Barrister Sam Fowles is the author of Overruled, offering an inside look at the British legal system.
We are in the midst of simultaneous crises: climate change and the cost of living. Yet our prime ministerial candidates barely seem interested. Why? The answer goes back to the Second World War. In the 1940s politicians across Europe worked together to draft the European Convention on Human Rights.
For the first time in history, human dignity was protected in law. The drafters knew Nazism was not the only threat to human rights. Just a few years earlier, British soldiers had massacred unarmed civilians in India and Ireland. Other European states had equally problematic pasts. Oppression takes many forms. It can only be avoided by empowering ordinary people.
Today’s candidates for prime minister want to leave the Convention. The rights that Winston Churchill and his colleagues thought essential are incompatible with government policy. This includes rounding up a hated minority (refugees) and deporting them to camps in countries thousands of miles away. But Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak’s enthusiasm for persecution is just the tip of the iceberg. The UK has been sliding towards authoritarianism for years.
Authoritarians don’t always wear jackboots. Democracy is based on the premise that all citizens are equal in dignity. Authoritarians reject that premise. They seek to dominate politics, society, culture, education, and reach into the most private parts of our lives, consolidating power in the hands of a small elite. For most of our history the UK wasn’t a democracy. Even now our electoral system gives the votes of (generally) wealthy shire dwellers greater weight than (generally) poorer urbanites. More than half of our legislators are appointed for life by the prime minister of the day. The foundations for auto-cracy have always been there.
Truss and Sunak are increasingly enthusiastic authoritarians. Truss proposes to “crack down” on opposition politicians, workers asking for a pay rise and civil servants who are not ideologically pure. Sunak promises to enshrine discrimination against trans people in law and treat “vilification of the UK” as extremism. But authoritarian creep is not confined to the right. Two years ago Keir Starmer instructed Labour MPs to abstain in the vote regarding the government’s Covert Human Intelligence Sources Act, empowering ministers to direct the “rape, torture, murder and assault of those they consider a risk to national security”, even if they are not suspected of a specific crime. (His instruction led to a series of