As the tide of populism recedes, is it taking our civil liberties with it?

·6 min read

Perhaps the only thing surprising about “Operation Red Meat”, Boris Johnson’s recent attempt to deflect attention from the ongoing partygate scandal, is that it flopped. The flurry of policy announcements made in mid-January – from putting the military in charge of dealing with Channel crossings by small boats to threatening the BBC’s licence fee – display the rightwing populist instinct that has been central to Johnson’s leadership of the Conservative party.

In the past, announcements such as these might have been enough to keep Conservative grassroot campaigners, MPs, voters and sympathetic media outlets onside. This time, it has done nothing to quell the crisis – and Johnson’s approval rating has continued to plunge dramatically. The immediate cause of failure is obvious: the attempt to placate the right by throwing out some “red meat” was cynical and half-hearted. But whether Johnson stays or goes, there are wider political shifts under way that may make populist posturing a less effective tool for the government in the years to come.

A new study from the University of Cambridge suggests that worldwide, voters’ enthusiasm for populism has been on the wane since the beginning of the pandemic. The populist leaders who gathered steam in the mid-2010s and came mainly from the right or far-right are experiencing a steady decline in support, according to a survey of polling data in 27 countries. Authoritarian strongmen who tried to downplay the threat of Covid, such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, are in particular trouble due to their mishandling of the pandemic. But the researchers found that attitudes among voters are shifting more broadly, with less support for ideas central to populism, such as a belief in the “will of the people”, or a tendency to see politics as a conflict between the people and a corrupt elite.

The researchers attribute this in part to what they call the “rally around the flag” effect of the pandemic: people have been more likely to put their trust in national institutions and technical experts, or place a greater emphasis on social solidarity, in our collective efforts to suppress the virus. This, however, has come at a price. The study also found a “disturbing erosion of support for core democratic beliefs and principles, including less liberal attitudes with respect to basic civil rights and liberties”. There may be less appetite for populist tub-thumping, but if anything, suggests the research, the pandemic has left people more open to having the state order them around.

This should be of particular concern in the UK, where a key part of the Johnson government’s programme has been to attack civil liberties. By now, we are familiar with the series of bills making their way through parliament that seek to curtail people’s rights – the right to protest or to seek asylum; the right of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities to live without harassment from the state; or of people with immigrant backgrounds to live securely in the UK – but it’s worth pausing to consider why these issues have become so politically dominant.

As the Cambridge researchers state: “When people feel existentially threatened, they are likely to endorse illiberal attitudes across a broader spectrum of beliefs.” The rightwing populist wave of recent years has relied on linking people’s discontent at the political system to the false claim that majority populations are threatened by immigrants and other outsiders. These populists – or, in the case of the UK government, a centre-right party that has taken on a populist hue – have offered to restore a sense of security through clamping down on perceived threats, and taking power away from the checks and balances of liberal democracy that they portray as tools of the elite.

Fading support for populism may eventually lead to a shift in the tone of political debate, but the changes the government’s new laws bring will be profound and long-lasting – and harder to roll back if people’s desire for security outweighs other concerns. As a new report by the Institute of Race Relations thinktank points out, a common thread running through the new laws is that not only do they target our rights, but they seek to make the state and its officials less accountable.

Related: I’ve been protesting all my life. It can feel futile, yet doing nothing is much worse | Polly Toynbee

The government’s proposed reforms to the Human Rights Act, for instance, which would place new obstacles in the way of human rights claims in the courts, threaten to limit our ability to seek justice from the state. The barrister and author David Renton notes that the Human Rights Act has been of vital importance to many different groups in society, from the Hillsborough families to tenants fighting eviction.

At the same time, we have given the state far greater power over our lives in the service of suppressing the pandemic, an issue that becomes more ethically complex as the emergency recedes. Look, for instance, at how swiftly the idea that unvaccinated people should be denied or given less priority for medical treatment has entered political debate in the UK and elsewhere in recent months.

If we do not challenge these trends now, then the UK risks becoming a place where ordinary people have less of a voice, and less ability to hold the country’s institutions to account. Making that challenge is no easy prospect. “Civil liberties” can often seem like a dry, abstract concept, and it cuts across conventional political distinctions. The left has a tendency to regard civil liberties as something of a sideshow – a distraction from “real” issues such as economic inequality – while liberals can sometimes treat the issue as apolitical, merely a matter to be settled by the courts. Rightwing “libertarians”, meanwhile, are often highly selective about the liberties they are willing to defend.

Ultimately, the response must be to make these issues central to other political debates, so they are not dismissed as more immediate problems such as the cost of living crisis come to dominate our attention. For example, the government also announced this week that sanctions for jobseekers on universal credit will be made much tougher. It is tempting to see this as purely an economic question: should benefits be more generous, or less? But it is also fundamentally about the way the state is allowed to treat individuals, and what tools we have to push back against our treatment. Over the past decade, cuts to legal aid have made it much more difficult for people without private wealth to dispute what they think are unfair decisions in the benefits system. Ensuring the right to challenge the state would also be a way to help people win economic security for themselves.

In the short term, however, it’s important to recognise that there are still effective ways to counteract the government, as the partial victories against the policing bill in the House of Lords earlier this month suggest. There, a cross-party alliance of peers voted down some of the more egregious proposals to restrict the right to protest, but the campaign against the bill would not have gained momentum without the efforts of radical and liberal activists outside parliament, who have been raising the alarm on the streets and in their communities for months. This is an uneasy alliance – the interests and priorities of the groups involved will not always align – but finding points in common is an essential first step to wider change.

  • Daniel Trilling is the author of Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe, and Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right

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