby lobbying for big tobacco, they are trying to restrict cancer charities from talking about plain packaging. Instead of facing up to the real problem of big money and vested interests in our politics, they are attacking people power instead.

David Cameron used to evangelise about the big society, but now we understand what he really meant. His vision of charity is homeless shelters and food banks to deal with the huge social problems his policies have created, but he certainly doesn’t want his army of volunteers to have a say.

This Bill isn’t the government’s first attack on the vibrancy of our democratic debate; it has been a developing theme. Just look at restrictions on civil and criminal legal aid. The curtailment of the use of judicial review. Attacks on human rights legislation. The clamp down on the use of FOIs. This is a government determined to insulate itself from the crucial checks and balances that a healthy democracy needs.

An article from Chris Grayling last week highlighted this new Tory authoritarianism. He attacked the mainstream charitable sector in the UK, saying "Britain cannot afford to allow a culture of Left-wing-dominated, single-issue activism to hold back our country". Simply because organisations with social concerns dare to highlight the damaging effects of Tory policy.  And of course it isn’t just policy criticism they are afraid of either. The other week the Tories were in uproar because the BFI had deigned to fund a film about the posh boys in the Bullingdon Club.

The House of Commons will debate the government’s gagging law in more detail in committee stage today. We understand that the pressure from campaigners has forced Andrew Lansley to agree one small concession. While we look forward to hearing the detail, it seems at this stage that it will be nowhere near enough. Even if the government improves the definition of controlled expenditure, a multitude of problems remain including the wider list of activities that have to be regulated, the lower thresholds for reporting, the burdensome new reporting requirements and the unworkable proposed constituency rules. In short, the Bill is still riddled with problems.

The government won’t lift their gag by making piecemeal concessions; they must for once listen to civil society and go back to the drawing board.

Angela Eagle is the Labour MP for Wallasey and shadow leader of the House of Commons

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

Angela Eagle is the Member of Parliament for Wallasey.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder