The red light is flashing for our democracy

Former civil servant Richard Haviland sets out a chilling and all-too-possible vision of a bleak future for the UK with a hollowed-out faux democracy. Ed

With all the red lights flashing at the state of the UK’s democracy, I’ve seen it said we shouldn’t assume the next general election will even happen. The issue, though, isn’t whether an election will happen (it will). It’s whether it will be free and fair (it won’t).

The UK isn’t about to become a totalitarian state. But it’s well on the way to becoming a sham democracy. And elections are essential to a sham democracy. They allow it to claim international legitimacy. And they reassure a sleeping public that they still have their freedom.

But scratch below the surface and things are bleak. Voter suppression. A neutered electoral commission to be brought under government control. Public money withheld from constituencies that don’t vote Tory. Personal data used to target susceptible voters with blatant lies.

And yet many people seem to believe that the mere holding of an election or referendum is all that matters. That those things alone constitute democracy. The very word “democracy” has been weaponised.

Never mind ruling by executive fiat. Never mind closing down parliament. Never mind going to excruciating lengths to avoid scrutiny. Never mind attacking all the institutions whose role is to hold you to account. “We’ve had an election ergo we live in a healthy democracy”.

Many in the Conservative Party are encouraging this way of thinking. In response to recent scandals, I’ve heard Dominic Raab and Daniel Hannan, among others, say that if the public don’t like it they can vote the Government out.

Their meaning is clear. Once elected, a Government should be entitled to do what it wants without limit or challenge, and it is only the electorate – at the next election – which has the right to hold it to account.

A good reason, you might say, to make it harder for other parties to win an election.

When your reasoning is this warped, opposition, scrutiny and debate, holding the powerful to account, all the things that are the very essence of liberal democracy, are seen as anti-democratic. The poles are inverted.

It’s an authoritarian position, revealed time and again in the things Tory MPs such as Joy Morrissey say on social media, often before rushing to press delete, as she did yesterday. Being elected means you can do no wrong, and being unelected means you have no legitimacy.

Since the Brexit vote, many people have fallen for this. And even if they haven’t, if their preference is for permanent or entrenched Conservative power, they are unlikely to do too much to challenge it.

So no, we are not about to see general elections come to an end. But there is a danger that the mere fact of their taking place will be seen as evidence that the UK has a healthy democracy.

Together, of course, with a referendum held half a decade ago, in which the vote of a minority of the population was used as a mandate for a full-scale revolution.

As a further thought, who’s to say that if the devolved governments continue to be formed by parties opposed to the Tories, or to the Union, they won’t also one day be deemed “undemocratic?”

You can pick up hints in the utterings of some politicians and commentators, with their not-so-subtle messages that the success of the SNP in Scotland means democracy isn’t working.

People, you begin to suspect, for whom the preservation of the Union is more important than the preservation of democracy.

It’s not too great a leap of imagination to envisage these people calling one day for the dissolution of the devolved parliaments.

After all, rather than try to convince people of the merits of the Union in a post-Brexit, authoritarian UK, it’s easier just to remove the institution that gives voice to the counter-arguments.

Especially if you can persuade yourself that you’re doing it all in the name of democracy. Your own, special kind of democracy.

North Shropshire’s result gives me hope that the Tories will yet go down in flames. But I’m still not confident. And you can be assured they will continue to undermine democracy across the UK, at all levels, if that’s what they deem necessary to hold on to power.

Originally tweeted by Richard Haviland (@rfhaviland) on 17/12/2021.