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Does the Johnson government threaten liberal democracy?
The government has an authoritarian streak but remains a centre-right government
Concerns about British democracy are common. Following Boris Johnson’s election victory, many have underlined attacks on democratic institutions and precedents. There are issues associated with Brexit, such as the prorogation of parliament and the ‘specific and limited’ breach of international law. There are domestic issues, such as the proposed introduction of voting ID, this targeting non-Conservative voters. Many discuss these challenges, yet few analyze the support bases and institutional constraints which set the parameters of government action. This is crucial, enabling better analysis of the trajectory of this government.
Analysis focuses on the agenda of the Johnson government. Notwithstanding the importance of agendas, many forget the underpinning role of support bases. Evaluation of the values of the Conservative support base is illuminating. Conservative voters are more liberal than supporters of authoritarian parties such as PiS (Poland), Fidesz (Hungary) and the Republican Party (US), but comparisons with British parties are unflattering. The British Election Study asks voters whether the country is best run by a strong leader who ignores parliament and elections. Though most Conservative voters either strongly disagree (21%) or disagree (33%), Labour voters report much higher levels of strong disagreement (43%) and 40% of Conservative voters do not disagree. Moreover, Conservative voters in red wall seats are more authoritarian than average, these voters being courted by the government.
At best, Conservative authoritarians are indifferent to measures such as voter ID and the prorogation of parliament. At worst, such voters relish these policies, measures associated with Brexit often falling into this category. The appointment of Nadine Dorries as culture secretary is the latest sop to such groups. As the election approaches, Dorries will throw red meat to authoritarian Conservatives.
Despite this record, one can confuse authoritarianism with the tendency of governments to test the limits of executive power, particularly those governments with large majorities. The records of predecessors and counterparts demonstrate this. New Labour governments were controversial in their time. Cultivating a Presidential style and marginalizing parliament, Blair administrations attacked civil liberties. Famously, the Iraq War breached international law. There are similar issues with SNP governments. Despite limited competences, Sturgeon administrations have pushed the boundaries of executive power. Most egregiously, the Hate Crime Bill threatens freedom of speech.
Notwithstanding such comparisons, I think that the record of the Johnson government is more concerning. Certain misdeeds are comparable to those of New Labour and the SNP, such as the unwillingness to sack ministers indicted for wrongdoing, yet proposed voting reforms are very troubling, disenfranchising blocs of opposition voters. Moreover, the record of the Johnson government reflects the values of many supporters; New Labour and SNP governments had more liberal support bases, limiting authoritarian instincts.
Yet many overlook the institutional constraints on this government. As the founders of liberal democracy recognized, constitutional structures are the main restraint upon governments, particularly those with ambiguous intentions. The structures of British democracy remain robust. Parliament is one of the oldest in the world, its procedures limiting government ambitions. Civil society habitually contests government policy, much opposition being concentrated in sociocultural sectors. The BBC remains independent.
Comparisons with genuinely authoritarian governments are revealing. In countries such as Hungary and Poland, governments have harassed minorities and emasculated judiciaries and media. Having lived in Poland, my own point of reference is the difference between Polish state television and the BBC. The former is farcical, conveying government propaganda. The latter has its faults, but remains a world-leading broadcaster, light years from its Polish counterpart.
Beyond formal institutions, this reflects civic commitment to democracy. Even if the government wished to turn the BBC into a propaganda arm, this would be unfeasible. Educated sociocultural professionals staff the BBC, guarding a tradition of editorial independence and liberal values. The activism of sociocultural classes was a key reason for failures of the Trump Presidency. In countries such as Hungary and Poland, this does not exist to the same degree, facilitating authoritarian dominance.
The Johnson government is not a good one. Those who value liberal democracy should be wary of it, particularly given the authoritarianism of sections of its support base. To a small extent, liberal democracy has been eroded, voting reforms being particularly concerning. If Johnson wins a second election, such trends will likely continue, particularly if the government maintains a considerable majority. But claims that this government will overturn liberal democracy are exaggerated. Certain left-wingers dislike this argument, fearing that such analysis conceals endorsement of the Johnson government; debate on social media is shrill. Yet we should resist political explanations, evaluating the actual record of the government and quality of institutions. Aside from being more accurate, careful interpretations encourage a more civil political culture.
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