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Priti Patel is a Threat to British Democracy

The queen of British authoritarianism is taking Britain further to the brink.

21 July, 2021

UK Government / Flickr

It was during a panel on BBC Question Time that voters were exposed to the deep-rooted authoritarianism of Priti Patel. Discussing the merits of capital punishment, Ian Hislop, editor of the Private Eye, noted that many capital punishments were inflicted during miscarriages of justice: “On a purely practical basis,” Hislop began, “whatever you think it says about the civilised nature of your society or not, I think it’ll be incredibly dangerous to have capital punishment back.”

Patel was not convinced: “The point is…this is about having deterrents. If you have strong deterrents of that nature…” Hislop abruptly interrupted Patel’s line of thinking: “It’s not a deterrent, it’s killing the wrong people!” The audience laughed and applauded Hislop’s comment. Patel was flummoxed.

There are few good things — if any — one can say about Patel.  She ranks highly as one of Britain’s most authoritarian politicians. Her ascent in British politics has been a myriad of controversy, yet Patel has marched forward, unscathed at every turn.

Politicians like Patel have long spoken about their commitment to libertarianism and a smaller state. Yet if the past one and a half years have shown anything, it is this: she has embarked on a series of political manoeuvres that inch Britain further towards authoritarianism, in complete contradiction of her own beliefs (I had originally used the word “principles”, but quickly remembered Patel has none).

First came the designation of Extinction Rebellion as an extremist organisation. Explaining why it deemed the group a threat, a counter-terrorism guide, designed to help individuals recognise people vulnerable to extremist ideologies, noted its “anti-establishment philosophy that seeks system change” and the “encouragement [of] law-breaking activities.” After outrage, Kath Barnes, head of Counter Terrorism Policing South East, said the designation had been a mistake: ““I would like to make it quite clear that we do not classify Extinction Rebellion as an extremist organisation. The inclusion…in this document was an error of judgment.”

In fact, the move itself even invited objection from former officers of the metropolitan police. Paul Stephens, a former detective sergeant, said that the “climate and ecological emergency is the most serious threat to public safety in history…who hasn’t criticised our government in recent years? Are we all extremists?”

Soon after, Patel came under fire for taking aim at the rule of law itself. She attacked “activist lawyers” for obstructing her ability to remove migrants from Britain, criticising the “do-gooders”, the Labour Party and “lefty human rights lawyers” for “defending the broken system”.

Patel’s human rights record has indeed been abysmal. Clare Collier, advocacy director at human rights organisation Liberty, once stated that “Priti Patel is a politician with a consistent record of voting against basic human rights protections. For her to be put in charge of the Home Office is extremely concerning.”

The accusations that Patel harbours extremist views (ironically) have not stopped the home secretary from pursuing other authoritarian agendas. In March 2021, the home secretary and Cressida Dick, head of the metropolitan police, came under fire for the police brutality exhibited at the vigil for Sarah Everard, where numerous women faced violence and arrest. In May 2021, the government also reaffirmed its commitment to voter IDs, a move that will systematically disadvantage the poor.

These are, still, limited in comparison to the legislative reforms that Patel has aimed to push forward. Of these, there are two: first, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and second, the Home Office consultation on the Official Secrets Act.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill grants the police with sweeping powers. The legislation itself aims to criminalise certain types of protest, in particular those of the type exhibited by the Black Lives Matter movement and Extinction Rebellion. The vagueness of the Bill is precisely what makes it so dangerous. Its provisions on “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance” give leeway to the authorities to decide what does, in fact, cause “serious harm” or “public nuisance”, enabling them to ban, limit or impose undue restrictions on protests.

The Bill does not only seek to undermine protests and extend police and state powers: it equally threatens Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, and ushers in new stop and search powers.

The right to assemble is a democratic right, itself enshrined in Article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights. The passage of the bill, by a majority of 100, threatens such assembly in Britain.

“Rattled by democratic protests, ministers have drawn up sweeping new policing powers which you’d fully expect to see in the pages of a novel about a future dystopian Britain,” said Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s interim CEO.

The Home Office consultation, meanwhilst, is equally menacing. The consultation itself seeks to make amends to the Official Secrets Act, a law pertaining to espionage. The Home Office commented that does it “not consider that there is necessarily a distinction in severity between espionage and the most serious unauthorised disclosures, in the same way there was in 1989,” meaning journalists could be treated like spies or those who leak information. The proposal also considered increasing prison time from two to fourteen years.

Human rights organisations and the Law Commission argued for a public interest defence to prevent the prosecution of journalists who receive leaked documents, but the Home Office argued that the move would “undermine our effects to prevent damaging unauthorised disclosures, which would not be in the public interest.” The consultation, for many, is an attack on the freedom of the press, as well as potential whistle-blowers who bring important documents in the public domain.

Conservative ministers, for all their claims, are not libertarians. They are power-hungry, the beneficiaries of luck who have cheated and lied their way through the system, and those who now seek to extend their own power and state control through legislation. The pandemic has hastened this set of affairs. The government has used the pandemic as a shield to pass controversial legislation, in the hope it receives less attention from the press and the public, now occupied with public health.

The slide into authoritarianism is part of a broader, new style of politics under Johnson, one that plays hard and loose with the facts, pushes forward propaganda, and attempts to create alternative political realities to the ones actually being experienced. “It’s important because truth is the heart of liberal democracy,” says Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works and an American philosopher at Yale. “The two ideals of liberal democracy are liberty and equality. If your belief system is shot through with lies, you’re not free. Nobody thinks of the citizens of North Korea as free, because their actions are controlled by lies.”

Another element is the creation of fake enemies, whether this be, in the words of Patel, “lefty-lawyers”, migrants, Remainers or statue-topplers: “This is why fascism flourishes in moments of great anxiety,” Stanley continues, “because you can connect that anxiety with fake loss. The story is typically that a once-great society has been destroyed by liberalism…or cultural Marxism or whatever, and you make the dominant group feel angry and resentful about the loss of their status and power. Almost every manifestation of fascism mirrors this general narrative.”

“There are reasons to be concerned,” Stanley says, in reference to the United States, “and we should always be on guard — that’s the lesson of history.”

Perhaps we would be wise to take on such advice on the other side of the Atlantic.



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