Well, well, well. Yesterday I had just about finished a piece on The Conservative party’s Five Acts passed in March and April of this year, when the s..t hit the fan and it seems Johnson might just be ousted (although see the 2nd paragraph) through, amazingly not a sex scandal surrounding him, but because he appointed someone he knew was a ‘groper’. And what did Johnson do, when it was clear that this person had not mended his ways? As ever, he said he had no idea that this man was suspect, no squire, not me, no idea, not at all, sonny. Until, oh the drama, early Tuesday morning a senior civil servant revealed that Johnson had been personally briefed on the man and his tendencies. Then despite Johnson’s blustering apology, more drama when late afternoon two key cabinet ministers resigned one after the other: the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak and the Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, and about time too that at last some senior politicians had an ounce of integrity. Mind you they’re after Johnson’s job, so I’m not sure how deep their integrity runs. And good luck with their wish for the top job, as I don’t think either of them would gather sufficient votes to get that post. Then, amidst all the telly news pundits winging their way with what became a lot of repetitive talk and many hours of tedious analysis, a few more slightly lower down the hierarchy resigned that evening plus, on air, the Deputy-Chairman of the Conservative Party.
Any other Prime Minister would have resigned that evening, as such senior resignations from a PM’s Cabinet do not bode well. But Johnson is no ordinary PM, he will cling on and his fingernails will have to be prised from the door of No10 before he leaves, because Johnson is a sociopath who cannot do anything but bluster and lie his way out of sticky situations. He will never resign or take any gentlemanly hints that, really old boy, it’s time, you know. The only way, I think, for him to go is if there is a change of rules and there is another vote of confidence, which he loses. So, over to you, Conservative Party.
Meanwhile, whether Johnson stays or goes we live in interesting times. And why is that? Well the current Conservative party is, through its recent legislation, making a huge impact on the institutions and structure of our society. Fundamental rights are being curtailed under our noses and we can do very little about this, apart from being alert and aware (and here beginneth the piece of writing that I had completed yesterday)
Every two weeks The London Review of Books drops through my letterbox and I pick it up and think now what am I going to read that isn’t going to depress the hell out of me! Because rather than being, as you might expect from its title, a rather sedate literary magazine, the LRB is actually quite subversive. Alongside the literary reviews it always includes some often quite devastating articles on issues like poverty, international relations, climate change, wars and areas that are suffering famine. The latest edition has an article on Afghanistan, Is this a new Taliban? Zain Samir goes to Afghanistan, and I’m gathering up my courage to read about the fate of this nation. Not only is Afghanistan suffering the after effects of the American withdrawal and the consequent isolation of the Taliban, so much so that it is getting very little aid, on which it has heavily relied for years to feed its population, but it also has just had a huge earthquake, which has left many dead. It is such an unlucky country. I haven’t read the article yet.
But I have read Shades of Peterloo, by Ferdinand Mount, which is a review of the book, Conspiracy on Cato Street. A Tale of Liberty and Revolution in Regency London, by Vic Carrell. These reviews and articles btw, are always long ones, and I thought, oh, this will be a good read. It will give me insight into how the elite politicians of the day thoroughly gaslighted and conspired against the working man through spying on them and whipping up discontent. Discontent that usually ended up in riots and uprisings that were easily suppressed with the main protagonists arrested, indicted for treason and sentenced to death. And the consequences? It justified an intensification of repression, which the protestors were against in the first place. Furthermore, all this unrest formented by these elite politicians led to various Acts (6 of them) being passed to strengthen the repression of dissent, including giving JPs more power to seize arms and banning public meetings of fifty or more people.
All fine and good but Mount’s review reveals that the book ‘speaks to the present’ with the author reminding us that in March and April 2022 Johnson’s government passed Five Acts, which are an absolute manifestation of right-wing politicians bamboozling our population and reducing our rights. The politics, Mount argues, are blatant.
I had heard of these Acts but wasn’t all that aware of exactly what they entailed. It is a sobering experience to read what they are and what this government intends to do.
The first Act is the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act which repeals the 2011 Fixed-Term Parliaments Act and means that Prime Ministers now have the power to dissolve Parliament whenever they want. In addition, it includes a clause that does away with any powers that the Supreme Court might have to prevent a Prime Minister dissolving Parliament. Fine and dandy if you want your PM to have untrammelled powers over Parliament. I guess Johnson never forgave our Supreme Court when it ruled that his advice to the Queen that Parliament be prorogued for five weeks in 2019 ‘was unlawful, void and of no effect’. So that won’t happen again under Johnson’s watch.
The second Act, the Judicial Review and Courts Act is designed to reduce access to judicial reviews. These reviews are convened when individuals feel the state has overreached its powers. There is always the hope with a judicial review that governmental decisions could be overturned in the court. The Tory manifesto of 2019 stated that while it wanted people to still have access to judicial reviews, these reviews were not to be abused or create needless delays, which rather begs the question what is the definition of ‘abuse’ and a ‘needless delay’? This Act will definitely reduce any attempts to push back against government powers and overreach, and there are fears that this Act is just the beginning of further attempts to reduce the checks and balances needed against any government of any persuasion.
The third Act is a nonsense Act for a non-problem. The Elections Act came about from a manifesto pledge to protect the integrity of elections through introducing identification to vote at polling stations. But there is virtually no voter fraud in this country. Instead this will undoubtedly prevent poorer voters who don’t have a driving licence or other photo ID from voting.
Furthermore, the Act gives UK citizens who have lived permanently abroad for over 15 years the right to vote in general elections. As poorer people are more likely to vote Labour and expats are more likely to vote Tory one rather wonders if this a form of vote rigging – surely not! If that isn’t enough the body that oversees elections, the Electoral Commission, which has always been independent, is given a new structure and the government is now able to ‘…set a a strategic direction for the work of the commission.’ This, people, is the government of the day setting the rules – definitely watch this space.
Then we have the fourth Act, the Nationality and Borders Act, which is the cruellest piece of legislation what with it removing the rights of family reunion from some refugees. How ghastly are we as a nation that we don’t allow desperate people to reunite with their families? Oh and to deter people from crossing in small unsafe rubber dinghies there will now be ‘offshore processing’ in a third country. So which country is that? France, maybe? No, it’s Rwanda. Yes, Rwanda in Africa for heaven’s sake, and we will transport these desperate refugees in exceedingly expensive flights that will always be half empty because actually getting people to that stage of being sent to Rwanda isn’t exactly straightforward. The whole idea of sending people to Rwanda is immoral, stupid and callous – and don’t forget expensive.
Furthermore, this Act can strip individuals of their British nationality apparently without notifying them, which is a direct contravention of international law. So let’s take to the streets and protest. Well, if you do protest you better be quiet as the fifth Act is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act which allows the police to shut down protest if it is too noisy. This extends to silencing a single individual who might or might not be deemed noisy. For years outside Parliament a single protestor, Steve Bray, has shouted out anti-Brexit and anti-Johnson slogans via a loud-hailer connected to speakers. He’s rather admired by a lot of people, but he is noisy. Recently police have swooped in and confiscated his hi-fi and loud hailer. I’m sure he’ll aim to continue and why not – it is a right to protest, is it not? Well, Mount argues that this Act gives police chiefs “free rein to prevent people doing almost anything in the street of which they disapprove.” Don’t forget that poem by Pastor Martin Neimoller, First They Came. It appears that First they came for the man with the loud-hailer and then…. Definitely something to watch with very clear eyes.
So, here we are, Johnson might be on his way out, but his legacy is a dangerous one. When he was in the frame for PM I often heard people saying, well he’s fun, isn’t he, but he is clever, yes, he’s clever. Now clever in my eyes is not a compliment. Clever doesn’t mean, wise or diplomatic or thoughtful, and it doesn’t ever mean good, no clever is wily, and crafty, and cunning, and that is Johnson, who doesn’t do detail, instead he picks up on what is good for him and to a lesser extent his party. But was he the instigator of this lurch to the right or the puppet of the right?
To a certain extent, he was both, as he would obviously seek to retain his power and his government’s power through these Acts, and he would instinctively seek popularity to reduce immigration and strengthen the police against annoying protesters. Yes, Johnson’s hand is there, the question is what will the next PM’s stance be? Would the right in the party allow for a centrist to be PM? I think not, and certainly they wouldn’t allow for the watering down of those Acts, so Johnson was both instigator and puppet.
Note I used the past tense in that last paragraph, but Johnson is still here. Mount has a good way to sum up his review, our politics and our unwritten constitution, which relies on precedent, Acts of parliament and the ‘good chap theory of government’. But what, he asks, if the PM is not a good chap, what if everyone knows he is not a good chap, and what if that PM does not care if he is a good chap? That is what we are stuck with. For the moment. Will we get anything better?
In the meantime – keep your eyes peeled on those Acts.
Penny Kocher, 6th July 2022
P.S. This is not the piece entitled Are We a Rogue Nation? That’s coming.
Ferdinand Mount, Shades of Peterloo. London Review of Books, Volume 44, Number 13. 7 July 2022
Lisa O’Carroll, Britons living overseas for 15 years to get right to vote in UK elections, The Guardian 31 March 2022
Pastor Martin Niemoller, First They Came. Holocaust Memorial DayTrust