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Kill the Bill protest, London

Kill the Bill protest, London. Photo: Steve Eason / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

Johnson is using libertarian rhetoric about Covid to hide an increasingly authoritarian reality about everything else, writes Sean Ledwith

The Tory government and its cheerleaders in the right-wing press are salivating at the prospect of so-called 'Freedom Day' on the 19th of this month. Recklessly ignoring the warnings of many in the scientific community, the Tories are planning to throw out most of the mitigating measures regarding the pandemic, such as face covering, social distancing and self-isolating.

Johnson has cravenly capitulated to the anti-lockdown cranks among his backbench MPs, even though polls indicate most of the British people have grave reservations about Johnson’s let it rip mentality. It does not inspire confidence in this context that Johnson in the past has spoken approvingly of the incompetent mayor from the film Jaws:

"A gigantic fish is eating all your constituents and he decides to keep the beach open.  It turned out he was wrong. But it remains that he was heroically right in principle."

The rest of the country are probably thinking how can anyone watch that film and think the mayor was right?

Jumping back in the hole

Dr Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, is among those recommending continued use of face coverings and social distancing:

"If we don’t do this, if we continue with the plan to lift mandates on 19 July, it will not be freedom that we win, it will be a self-inflicted wound of uncontrolled transmission of the Delta variant."

With infections surging again, many experts fear the Tories, not for the first time, are jumping right back into the Covid hole we have only just climbed out of.  Meanwhile, below the radar, Johnson and his ministers are pushing through legislation that will significantly erode civil liberties in other areas, giving the lie to their nauseating rhetoric about freedom.

Deflecting attention

Jingoistic twaddle about 'Freedom Day' is consciously and cynically being used by the Tories and their media echo chamber to deflect attention from an insidious programme aimed at curtailing rights of free speech, protest and even voting. Ironically, on the same day this week he announced the full unlocking of the economy and society at the Downing Street briefing, Johnson’s government was finalising the passage through the Commons of Home Secretary Priti Patel’s hated Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act and introducing egregious and unnecessary measures for the use of Voter ID during elections.

Wiping out a culture

The same Tory MPs who are champing at the bit to unleash a third wave of Covid on the British public in the name of freedom voted this week by 365 to 265 to approve Patel’s draconian bill which massively restricts long-established freedoms to organise democratic protest and which sparked a wave of Kill the Bill protests across the country.

Aswell as outlawing supposedly serious disruption, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act absurdly outlaws   demonstrations that cause annoyance as well as single-person protests that create noise. The dire consequences of the Act were evident last March when truncheon-wielding officers from Met waded into the Sarah Everard vigil on Clapham Common.

The Act could also have a disastrous effect on Britain’s Gypsy and Traveller communities with the provision that criminalises residing or intending to reside on land without the permission of the owner or occupier. One member of these subcultures that have existed in Britain for centuries commented:

"If this bill passes we will be the last generation. I will just keep moving … until they take my vehicle, I don’t have other options in my back pocket. I feel fucking petrified and also angry. People worry about Travellers turning up in their area, but where is the common land? You are taking away my animal freedom to be on this planet. It’s wiping out a culture."

Republican playbook

Monday also witnessed the introduction to Parliament of the Elections Bill which incorporates the possible use of Voter ID in UK elections for the first time. The Tories are shamelessly stealing this idea from the playbook of their right-wing counterparts in the US where Republican state legislatures use it primarily to suppress democratic accessibility for black working class Americans who overwhelmingly vote Democrat. There is absolutely no need for such legislation, bearing in mind there were 3 convictions for voter fraud at the last general election and just one in 2017. The Equality Trust estimates there are 3.5 million UK citizens who lack photo ID and, needlessly to say, they are concentrated among poor, non-white, and young sections of society; ones more likely to vote Labour in other words.


Jess Garland from the Electoral Reform Society has slammed what she calls

"the government’s total reckless approach to protecting our democracy. Voter ID poses an unprecedented risk to democratic access and equality. Millions of people lack photo ID in this country. These proposals will make it harder to vote for huge numbers of voters, locking ordinary people out of our democracy and unfairly discriminating against those who lack ID."

The real reason for this upsurge of Tory authoritarianism, alongside other existing measures such as the Prevent agenda and anti-union legislation, is they are terrified by the wave of resistance to their agenda of untrammelled neoliberalism and racism that has come from the giant protests by XR and BLM in recent years. The battle is on to ensure not just that these attempts to stifle dissent fail but that the protests turn into an even bigger challenge to a corrupt system.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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