UK

Tories to use Brexit as cover for assault on democratic rights

AS JOHNSON’S Tory government consolidates its base with firm promises to leave the E.U. by next month, it is also setting out a social programme which will significantly roll back basic political freedoms.

The Queen’s speech, delivered last month, affirms the government’s commitment to a series of authoritarian policies that featured in its election manifesto, concerning major reforms to the legal system and to trade union law.

The speech announced the government’s intention to set up a ‘Constitution, Democracy, and Rights Commission’, by the end of the year. There was little detail on what the commission would actually involve, but its inclusion is confirmation that the government will push ahead with the attacks on the legal system that it has proposed in recent months.

One attack that we can expect from the commission is against the independence of the courts. In their manifesto, the Conservative Party promised to end what they called the ‘abuse’ of judicial review, in which judges were ‘conducting politics by other means’.

This was clearly prompted by the decision of the courts in October to force Johnson to seek an extension to ‘Article 50’, which set the deadline for negotiations on the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement with the E.U. The decision was a straightforward judgement concerning the authority of parliament, which had instructed Johnson to seek an extension, but after making his sole pledge in the contest for the leadership of the Conservative Party the meeting of this deadline, a humiliated Johnson attempted to paint the call as a political decision to frustrate Brexit.

Far from being an isolated case, the pressures of ‘getting Brexit done’ in a timeframe satisfactory to its hard-right support base, have forced the courts to issue legal instructions to the government throughout the process. They also had to intervene, for instance, when May’s government attempted to begin the negotiation process with the E.U. without the permission of parliament.

After Johnson’s reckless decision to set an entirely arbitrary and political deadline for the transition period at the end of this year, the pressures on the government from Brexit will only intensify in the coming months. It is, therefore, anxious to avoid the inconveniences of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ and judicial review as it takes extraordinary measures to meet its deadline.

But Brexit is less the reason than it is an excuse to hamstring the judiciary. As it cynically poses itself as ‘anti-establishment’ in its battles against the courts to ‘deliver’ Brexit, it will use the same mechanisms to pursue further unconstitutional, anti-democratic measures which, without mobilising the support for its Brexit policy, it would only have been able to do much more slowly, and with much greater resistance.

The Queen’s speech proposes policies that will entrench the ability of ministers to pass laws independently of parliament. This is a continuation of the process that began under May, who used the mammoth task of adapting EU law to British law as justification for granting ‘Henry VIII’ powers to the government to bypass parliament in amending laws. The speech indicated that ministers in new departments would be granted these powers, naming only the Northern Ireland ministry.

Ministers are also going to be granted powers over the courts, being allowed to instruct courts to disregard decisions of the European Union Courts as precedent in legal cases. Until now, such decisions have been considered part of case law, but the government intends to give ministers the power to unilaterally review the precedents, as they can with EU laws. The government’s decision to remove commitments to protecting employment rights in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, indicates the direction of travel towards deregulation as ministers use the courts to overturn EU rulings on holiday entitlement, sick leave, and working hours.

In other attacks on political freedoms, the speech indicated a clampdown on those pursuing justice against abuses by the armed forces. In characteristically vague language, the speech promised to go after those who make ‘vexatious claims about our armed forces’. Some indication that soldiers accused of war crimes would receive immunity was widely anticipated, but the pledge to go after their victims goes beyond expectations.

In another anticipated move, the government affirmed that it will pursue a ban on boycotts of foreign states, naming the most prominent of these campaigns, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

The government has consistently misrepresented the campaign as an attack against Israeli – and increasingly, against Jewish – individuals when, in reality, it is a targeted campaign against industries that have a demonstrable stake in the occupation of Palestine. Indeed, a significant proportion of the campaign’s work is focused on products originating from the ‘Occupied Territories’, whose sale is in fact illegal under British and international law.

It’s far from clear how the government might enforce a ban on boycotts over democratic institutions like local governments, trade unions, and universities, but what precedent there is indicates that it can only do so using the most draconian of measures, which pose serious threats to freedom of speech. What is certain is that the government’s task has been made much easier by the preparatory work of the Zionists lobbying for the adoption of the controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism by local authorities, and indeed, the Labour Party itself.

Not mentioned in the Queen’s speech are the attacks on the right to strike that the Tories promised during the election. They want to introduce a ‘minimum strike provision’ on ‘key’ industries, enshrining in law a minimum proportion of workforce that must be active at any given time. Alongside the ban on secondary picketing, workplace ballots, and the seven-day notice period, this fresh attack on the right to take effective strike action will break new ground in removing the right to strike of some workers entirely.

The first indication of the new government’s programme, the Queen’s speech indicates the Tories’ continued strategy to roll back political rights under the smokescreen of Brexit. But it would be dangerous to understand Brexit as an exceptional issue which, after its ‘resolution’ at the end of January, will leave the Tories without a justification for their agenda. Brexit is a contested process of decoupling the UK from the EU bloc and replacing it with the only possible alternative: a much more subordinate relationship with the United States. The struggle over the character of the new ‘deals’ and the consequences of Brexit itself will generate a new chauvinism as the British ruling class tries to blame its newly-acquired rivals for the consequences of Brexit.

In this context it is especially counterproductive to start tailing the nationalists by talking about progressive patriotism – which is simply a crude dog-whistle for little England chauvinism and will be understood as such by those who it is intended for.

The ruling class will always be able to mobilise support for reactionary measures through appeals to the ‘national interest’, and it will continue this strategy long after Britain’s departure from the E.U.

It’s therefore essential for socialists to recognise calls for ‘progressive patriotism’ as a capitulation to this strategy, and to emphasise class, rather than nation, as the basis for building resistance to the Tories’ programme. Concessions to nationalism will not win people over to this struggle, but vindicate and empower the government as it rolls back our rights.


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