In recent months, with Brexit apparently done and the new “global Britain” to look forward to, Boris Johnson’s government has been trying to signal that it has left the divisive politics of the last five years behind. After Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the US Capitol on 6 January, British Conservatives were quick to distance themselves from Trump, stressing the differences between the latter’s far-right populism and our own prime minister. Last autumn, the departure of Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain from senior roles in Downing Street was heralded as the end of Vote Leave’s grip on the government. More recently, the well-connected conservative commentator James Forsyth has even suggested that the UK is set to pursue a more “liberal” immigration policy.
Yet the policing bill that is currently making its way through parliament, and which will be voted on by MPs tonight, shows that authoritarian populism remains a central part of the Johnson government’s project. Introduced with a now-familiar disregard for parliamentary scrutiny – the 300-page bill was only unveiled a week ago, giving MPs and observers barely enough time to read and interpret its contents – the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill proposes new powers that will allow senior police officers and the home secretary to restrict protest in unprecedented ways, as well as measures intended to criminalise the living circumstances of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.
The fact that the government is trying to rush this through parliament suggests that ministers were expecting some degree of public criticism, but this was amplified by the response of the Metropolitan police to Saturday’s vigil in memory of Sarah Everard at Clapham Common. The incident has forced a debate on the relationship between the state and violence against women, as part of the wider debate about male violence that has been triggered by Everard’s killing – and reminded people that, during a pandemic in which police have been given far-reaching new powers to restrict individual liberty, the misuse of these powers is a genuine threat.
The government’s justification for the bill, however, from its genesis to its passage through parliament, has been populist in tone. “That is a manifesto bill that this government were elected on,” declared the home secretary, Priti Patel, in the Commons yesterday. “The British people voted for it.” During the second reading debate, Conservative MPs lined up to accuse Labour – which made a U-turn at the weekend and declared its opposition to the bill, after having initially said it would abstain – of voting against tougher sentences for rapists and assaults on emergency workers. Patel dismissed criticism of the bill’s implications for freedom of assembly, or its potential to increase discrimination against an already marginalised minority.
The claim that the public voted for this bill is a half-truth: tougher sentencing and the criminalising of trespass were included in the 2019 Conservative election manifesto, although there was no mention of restrictions on protest. But police powers have been crucial to the way that Johnson’s government has defined the “people” for whom it purports to speak since its early days. In 2019, when Patel condemned the “north London, metropolitan liberal elite” – a phrase that drew criticism for its populist and conspiracist overtones – at her first Tory conference speech as home secretary, she was explicitly contrasting this alleged elite with the “common sense” of ordinary people who “support the police”.
The first push to restrict protest came at the end of 2019, in the wake of Extinction Rebellion. According to an investigation by openDemocracy, the Metropolitan police commissioner, Cressida Dick, wrote to Patel in December 2019 to say that Extinction Rebellion provided a “much-needed” opportunity to update the Public Order Act. Cracking down on protest has become an increasingly important theme for the populist right. One of the bill’s harshest measures, which proposes a maximum 10-year prison sentence for damaging a memorial, began life in June 2020 as a proposal by the backbencher Jonathan Gullis, an enthusiastic proponent of the right’s “war on woke”.
While Patel is clearly no liberal, having recently described the Black Lives Matter protests as “dreadful”, in theory the current bill should be of concern to rightwing libertarians as well as the left. It allows police to impose restrictions on protests simply if they are noisy or likely to cause “serious annoyance” to the public, and gives the home secretary the power to redefine the basis on which protests can be restricted without having to consult parliament.
Yet the Conservatives’ libertarian wing has been curiously quiet. “The bill is necessary to deal with radical new tactics by political protesters,” the backbench MP Steve Baker, a leading critic of lockdown restrictions, told the Telegraph on Sunday, although he has since said that criticisms of the bill “should not be ignored”. At yesterday’s debate, criticism from Conservative MPs who might be vocal defenders of “free speech” when it’s defined on rightwing terms, was muted.
There is a logic to this apparent contradiction. In his recent history of conservatism, the veteran political journalist Edmund Fawcett describes how the “hard right” ideology that has come to dominate many mainstream rightwing parties around the world today is part of an attempt to reconcile free-market business interests with the promise of greater cultural and economic security. The only way these can be given coherence is through the construction of a common enemy – the liberal elite – from whom the people must be defended. If the right is to hold together the coalition of voters it drew together so powerfully in the 2019 election, then it needs to keep on railing against this enemy.
Over the last year, we’ve become used to this battle mainly being conducted on the cultural front, against targets such as the BBC or the National Trust, but the policing bill reminds us that this is about more than rhetoric alone: our freedom and our safety is at stake, too.