This government has put our cherished democracy in danger
Fears have been expressed that we are unwittingly embarking on a slippery slope towards authoritarian rule, with warnings of an elected dictatorial elite seeking to override Parliament, trampling on the public’s historic freedoms and rights.
These are not sentiments that a parliamentarian expresses lightly, but the latest Downing Street revelations have compounded concerns.
Our proud democracy has strong safeguards to protect personal rights, such as freedom of speech and equal treatment under the law. Checks and balances in the system are designed to prevent excessive power being concentrated at the top. However, dangers arise if a small group seeks, in its own interest, to over-ride normal protections or curtail previously sacrosanct democratic rights.
To quote Aristotle: “Democracy arises out of the notion that those who are equal in any respect are equal in all respects”. This may explain why the revelations confirmed in the Sue Gray report have evoked fears of evolving authoritarianism.
This 'one rule for us and another for everyone else' impression offends British values of decency and fairness
What is the evidence?
It is not for me to adjudicate on official or police investigations, but it does seem that those at the very top of government conducted themselves as if they were above the law. Whether knowingly or carelessly, they behaved in ways which they had expressly forbidden to the rest of the public.
Of course apologies are welcome, and it is important to get on with governing the country to deal with the after-effects of the pandemic, but these revelations have been taken by some as warning flags about risks to our future.
Laws, regulations and guidance, issued in the interests of protecting public health and the NHS, unprecedentedly denied people their basic freedoms to gather with family and friends, hug loved ones, celebrate weddings, christenings or other happy occasions. These deprivations were accepted by the public, but caused significant distress, anguish, mental and physical health damage.
Yet, after initial denials and obfuscation, it appears those who imposed the rules and guidelines, did not feel obliged to abide by them.
This “one rule for us and another for everyone else” impression has caused understandable outrage, offending British values of decency and fairness. It also risks further undermining faith in the political process.
Britain has always relied on checks and balances to curb authoritarianism. Our world-respected legal system has protections for citizens and respect for the rule of law. However, a string of legislation placed before Parliament has sought to gather extreme powers for the Executive, while by-passing Parliament itself.
Of course, the pandemic necessitated some draconian emergency restrictions, introduced without impact assessments or scrutiny. But these powers are not yet surrendered.
And those measures follow successive Bills proposing extraordinary Henry VIII powers and restricting hitherto untouchable rights. From the Internal Markets Bill, seeking to break international law, to legislation banning peaceful protests if “noisy”, to hampering Judicial Review, or stripping citizenship rights on Ministerial judgment alone, parliamentary sovereignty has been challenged.
Some of these measures were overturned in the Lords, but the proposals do leave the impression of a determination to dilute parliamentary democracy.
History shows that democracy can become endangered when trust in politics is lost. Public apathy and alienation can pave the way for mavericks to take control.
That is why I try to speak out. As Edmund Burke said, “nobody makes a greater mistake than he who does nothing because he could do only a little.”
Baroness Altmann is a Conservative peer.
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