Rishi Sunak's embrace of US Republican voter suppression tactics and culture wars is a threat to UK democracy – Henry McLeish

Donald Trump’s enduring appeal in the US, despite his legal troubles, shows why complacency about the state of democracy in Britain could be a serious mistake

The Conservative party and government, losing their grip on power and reality, are looking to the US Republicans for inspiration and ideas, while embracing the rhetoric and extremism of right-leaning parties in Europe. Of course, American politics and democracy are different, but the emergence of identity politics and populism shouldn’t be casually or complacently dismissed.

Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee for the 2024 presidential election, is facing multiple criminal indictments including in relation to his efforts to overturn his election defeat, announced this week by the Federal District Court in Washington. Without exhausting our political imagination, Trump could be fighting Joe Biden from inside a federal court or prison: the US constitution allows this to happen!

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Dominating UK politics for over a century and recognised as the world’s most successful political party, the Conservatives now represent a ‘Tired Old Party’, unlike the Republicans who are still known as the Grand Old Party. But is this a premature judgment?

The Tories should have lost Boris Johnson’s old seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, but they didn’t. The London Mayor’s low-emission zone expansion plan was blamed for handing them victory or was it the use of “Green crap”, to quote former Prime Minister David Cameron, as a wedge issue to divide public opinion, instil fear and marginalise the truth. There’s no doubt that undermining the green agenda will be part of Rishi Sunak’s plan for electoral success.

Gone are the days when the Tory party operated in the spirit of philosopher Edmund Burke who described conservatism as “an approach to human affairs which mistrusts a priori reasoning and revolution, preferring to put its trust in experience and in the gradual improvement of tried and tested arrangements”.

The Johnson era has been a distraction from what has really been going on in government and parliament, obscured by a loyal and influential right-leaning press. Sunak’s government is now leaving mainstream politics behind and treading a path strewn with a toxic mix of populism, authoritarianism, (English) nationalism, intolerance, and racism.

They said this kind of assault on democracy in America couldn’t happen. But it did. The idea Donald Trump would become president in 2016 was laughed at. It couldn’t happen in America. But it did. Brexit, an act of insanity, happened! Electors voted for all of this. Democracy is complex, fragile, and vulnerable and progressives are often complacent in its defence and sometimes compliant in its undoing.

The Tory government seems determined to embrace anti-wokery, culture wars, and identity politics in which the scapegoating of ideas, people, and groups achieves politically divisive outcomes. This desperate government lacks achievements, has no vision for the future and fails to understand that their unfettered “market thinking” has diminishing relevance in a world of climate change, global pandemics, mass migration, war, and economic turbulence. Our politics is changing, our democracy is at risk.

Within the Conservative party, factionalism is rampant and destroying any sense of political coherence or purpose. One emerging Tory faction is the “the New Conservatives,” a right-wing front to promote the leadership ambitions of the most extreme, unpleasant, and authoritarian member of the government, Home Secretary Suella Braverman. Her thinking reflects the comments of Vivek Ramaswamy, the new poster boy of US extremism, Trump 2.0, and a candidate to become the Republican presidential nominee. Dylan Wells, writing in the Washington Post, said that “Ramaswamy doesn’t like to use the categories of Democrat and Republican” and instead, “prefers pro or anti American” to describe “everyday citizens”. Authoritarian at least, possibly something more sinister

Tory thinking will blur the future, ignore the present and focus on the past where the lure of greatness, exceptionalism, and memories of empire invites voters to remember, with affection, “Great Britannia” and how we ruled the waves. Nostalgia, sentiment and delusion are served as a soothing political balm to convince voters that the dismantling of public services and the destruction of the economy are a price worth paying to ensure the onward march of Conservative ideology, and the right to rule. This approach, based on the ideas of faith, family, flag, and freedom, sees patriotism degrade into nationalism, coercion replace freedom, and fear replace hope.

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The UK Government has introduced US-style voter suppression legislation in the form of compulsory ID for elections under the guise of tackling voter fraud. This ignores the fact that out of 30 million votes cast in 2019, four convictions were secured. The main aim, as in the US, is to supress the votes of disadvantaged and marginal groups: ‘stop the votes’ not the boats!

Contempt for courts, the judiciary and “lefty lawyers”, restricting the right to protest, and threatening to take the UK out of the European Convention of Human Rights are all part of the Sunak government’s growing authoritarianism.

The next Tory manifesto is likely to focus on divisive identity politics including gender recognition, LGBTQ rights, immigration, and racism, exiting the European Convention on Human Rights, “getting Rwanda done”, being tough on crime, and rowing back on the ‘green agenda’. The clear intent is to divide, not unify the country. America today, UK tomorrow! There is even speculation the Tories might offer a referendum on immigration in their general election manifesto.

Faced with the prospect of electoral humiliation, moderate Conservative candidates may put their weight behind this nightmare strategy and take the UK down the path of American authoritarianism. First-past-the-post voting provides the perfect platform for a decaying democracy to unravel.

One final consideration, rarely discussed, could have profound consequences if culture wars prevail. This type of Tory thinking will focus on England., with Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland peripheral. This would become a “Make England Great Again” (MEGA) election. Sound familiar? A fragile Union, in which the insult of extremism is added to the injury of insulting Scotland, undermining devolution, and dismantling the Scotland Act of 1998, could certainly hasten the break-up of the Union.

Henry McLeish is a former First Minister of Scotland



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