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We’re in danger of losing our democracy

4 min read

Last week, a young woman was arrested at her flat the day after stewarding a peaceful protest against the policies of our government.

There is nothing unusual in this except that a bail condition stops her from attending any future demonstrations, even though she has not been found guilty of anything.

Soon, the government aims to change their laws to stop named groups of people from attending or organising protests. In recent years, the police have even used pre-emptive arrests in advance of protests being organised, with a broadly drawn charge of conspiracy. This escalation from crime to pre-crime, comes after decades of state surveillance of several hundred non-violent campaigning groups, with thousands put on a database of political extremists regardless of whether they broke the law.

Many had their lives and privacy torn apart by undercover officers, but when this was exposed and stories of agent provocateur law-breaking emerged, the state acquired additional powers to allow undercover officers to break laws with legal immunity as part of that political surveillance.

Instead of dealing with the root causes of the problems we face, ministers are reaching for totalitarian tools

Sometimes I don’t recognise this country of ours.

My only advice to the young women growing up today is not to lose hope and remember that the general trajectory of modern history has been away from oppression and towards rights. It has been a pathway of liberalisation. More fairness, more opportunity, and more freedom. Less state power, greater checks and balances, and more accountability. 

At its best, democracy is a lively and dynamic force. It defeated the authoritarian states that seemed all-powerful in the late 1930s. It has often acted as an antiseptic that cleans away corruption and allows a healthy society to flourish. Democracy comes in many forms, but a common theme is the ability to speak your mind and make some noise. By contrast, authoritarian governments want to ban noisy demonstrations, just as ours have done.

The government talks of its need to respond to new tactics used by activists, but this is clearly untrue. The suffragettes used methods like “locking-on” and they even locked-on in Parliament itself. Those actions were not popular at the time, but it was the denial of democratic rights that led the suffragettes to employ such methods.

The cure for such social unrest is more democracy, not less. Yet, with the passing of the voter ID laws we have the first steps towards the kind of voter suppression that is employed for partisan gain in the USA. We are losing our democracy.

The courts and judicial oversight can act as another break on oppressive state power and the UK’s adherence to the Convention on Human Rights has helped both individuals and groups gain access to justice. Of the countries who signed up to the Convention in the 1950s, only Russia has left (after the invasion of Ukraine). Our own brand of authoritarian state now intends to follow Russia to the exit. Ministers are proposing a Bill of Rights in an Orwellian masterstroke of language, as the legislation will lead to a curtailment of individual rights and allow for an increase in state power over British citizens.

There is also a National Security Bill with its promise of granting unspecified new powers to the security services. This decades’ long slippery slope continues. It's always more powers, and less scrutiny. More spying, less privacy. The behemoth of the security state is never satisfied with its amassed power - who knows what they will ask us to pass this time.

For a government struggling to deal with a world energy crisis, rampant inflation and mass poverty, it is spending a lot of parliamentary time passing oppressive laws.

As a mix of climate change and war inevitability lead to food shortages and unrest, these new laws will be used with growing frequency. Instead of spending time dealing with the root causes of the problems we face, ministers are reaching for the totalitarian tools that will deal with the symptoms.

Those who believe in democracy will unite and reverse these draconian laws. The question is how much pain does this country have to endure before that happens? 


Baroness Jones is a Green peer. 

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