Rising repression in the UK
A barrage of new laws is being used to repress protest rights in the UK. Numerous peaceful protesters have been jailed, with climate protests targeted. The government is also stepping up its vilification of asylum-seekers, and transgender people increasingly seem in line for similar treatment. The ruling party seems intent to fight the next election on a culture war strategy, which will foster polarisation and mobilise further hatred against excluded groups. The UK’s domestic policies are increasingly at odds with its international claim to stand as a champion of democracy and human rights. It’s time for the British government to practise at home what it preaches globally.
At the COP27 climate summit late last year, the UK delegation was active as a member of the High Ambition Coalition of states urging strong commitments to tackle climate change. But at the same time, over 30 climate activists were being held in British jails.
The moment offered just one example of how what the UK government says internationally is being undermined by how it acts domestically. Sadly, there are many more. The government has increasingly moved to restrict peaceful protests and criminalise those who take part. It’s targeting the most vulnerable in society, particularly migrants and refugees and now also transgender people.
Recognising this deteriorating situation, in March the UK’s rating on the CIVICUS Monitor – our online platform that assesses the state of civic space in 197 countries – was downgraded. It’s now classed as having obstructed civic space, putting it on the same level as countries such as Hungary, Poland and Serbia.
The UK is performing badly on other measures. It’s ranked as only ‘partly open’ on Index on Censorship’s freedom of expression index and is falling on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
A pile-up of restrictive laws
A raft of legislation has introduced new restrictions on people’s ability to take part in public action. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, passed in April 2022, gives the police wider powers to restrict and break-up protests, including on grounds of disruption and noise. Politicians justified the law with reference to climate actions that often involve blockades of roads and buildings. The law flies in the face of the reality that protests and other forms of non-violent direct action have been crucial in moving climate change up the political agenda.
This is far from the only repressive law. A Public Order Bill, currently making its way through parliament, will give the police powers to stop and search people and vehicles in relation to protests and ban people from protests if they have prior convictions.
Meanwhile, introduced in response to a wave of strikes demanding pay increases to keep up with high inflation, the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill would force employees in numerous sectors to work during strikes, under punishment of being fired, and slap large fines on unions for non-compliance.
And when British people go to vote in municipal elections in May, they’ll now be required to show voter ID – something not previously seen outside Northern Ireland. With examples of voter fraud almost non-existent, this looks like an attempt to suppress the vote of poorer people and Black people, who disproportionately lack common forms of ID. It also discriminates against young people: while the transport passes of the more pro-Conservative older demographic count as a valid form of ID, those given to young people don’t.
Protesters made criminals
Until recently it was an accepted convention in the UK that even if someone was found guilty of offences in relation to peaceful protest they wouldn’t be jailed. But that’s all changed now. At the year’s start, at least 54 people were in jail for participating in protests.
Many of those in jail are climate protesters. Last September over 50 protesters from the Just Stop Oil direct action group were sent to prison in a single day. In a recent disturbing development, climate activists under trial have been told not to mention the climate crisis as the motivation for their protests. In March two activists were jailed for contempt of court after doing so.
Alongside criminalisation, government ministers are increasingly vilifying protesters, activists and others who defend human rights, including lawyers. A recent survey by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, a civil society support body, found that 72 per cent of campaigners believe UK politicians have become more hostile to civil society in the last year.
This regressive wave is politically driven. The Conservative Party, in power since 2010, has seen its fortunes wane since it won a large majority at the last election in December 2019. It’s gone through two prime ministers since, with Rishi Sunak – by common reckoning the UK’s richest-ever prime minister – in office for five months now.
The Conservatives have long been behind in the polls but support hasn’t recovered from its collapse during the chaotic 50-day reign of Sunak’s predecessor, Liz Truss. The next election must be held by January 2025 and every poll puts the opposition Labour Party on course for a huge win.
The UK remains in pretty poor economic shape, partly as a result of Brexit. GDP still hasn’t recovered to pre-pandemic levels and both the International Monetary Fund and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) predict the UK will have the lowest growth of G7 countries in 2023. Inflation stands at 10.4 per cent, with food prices growing at their highest rate in 45 years and some of Europe’s highest electricity prices. The Conservatives are struggling to recover their old reputation for economic competence.
This leaves the party increasingly reliant on populist messages. The Conservatives did so well in 2019 because traditional Labour supporters in England’s north and midlands switched loyalties, galvanised by Brexit. Brexit is no longer a major issue so, in addition to suppressing disruptive climate activism, the Conservatives are looking for other ways to try to shore up socially conservative support.
Migration is one obvious choice. The early months of 2023 have seen the issue of small boats crossing the English Channel dominating the headlines.
Last year 45,756 people are assessed to have crossed to the UK from France this way, although this was short of the 60,000 predicted. It’s a desperately dangerous route, with people crowded onto unsuitable vessels. Since 2014, 209 people have died or are reported missing while making the crossing. People-trafficking gangs who show no regard for safety are benefiting from this perilous enterprise.
Crossings used to be rare, but have increased because safer routes have been closed. It’s now virtually impossible to travel to the UK to seek asylum legally. These restrictions have created the market for cross-channel trafficking.
The government’s response is an escalating rhetoric of toughness. In January, Sunak made five pledges, including to stop the small boats. In March, he announced a new law – the Illegal Migration Bill – to prevent people who arrive in the UK by irregular means claiming asylum, remove their protections under the UK’s ground-breaking modern slavery law and immediately deport them to Rwanda or another country.
The latest plan builds on a deal the government struck in April 2022 with the authoritarian state of Rwanda to host asylum-seekers, with no right to return to the UK even if claims were successful. The scheme replicates a system applied in Australia that led to horrendous brutality and cruelty.
When the UK government tries to persuade other states of the importance of respecting human rights, it has little ground to stand on.
So far lawsuits have meant no one has been deported to Rwanda, although Home Secretary Suella Braverman recently visited the country to inspect an accommodation block, accompanied only by supportive journalists, with critical media excluded. It’s still hard to tell whether the government is serious about the policy or it’s an act of political posturing, making it look tough, picking a fight with human rights lawyers it can vilify as enemies of the people and throwing onto the defensive a Labour Party aware of the anti-migrant views of many potential voters.
The intense political focus comes even though the UK isn’t anywhere near the global top 20 of countries that host refugees, most of whom have fled from one global south state to another. And while the government vilifies those who arrive and claim they aren’t genuine, last year 60 per cent of people who arrived in small boats received recognition as refugees.
The government may also be looking to throw the blame on asylum-seekers rather than its own failings, since its slow-moving asylum system has caused a huge backlog of cases. This means many asylum-seekers are now being held in hotels, something that simultaneously makes their daily life difficult and fuels disinformation, spread by far-right groups, that they are living in luxury. The result of this, inflamed by demonising language from politicians, is violence. In February hundreds of people gathered in a violent protest outside a hotel hosting asylum-seekers, whose residents have been subjected to abuse and attacks.
Human rights commitments under threat
The government’s plans on migration may well breach the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Council of Europe’s European Convention on Human Rights. The UK played a leading role in developing the European Convention, which is codified into UK law through the 1998 Human Rights Act. This makes it subject to the European Court of Human Rights; an injunction from the court is one of the reasons no deportations to Rwanda have happened yet.
Braverman has said she believes there’s more than a 50 per cent chance the proposed new immigration law will be found to break human rights laws, but is pressing ahead regardless. The government will look to turn any European rulings against it into campaigning opportunities.
The government also plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a weaker Bill of Rights, which would give the government power to further strip rights from migrants and make it much harder for people to challenge rights violations in the courts.
Some Conservative politicians are even pushing for the UK to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, a proposal Braverman backed when running to be party leader. This would put the UK in the company of Belarus and Russia, expelled due its invasion of Ukraine, as European countries not subject to the Convention.
There’s increasingly another front on which rights are being attacked for political advantage. In December, Scotland’s devolved government passed a gender recognition law. The law introduced a self-identification regime in Scotland, as applies in many other countries, including Argentina, Ireland and – recently introduced – Spain. But the following month the UK government used powers it had never flexed before to block it.
Around the world, trans rights are the subject of an intensely toxic debate. The UK government’s response is intensifying this, sowing polarisation in what seems a deliberate political strategy. One of the Conservative Party’s recently appointed deputy chairs, controversial politician Lee Anderson, has recently said the party will likely make a ‘mix of culture wars and trans debate’ a central part of its election campaign.
Like attacking migrants, this potentially plays well with socially conservative supporters and makes life difficult for Labour. That the culture war strategy, even if it fails to keep the Conservatives in power, will likely have a lasting impact in further marginalising vulnerable groups and normalising hatred and violence doesn’t seem to matter.
The UK isn’t the global superpower of its heyday, but what it does matters because it’s still one of the world’s biggest economies, one of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, a member of powerful alliances like the G7, G20 and OECD, and the instigator of the Commonwealth, an alliance of 56 states. It’s still, despite recent cutbacks, one of the world’s biggest contributors of official development assistance – aid supposedly given to help tackle poverty and defend human rights in global south countries, although increasingly funds are being siphoned off to pay to house asylum-seekers in the UK.
One of the UK’s stated foreign policy priorities is to promote human rights and democracy. That’s a job that’s only got harder with restrictions on civic space having intensified in many countries in recent years. Now when the UK government tries to persuade other states of the importance of respecting human rights, it has little ground to stand on.
It isn’t just Rwanda, criticised by the UK government in 2021 for its civil and political rights restrictions, that’s been given the green light to continue suppressing freedoms. Repressive states, particularly other Commonwealth members, may well justify their attacks on civic space with reference to the UK’s recent restrictions: if the UK can do it, why shouldn’t they?
It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s still time for the UK government to live up to its international responsibilities and save its reputation. It should start by respecting protest rights, stopping the vilification of excluded groups and committing to practice domestically what it preaches internationally.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The UK government should amend existing laws and shelve proposed laws that restrict protest rights and criminalise peaceful protesters.
The UK government should engage in wide consultation over any plans to amend or replace the Human Rights Act and ensure it remains compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights.
The UK government should commit to dialogue with civil society to develop a new approach to irregular migration that respects its international human rights responsibilities.
Cover photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images