Vivid images of George Orwell’s 1984 come to mind when one combines the United Kingdom and ‘authoritarian’ in the same sentence. Not one person would have guessed as the clocks ticked into this new decade that in less than a few months the free world as we knew it would change completely, and perhaps forever.
The pandemic has condemned people to laws that restrict freedoms in ways only previously associated with infamous totalitarian regimes such as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the German Reich, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the People’s Republic of China. There is a rather ironic running theme in most of the titles imposed by the states’ retrospective dictators, but that is something to be appreciated another time. It may seem an exaggeration to compare the UK to these states; we are, so far, fortunate enough to not yet experience mass state murders or concentration camps. However, it is crucial to question whether our recent loss of liberties place the government under the status of authoritarian, or whether the government is acting with urgent necessity, using emergency powers with popular consent.
To answer this question, it is crucial to decide what an authoritarian state is. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the common feature of authoritarian states is the enforcement of obedience to a central authority at the expense of personal freedoms, rule of law and other constitutional values and principles. This definition presents some difficulties in attempts to use it to describe our current situation. Firstly, it does not lay out the timeline of this loss of personal freedoms. Does this definition mean that authoritarianism a permanent condition of the state? In this instance, I would argue that as long as personal liberty is undermined, the state is authoritarian. The second term, the rule of law, presents further difficulties as Boris Johnson has passed laws to make the restrictions legal under emergency measures. It is essential to analyse the “emergency measures” and determine whether the invocation of a supposed state of emergency to make these new laws undermined the legal system. Lastly, given the United Kingdom does not have a codified constitution, how can we decide whether the restrictions are under its constitutional values and principles? Is it a principle of the government that it must save as many lives as possible, or that it must protect the rights of those it governs to a further extent than it is doing so now? While the government chooses to prioritise lives, whether this remains in the best interest of the public, and whether it is fundamentally ‘British’ is dubious.
No attempt has been made to codify the Constitution of the United Kingdom, which comprises of arrangements that were used to establish the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as a political body. Instead, most litigation over the constitution takes place in judicial review applications which attempt to decide whether various public bodies have followed the law set down in Acts of Parliament. Under the Human Rights Act 1998, courts may review government action to decide whether the government has followed the statutory obligation on all public authorities to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The ECHR was an international convention drafted in 1950 to protect basic human rights and political freedoms in Europe, such as freedom of assembly and protest, the right to a fair trial, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and the right to liberty against arbitrary arrest or detention. It would be easy to conclude that the UK government violating the basic human rights set forth by the ECHR categorises them as authoritarian.
Despite this, several challenges to the Covid-19 restrictions, have failed. Simon Dolan, in one such challenge, stated that the UK government has imposed these rules “using emergency powers [in the Public Health (Control of Infectious Disease) 1984 Act] and have sought to justify the ‘emergency’ with spurious data and discredited modelling.” He further argued that “the regulations were imposed without prior scrutiny by Parliament. They were signed into law by ministers guided by unelected scientific ‘experts’, many of whom are on the state’s payroll.” However in the judicial review three senior judges dismissed his case, saying the Health Secretary Matt Hancock “did have the power to make the regulations under challenge.”
This conclusion by the judicial review consolidates the government’s emergency measures as perfectly legal and in the country’s best interest. Most of the powers used by the government are based on the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 and the Coronavirus Act 2020. The Public Health Act allows ministers to make provisions to prevent or control the spread of infection, including measures to close schools, shops, restaurants and other premises, prohibiting or restricting events or gatherings, and limiting activities of the public. Under the Act, the government can also force a person to submit to a medical examination, detain them in hospital, quarantine them, or prevent them from working or trading. The Coronavirus Act 2020 increases the government’s powers to restrict or prohibit events and gatherings and to close educational establishments beyond those set out in the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984.
It is important to note there are constraints on the use of these emergency powers. According to The Institute For Government, the use of these powers ‘should be proportionate to the scale of the threat and time limited’ and must be consistent with the Human Rights Act. It can be argued that this guidance has been followed as not all measures have been employed and in March 2021, Hancock said the Coronavirus Act must be retired “within one year and preferably within six months” as most of the provisions of the Act are limited to two years. However, the emergency powers were not fully scrutinised by Parliament before becoming law. The Health Secretary brought in the measures in March 2020 using the “urgent procedure“, allowing them to come into force before parliament had a chance to discuss and vote on them. Not only does this cast a serious shadow of doubt over the legality of the emergency powers, it also calls into question how the UK government had the power to impose laws so rapidly and forcefully. Furthermore, MPs only have the power to vote on the Coronavirus Act in its entirety; they cannot vote on individual provisions. This restricts the ability of MPs, who should represent their constituencies’ overall opinion, to challenge and fine-tune the restrictions to benefit the public.
The size of the threat the virus poses – and thus the extent of the restrictions – is also determined by the Secretary of State. The powers will last until he or she concludes the conditions for the exercise of powers are no longer met. Whilst the Secretary of State must not make any direction without first consulting the Chief Medical Officer or the Deputy Chief Medical Officer. However, this particular this particular check on the power of the secretary of state is caveated by the fact that both positions are appointed by the government. In essence, the government can impose whatever restrictions they want under the guise of the emergency level of the state, even without solid foundations for the measures.
Without doubt, there has been a constant and consistent level of data inaccuracies that have mostly led to tighter restrictions. For example, a range of estimates were used to make the case for re-entering lockdown in England in a press conference on 31st October 2020. The UK Statistics Authority, however, stated that “the data and assumptions for this model had not been shared transparently,” potentially undermining confidence in official figures. On 6th November, Downing Street admitted there had been an “error” in the way the data was presented. The chart projected coronavirus deaths could hit 1500 a day by December, but the revised chart only projected an upper limit of 1000 deaths a day. In general the accuracy of data has been disputed throughout the pandemic. In July 2020, Hancock announced an urgent review into how deaths were counted by Public Health England after it was revealed that people were included in Covid death counts even if they had recovered from the virus months earlier. Most alarmingly, Professor Neil Ferguson’s model that capitulated the UK into a full lockdown was neither public no peer reviewed, and the code was found by a senior Google software engineer to contain amateurish errors.
Boris Johnson has claimed the government has followed the “science” throughout the pandemic, probably hoping that blurting that out would cause everyone to fall in line. Yet as aforementioned, the “science” has often proven to be flawed. The government has continued to eschew its responsibility to be transparent with its reasoning for the emergency measures and has continually gone against the United Kingdom’s constitutional values and principles with its “errors” made to back up the extreme policies impose. According to the preamble to the European Convention on Human Rights, as drafted by British lawyers following the Second World War, fundamental human rights and freedoms are best maintained by “an effective political democracy” whereby, according to Jürgen Habermus in Between Facts and Norms (1996), “the only law that counts as legitimate is one that could be rationally accepted by all citizens in a discursive process of opinion – and will-formation.” Thus, the legitimacy of law in a democratic society depends upon constant public debate with transparent and true facts, rather than a mere imposition of measures without consultation or analysis. The introduction and enforcement of the coronavirus restrictions and emergency powers have frequently taken the form of the latter are therefore undemocratic and authoritarian.
For those raising their eyebrows at this article or those who support such impingements on our freedoms for the sake of combatting the spread of the virus, it is important to consider that benign authoritarianism exists, where the government or leader exercises powers with the regard for benefit of the population as a whole. Polls may not always be accurate, but they have frequently indicated the public supports the authoritarian restrictions. Thus, the government is arguably acting in the United Kingdom’s best interest. Having said that, polls might demonstrate the population’s support for restrictions, but when one considers that opinion for government policies is based off the data and reports the government offers, it casts doubt on the foundations of the support.
The restrictions themselves are without doubt an abuse of human rights. Irrelevant of whether they are for the “greater good” or not, they unquestionably take away personal freedoms. They may apparently not be for the long term but how temporary is temporary? It has been over a year since they were first introduced despite Boris Johnson only announcing a three week lockdown on 23rd March 2020 . And most importantly, the restrictions have set a dangerous precedence for government interference into people’s intimate lives. The UK is now finishing its third lockdown which lasted four months. Freedom of movement was utterly taken away, with people only being able to leave home for essential reasons. Police even once tried to fine two women for going for a walk with coffee a five minute drive from their home. Freedom of speech has also been damaged since March 2020. Ofcom set out standards for broadcasters, banning them from making health claims related to the virus which may be harmful. The Freedom to assemble and protest has been curtailed. Indeed, the fact that the BLM protests and the Sarah Everard vigil were deemed to be illegal is a fact this country should be deeply ashamed of. Meanwhile, gatherings indoors and outdoors are limited, if not banned, businesses are shut, children prevented from access to vital months of education, weddings and funerals prohibited, and even sitting on a park bench was once not allowed. On 13th March 2020, democracy was suspended; the year-long postponement of around 120 local elections received no opposition. The sheer scale of these restrictions would be laughable…if they appeared in the Simpsons, rather than in the last year of many a person’s life. Yes, it could be argued they are for the “greater good”, but they are undoubtedly authoritarian – even lockdown’s most avid supporters should admit so.
The most worrying part: these measures are giving the UK government the opportunity to impose further restrictions on our liberties that do not involve coronavirus. For example, whilst the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill states that “freedom of expression is a cornerstone of British democracy”, it gives greater powers to restrict protests that cause “intimidation or harassment” or “serious unease, alarm or distress” to bystanders. Although targeted at Extinction Rebellion protests, it comes at a convenient time when people are unable to protest legally due to coronavirus restrictions. Ironically, the bill has caused more protests to occur up and down the country, with the police arresting 107 people during Kill the Bill protests in London. It is hard to imagine this bill passing in a pre-covid United Kingdom. Even if coronavirus rules do not last forever, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill demonstrates how the authoritarian nature of government is here to stay.
There are other examples across the nation of threats to Britons’ freedoms. In Scotland, anyone can now be prosecuted for “stirring up” hatred, even at home. In the Conservative 2019 manifesto, the party pledged to initiate voter ID, which would make it harder for millions of citizens to exercise their democratic rights; a 2016 Electoral Commission report pointed out that 3.5 million citizens in the UK do not have access to photo ID and 11 million citizens do not have a passport or driving licence. Around the country Taxes are set to increase, thus taking away households’ liberty to choose how to spend their own income and wealth, and instead allowing the government to spend it. Even outside of the emergency measures surrounding the coronavirus government policy is looking increasingly interventionist.
An authoritarian state, however temporary, sets a dangerous precedence. The UK’s reaction to coronavirus has defined our country. Gone are libertarian days that were launched by the groundbreaking economic policies of Thatcher. Instead, we remain cowering in our homes, abiding by non-sensical, and intrusive laws. A YouGov poll in April 2020 for Crest, a crime and justice think tank, suggested that 51 percent of Britons would be comfortable reporting on others for breaking Covid-19 laws. We are quickly becoming a society where despicable snitching and spying upon neighbours is not only acceptable but encouraged. And to those who even attempt to argue that reporting is for the “greater good”, there are a few examples of previous dictatorships in Europe where they shared the same ideas. In the early weeks of the first lockdown, another YouGov poll demonstrated more than 90 percent of Britons supported it, further proving how quickly – and dangerously – the nation embraced “acceptable authoritarianism.” The lack of accountability the government has been held to for failing to protect our basic human rights has been astonishing. We, as a nation, must ask ourselves what future we want and what kind of world we want to bring children into. Do we value our liberty?
This recent year has suggested we don’t.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the values of The Liberty Club