Since they were emboldened by a large majority in the 2019 election, the Tories have made considerable pains to move the goalposts for what constitutes strong, patriotic nationhood in the UK, and have redefined the role of the state in the face of new global uncertainties.
In his speech at the virtual Conservative Party Conference on 6 October, Boris Johnson seized the opportunity to showcase his apathy towards the rule of law. By railing against “lefty human rights lawyers” and “other do-gooders”, he accused the legal system of hampering the criminal justice process.
Ultimately, this was an archetypal Johnson speech: blustering, deflective, and not without a characteristic swipe at Labour’s metropolitan-ness and political correctness. But it was also significant for matching the bar set by Home Secretary Priti Patel’s comments on the “activist lawyers”, who she claims are trying to block Tory attempts to overhaul the UK asylum process. By overriding the checks and balances of the justice system, Johnson has chosen authoritarian parameters for the Tories’ “return to the ‘party of law and order’”.
The Tories have long sought to portray themselves as hawkish, particularly with migration policy: we need only look back a few years to the deployment of then-Home Secretary Theresa May’s ‘Go Home’ vans in London. This year’s events have proved ironically fortuitous for the Government to recertify their bullish position on law, order and security, even as Covid cases swell and the economy spirals into recession.
In June, after Bristol protesters allied to the Black Lives Matters movement tore down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston, Priti Patel caused anger by accusing the crowds of “thuggery” and “mob violence”. More recently, amidst a potential second wave of Covid, Johnson spoke of his desire to implement “stronger enforcement of the [lockdown] rules”, proposing to nominate local “Covid marshals” to help enforce compliance, and assist police forces in imposing fines, based on “local intelligence”. In addition to flattening civil liberties of those who live or want to live in this country, encouragement of Covid curtain-twitching is clearly being put in place so this work is achieved at the local level.
The Tories doubling-down on this rhetoric presents a test for Labour. Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer has made no secret of the fact that to further electoral viability, he believes Labour should pivot to good old-fashioned patriotism. His own recent Conference speech notably appealed to “family values” (traditionally territory of the Tories), that he suggested would help foster both ‘opportunity’ and ‘security’ for the UK. In ushering in this kind of traditional bread-and-butter patriotism, Starmer must be careful to not inadvertently bolster the Government’s new nationalism.
Two recent Bills that have recently come through the House of Commons go some way in demonstrating which direction Labour will go on this issue in the near-future.
The first, known as the Overseas Operations Bill, was lauded as giving “British troops serving overseas extra protection against fraudulent or frivolous claims against them of criminal behaviour”. It firmly clears up any doubt about the Government’s position on international values: a five-year time limit on war crimes such as genocide puts the UK at odds with the Geneva Conventions, for example. Far from protecting veterans, the Bill – if passed into law – would have the effect of occluding the basic principles of justice and effectively creating loopholes for authoritarian practice.
The second, the Covert Human Intelligence Sources – ‘SpyCops’ – Bill has just passed its third reading in Parliament, aimed at protecting undercover operatives from prosecution if they are forced to break the law during operations. Covering agents working for MI5, police forces and, ludicrously, even the Food Standards Agency, in practice meant that agents could be authorised to kill innocent civilians.
The Liberal Democrats led the cross-party opposition to the Bill, but Starmer ordered Labour MPs to abstain, in the votes of both of the aforementioned Bills. MPs who voted against them included Shadow Cabinet members Nadia Whittome, Margaret Greenwood and Dan Carden, who were forced to resign their posts. Plainly, Starmer wants to be seen to be making good on his commitment to values of queen and country (via the UK’s veterans and special agents), but in failing to properly oppose the Bill, Labour shows they are willing to concede to the Government as they move further to the right.
There is an argument to be made for innovative approaches to security as we move toward exiting the European Union. But the kind of patriotism and nationalism Labour should be aiming for as we look to a post-Covid recovery is preserving and promoting UK services and welfare, and pushing on new jobs that commit to sustainable growth and carbon neutrality.
What they should not be doing is assisting the Government in legitimising torture to maintain Starmer’s press image. By behaving agnostically in the face of the Tories’ dangerous stance on the law, Labour will end up playing a game of electoral cat-and-mouse that they will struggle to win. There is a way to reintroduce commitment to patriotism without giving way to the redress of civil liberties. Starmer must not fall into the trap.