It’s time we stopped marvelling at Boris Johnson’s instinct for political survival and speculating about how long he can hold on as Prime Minister. I know that might be particularly difficult this week. But if his party does actually topple him over one of the few sensible things he has done in his time at Number 10 – such as introducing new Covid measures to protect the population – then this would be more than just a historical irony: it would be further proof that Britain’s real problem isn’t Boris Johnson, but rather the Conservatives themselves.
According to Graham Brady, for instance, who is chairman of the influential 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs, the proposed anti-Covid measures, which are due to be voted on 14 December, are an authoritarian assault on freedom itself. Clearly, Brady has either not understood the nature of authoritarianism – or this is a deliberate attempt to distract us from the real assault being led by this government: the one against the very fabric of British democracy.
While the whole country is still compulsively debating whether, when, and how often its Prime Minister has lied and cheated (quick answer: he has done so whenever and wherever possible), behind the curtains and almost wholly unnoticed, this government is hammering away at the very foundations of what Britain once stood for more than any other country: liberal democracy.
If that sounds too vague or alarmist, let me give you a highly topical concrete example: the House of Lords is continuing to scrutinise the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill with which Home Secretary Priti Patel may render it almost impossible for Britons to protest freely. How? The bill proposes to make it a criminal offence to cause “serious unease” through demonstrations. Who defines what constitutes said discomfort is, as yet, unclear.
And there’s more: another proposed provision is to punish protesters who chain themselves to grilles or gates with a custodial sentence of up to 51 weeks. Even just carrying equipment which may be used to do could be made a crime. And that is still not quite enough: the bill proposes to make even protest activities which are “likely to result in serious disruption” a criminal offence.
In summary, this means that the police will be able to arrest anyone who may commit a crime; the crime doesn’t actually need to have been committed. And as the bill proposes that any disturbance to public order may be an offence, this, in turn, means that almost anyone who even intends to participate in a demonstration may be vulnerable to being detained.
The proposed legislation is quite simply monstrous – wholly and utterly incompatible with basic democratic principles. It comes flanked by the continued harrying of the judiciary, the latest instance of which was the Justice Secretary Dominic Raab using the populist dog-whistle “unelected” to discredit judges as he talked of a “drift towards continental-style privacy laws innovated in the courtroom, not by elected lawmakers in the House of Commons”. The aim of these attacks is to strike at the very heart of liberal democracy, the separation of powers.
Now, you might think that the proposed bill will never make it through the Houses of Parliament in that form and that the repeated attempts to undermine the justice system have had little effect thus far. “Britain is one of the world’s oldest democracies” etc. Relying solely on this conviction, however, would mean underestimating the danger that is inherent in the continuous chipping away at the rule of law. And the threat of an executive bent on undivided power. Once a government overcomes the first hurdles on the path towards de-democratisation, the result can be immense. Democracies are destroyed from inside.
I personally have already watched this happen once – in Poland, where I spent four years as a correspondent and whose affairs I still follow keenly. From the day in 2015 that Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) obtained an absolute majority, the assault on the two pillars of any democracy – the judiciary and the media – began. Here, too, things started off small and, at the beginning, each step was strongly opposed by a lively civil society. For a long time, nobody believed that Kaczyński and his odd-sounding anti-democratic haranguing would last long; just over 12 years before, 78 per cent of Poles had voted to join a collective of Western, democratic nations – the EU.
Two years into Kaczyński’s absolute majority, however, in 2017, I returned to Warsaw to film a report about opposition politician Roza Thun, a member of the European Parliament. Already, the public-service broadcaster TVP had mutated into a shameless party organ transmitting propaganda in the place of news; few judges were still brave enough to give me an on-camera interview. I was, after all, a correspondent for a foreign TV network that, not being under party control, was considered a hostile entity by the Polish government.
And they weren’t just paranoid, as I soon discovered. In my report, Thun criticised the Kaczyński government in no uncertain terms, and following the broadcast, the country was consumed by an unparalleled hate campaign directed towards her and the report. “Traitor” was one of the lighter defamations Thun had to endure, and for months, she and her family received death threats; the European Parliament advised her not to stay in Brussels without police protection.
I remember being utterly shocked by this. Yet just three years on, things are even worse. Poland today is no longer a democracy under the rule of law. The Kaczyński government has become ever more radical and is now fighting an open war against anyone who dares to criticise it. Journalists are branded “communists” and “traitors” and are often threatened by loyalist mobs if they don’t toe the party line; if they uncover wrongdoing by governmental institutions, their reward is usually a lawsuit for slander.
In the region bordering Belarus, meanwhile, a state of emergency has been declared. This means that journalists – who might report on violations of human rights – are not allowed in unaccompanied. Instead, press representatives can now join government-organised bus tours into the zone during which they are supervised by border guards (and have to wear hi-vis vests so that they don’t go off for a wander unnoticed…). Any journalist who has ever been to North Korea will recognise the procedures.
The judiciary isn’t much better off. Kaczyński has packed the constitutional court full of PiS loyalists and the minister of justice, Zbigniew Ziobro, is now also the chief public prosecutor. This gives him the power to staff the prosecution service while being able to punish, discipline and demote any judges who get in his way. Thus far, the Supreme Court has held out, but the PiS has created two additional chambers within it under party control. The government is using the increasingly bitter confrontation with Brussels to divert attention from how deeply it is plunging the country into an authoritarian quagmire.
Anyone with this knowledge of Poland should have been astounded when Johnson enthusiastically greeted the Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, to Britain in November. The Prime Minister welcomed Morawiecki as the UK’s new best friend and promised to help him set up a bilateral unit of 140 military engineers which will make it easier for the Polish government to circumvent the EU border protection structure. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Cue an article in the Spectator in which the Warsaw administration is styled as a victim of the Brussels elite: “One could even go further and suggest that Poland has not so much undermined the rule of law as supported it. A national constitution should not lightly be construed as allowing its own subordination to an international agreement entered into by the government which it establishes…”
How about Poland as an ally in exiting the EU? After all, it’s just another country looking to enshrine the primacy of its national sovereignty over international law, isn’t it? If you want to argue it this way, then you may find yourself sacrificing more than just your EU membership on the altar of national sovereignty. Internationally binding legal standards are at stake, too – and, with them, any semblance of reliability as a partner for other countries in the West.
Indeed, when Johnson invited none other than the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, to visit him in Downing Street in May, this was more than a jovial jibe at the bloc. Those in Brussels and other European capitals certainly didn’t see the funny side, taking it instead as a sign that Johnson and his party were instinctively gravitating towards EU governments who have already disregarded the principles of liberal democracy.
So when the Polish premier states that he and Johnson “have almost the same priorities”, we should listen very carefully. Of course, in the wake of Brexit, Britain needs to re-orientate its foreign policy; if, however, in the absence of any real strategy, the tacit goal is now to ally the country closely with states who have cast the basic principles of liberal democracy overboard, then it’s time to start asking on which side of the geopolitical divide the current government wants to situate “Global Britain”.
Certainly, the UK is increasingly unsuited as a partner for its closest neighbours: in what promises to be a difficult dialogue with Warsaw, France and the new German government are looking to work with Brussels on the tough task of protecting what is left of the rule of law in Poland. Meanwhile, the Tory government is moving demonstrably in the other direction: there can be little doubt that the proposed legislation on protests and the repeated attacks on the judiciary are right out of the current Polish government’s repertoire – or, indeed, that of many other autocratic regimes.
When, several years ago now, I arrived in London after my time in Warsaw, I would never have thought any of this possible. Looking back, however, perhaps it’s not so surprising: the Tories – more than any other party – have always been about getting and remaining in power. Yet, under Johnson, there has been a change inasmuch as power has become an end in itself – and its exercise utterly self-serving. As such, there is every reason to fear that the Tories will continue down the path towards authoritarianism that Johnson has set, even after they decide that his premiership, as a means to remain in power, has run its course.
Translated from German by Brian Melican