British democracy used to feel rock steady, unassailable: one could argue about the constitution, the voting system, the Lords, the monarchy, but about not the fundamental tenets.
We’ve been taught how democracy settles disputes, enables power to change hands without bloodshed, and lets citizens of wildly opposing beliefs consent to be governed, policed and taxed.
But the wreckers running this government have lost any instinct for democratic values. If electoral victory entitles them to absolute power, all opposition becomes illegitimate.
So Extinction Rebellion activists face being treated as “saboteurs of democracy” – as organised criminals and terrorists – as the prime minister calls for new laws to protect the freedom of the press. But for one day only these climate breakdown campaigners shone a searchlight on the UK’s dysfunctional press – 80% owned by Rupert Murdoch and a few rightwing press barons, largely arguing against climate-saving policies and with a relentless anti-tax, anti-welfare, small-state agenda.
The Institute for Government (politically neutral) published a highly critical report on Monday, warning that the government was “well off-track” to meet its target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and “lacking policies, with constant changes of direction, and failing to gain public consent”.
That calls for protest. Direct action risking arrest was always part of democracy. Protest – occasionally victorious, such as for the suffragettes – inhabits Britain’s history, whether it’s Peterloo, the miners, the Greenham women, the Iraq war march, anti-fracking or anti-HS2. That democratic tradition is now imperilled by threats of five-year prison terms and £10,000 fines.
In trying to exterminate opposing views, this government has lost any sense of balance or argument, as if planning to rule for ever.
The prime minister’s power-crazed chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, opens his mission-control centre, with data-tracking screens, staffed by “weirdos and misfits”. But his only mission is to destroy whatever holds the country together. Expect, we are told, a “big bang” for the British state.
The civil service is terrorised by five permanent secretaries being sacked or stepping down in six months, including the cabinet secretary: Cummings plans replacements with private-sector outsiders. Anyone not 110% with them is a foe: they will hear no other advice. Scapegoats are made of Public Health England (abolished) and Ofqual (decapitated). Judges are next, with curbs on their judicial reviews of government malfunctions.
Despised local government will see two-thirds of 218 district and county councils abolished, replaced by hundreds of mayors – gerrymandered, the Sunday Times suggests, to demolish what a government source called Labour “strangleholds” (not “heartlands”, note that language). Will Tory councillors who failed to rebel against a decade of depredations finally revolt at their own demise?
No one will stop any gerrymandering once the Electoral Commission is abolished. David Cameron made it harder for poor people, renters and young people to register for elections, in Donald Trump-style voter-suppression. No one will monitor political donations: the Mail on Sunday reports that City donors are threatening to “turn off the funding taps” to intimidate the chancellor into not raising inheritance, capital gains or corporation taxes. But they’ll pony up at election time.
No authority stops Boris Johnson giving multimillion-pound contracts to cronies and allies, or to PwC and Deloitte, without tendering. No protests stopped him putting the misogynist Tony Abbott on the board of trade, or stacking NHS and other posts with Tory politicians.
Shudder to think who they will impose as BBC chair. New director general Tim Davie’s opening speech took defensive action against the recent volley of assaults, restoring Rule, Britannia!. The Times splashed, “BBC should be cut down to size, says new chief”, but that wasn’t quite what he had said. The great majority of people who support the BBC wait to see if Davie is an appeaser who folds too easily or a strong pilot to navigate the national broadcaster through the oncoming storm.
The BBC is for ever the crucible. With a government that no longer accepts the norms of accountability, any factual report that reflects badly on it is “biased”. The country needs the BBC’s vigilant scrutiny to police the truth/ falsehood boundary, as a last bastion for a democracy that balances opposing ideas.
Wrecking took on new dimensions with the news on Monday that the government was trashing its own EU withdrawal treaty – negotiated and signed only months ago by Johnson himself. The SNP warned of a “disastrous Brexit outcome”. “Rogue-state behaviour”, said Plaid Cymru’s Liz Saville Roberts. Anyone who gave a thought towards the union of the four nations would have urged a moderate, compromise Brexit to respect pro-EU majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Instead a crash-out or a thin deal will encourage these nations to depart.
Insults are the cut and thrust of democracy; Nye Bevan’s labelling of Conservatives as “lower than vermin” is printed on T-shirts. Hartley Shawcross once quipped, “We are the masters now”, but his frequent public differences with Labour earned him his Sir Shortly Floorcross nickname. Once Harold Wilson dared call Labour “the natural party of government”. If only. But neither Labour, nor even Thatcher’s Tories, had this megalomaniacal intent to delegitimise any opposing views.
The only hope – a dismal one – is that this government’s incompetence in everything means that all its “moonshots” fall to Earth as soon as they have left the gantry. Look at how last week ministers beckoned everyone back to offices, Prets and public transport – at the precisely predicted moment when Covid-19 was expected to shoot up again. All they touch turns to dross – yet we are condemned to that dross for four more years.
• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist
• This article was amended on 11 September 2020 because an earlier version wrongly suggested that Hartley Shawcross joined the Conservative party. While Shawcross had the nickname Sir Shortly Floorcross, he didn’t leave Labour to join the Conservatives. After being made a life peer in 1959 he sat in the House of Lords as a crossbencher.