In political science the study of democracy is prominent, especially given the number of nation states that adhere to democratic ideals. The relatively recent rise of more authoritarian systems of government in the forms of one-party states and dictatorships have continued the debate as to whether democracy should be the dominant method of governmental rule.
When most people think of democratic countries they tend to think of social democracies like those of Scandinavia or liberal democracies like Germany and Britain. There are other forms of democracy that are often not as well known and I believe that the Conservative Party are trying to turn Britain into one of these lesser known forms of government.
Illiberal democracies are a form of government that, whilst maintaining some principles of democracy like direct elections and constitutionalism, are distinctly more authoritarian than liberal or social democracies. They are countries that are noticeably corrupt, quash dissent, inhibit the press, and/or restrict civil liberties. The examples that are often given are Hungary under Viktor Orban, Tukey under Recep Erdogan and Russian under Vladimir Putin. All of these governments have elections and have some form of constitutionalism, but nobody would argue that these countries are exactly beacons of democratic values. I believe that the Tories, through their own streak of authoritarianism, are moving Britain toward being an illiberal democracy.
So what is my evidence for this assertion? Take the restriction of civil liberties point. Theresa May is currently lobbying for the Snoopers’ Charter which has been criticised by many human rights organisations, most notably Liberty and Open Rights Group. Not only will this bill expand the ability of the government to conduct surveillance of its own people without cause, it has led to David Cameron’s Orwellian statement thar: “for too long we have been a passively tolerant society saying to our citizens saying ‘as long as you obey the law we will leave you alone'”.
Another action that I would class as trying to restrict civil liberties is that this government wants to abolish the Human Rights Act (HRA) and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. On the face of it this doesn’t seem too bad as the HRA would be replaced by something similar but if the Tories weren’t trying to change the rights we have he wouldn’t bother scrapping the HRA in the first place. This decision is not about banging a more Eurosceptic drum for the party’s base, it’s about stripping away the rights of British citizens so that the state can intervene more in people’s lives.
In regards to quashing dissent, the Tories are pushing through the Draconian Trade Union Bill which will, among other things, undermine workers’ right to strike in terms of balloting, and undermine the impact of strike action therefore allow management to continue undisrupted. Tory MPs and members of the House of Lords have come out against the Trade Union Bill as vindictive and unnecessary, thus illustrating how this bill is purely about punishing those who disagree.
As well as the Trade Union Bill the Tories are trying to institute a 19% cut to the Short Money budget, the budget used to fund opposition parties at Westminster. Not only are the Tories undercutting the labour movement’s workplace representation, but they are also trying to prevent Opposition parties from effectively operating at Westminster.This will make the government even less accountable than they already are.
The Tories, to their credit, have not been overtly trying to undermine press freedom in the same way that tyrants like Vladimir Putin are but there are many stories about senior government ministers deliberately making themselves unavailable for press interviews. This is has since abated because a large number of the media establishment actually started doing some decent journalism, but it does point to a mindset. This mindset is that the government shouldn’t be held to account by the media who are supposed to hold the government to account.
This convenient absence from media scrutiny has now ended due to big-name ministers wanted to give their view on the upcoming EU referendum but there is another aspect that should be mentioned. As I said above the Snooper’s Charter is framed as a method of combating terrorism, however at the end of the day the Home Secretary will be the one who determines what is classed as ‘extreme’. What is to stop Theresa May from labelling people who disagree with the government as extremists? The answer is, nothing.
Finally, on the issue of corruption, this government is quite obviously corrupt. One simple example is in relation to the Health and Social Care Act which opened up large amounts of the NHS to privatisation. According to a report released by the Unite union in November 2014, 71 coalition MPs stood to gain financially from the privatisation of NHS services and operations; of those MPs 64 were Tory MPs and among them were the former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley and the current Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Furthermore, it is not especially surprising that many hedge-fund managers and bankers fund the Tory Party and the financial services industry remains so under-regulated. We cannot know whether there was any quid pro quo corruption but it is far from coincidental that this government has done no regulation of the City of London whilst systematically cutting public services.
All of these decisions by the Tories make Britain a more illiberal and less democratic. Should all the government’s proposals be implemented: British workers will be unable to withhold their labour; opposition parties will find it more difficult to hold the government to account; the media are unable to challenge the government’s narrative; British citizens will have fewer civil liberties; and ministers are using legislation to enrich themselves. If we described Russia in such terms we would call into question whether or not that country was a democracy. The unfortunate truth is that many people will refuse to have that conversation when it is their own government.