La Reine, le veult

Sunday National, 1st May 2022.

“La Reine, le veult.” The Queen wills it. When Westminster is prorogued, the monarch sends a deputation of peers to grant her royal assent to all the legislation which has navigated its way through the Lords and Commons during the parliamentary session.

When the clerk utters the traditional Norman French formulation – the Bill becomes law. Boris Johnson and his cabinet colleagues will be patting themselves on the back this Bank holiday weekend. With the monarch’s blessing, they’ve managed to add an extraordinarily toxic new roll of legislation to the statute book this week.

Any one of the proposals the Conservative majority has rammed through the UK parliament could consume a column – but I want to give you a sense of the sheer breadth of mischief they’ve been able to do this parliamentary session. Some of these provisions apply across the UK. Others apply only in England and Wales. But ask yourselves this: can you imagine the parliament of an independent Scotland passing any of these proposals? Looking at how the UK parliament is using its reserved powers, are you still content to leave these life and death decisions in their hands? Is this what “better together” meant?

First there’s Priti Patel’s Policing Bill. Much of the criticism of the Bill has rightly focused on the changes it will wrought to the right to protest in England and Wales, giving the police greater powers to clamp down on protests – but perhaps its ugliest provisions are those tailored to target Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people. The centrepiece of Michael Howard’s dog whistle campaign in the 2005 general election will finally become law. The Act effectively transforms trespass into a criminal offence, giving the police the power to arrest and seize the homes if they park their vehicles on land without authorisation. At least Douglas Ross – who said he would “impose tougher enforcement against Gypsy travellers” if he was PM for day – will approve.

Patel’s fingerprints are also all over the new Nationality and Borders Act. It is difficult to know where to start with these proposals, which have been condemned by the United Nations as flying in the face of the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention. The government’s cover for many of these changes is that they are “cracking down” on people smuggling and adopting measures to “slam the door on criminals before they even get here.” This justification doesn’t withstand scrutiny.

The legislation not only lays the legal foundation for the government’s madcap scheme to process asylum claims in Rwanda. It also criminalises asylum seekers who reach the UK irregularly, and will make it a crime for anyone in the UK to assist an asylum seeker to arrive in the UK – whether or not they are doing so for financial gain. Apparently the House of Commons majority “considers that the offence of facilitating the entry of an asylum seeker into the United Kingdom should be capable of prosecution whether or not the defendant has a reasonable excuse for doing so.” It’s a chilling formulation.

The Act also enhances the Home Secretary’s power to strip people of their British citizenship without notice if she thinks it is in the public interest. Peers won some additional judicial oversight over this power, but it is yet another Tory policy which risks disproportionately affecting ethnic minorities.

Speaking of which, the Elections Act also passed this week, which emanated from what the UK government are still pleased to describe as the “Department for Levelling Up.” In 2020, the Scottish Parliament reformed election law for Holyrood and local government elections. It extended the franchise to anyone over 16 years of age with a legal right to live in Scotland. This meant people with refugee status or people living in Scotland from third countries like the United States or China are now able to participate in local and Scottish parliamentary elections, alongside EU and Commonwealth citizens. 

So how does the UK reform compare? Well, Michael Gove’s new rules mean British ex-pats won’t lose their right to vote here after 15 years on the Costa Del Sol – which is something I guess – but his proposals will continue to lock non-citizens living in the UK out of the Parliamentary franchise.  But the Bill’s flagship reform – the introduction of photo ID for voting – is naked gerrymandering.

 There is scant evidence that electoral fraud is a problem in the UK. Just 34 cases were detected at the last Westminster election of the 47,500,000 ballots cast. But to “protect the integrity of democracy in the UK,” the new Elections Act introduces a requirement to produce photo ID at the polling station to be issued with your ballot paper. For Scottish voters, it means you will need to produce your passport or driving licence to vote in Westminster elections. In England, it will apply to every local and national poll.

On the face of it, this proposal might not strike you as unreasonable. You have to produce photo ID to pick up a parcel from the post office. You need to prove your credentials to get in and out of the country. So why not subject the right to vote to the same precautions? The UK government’s line is that “voters across the UK will benefit from greater protection against election fraud” – but it is difficult to escape the conclusion the Tories are seizing the opportunity to make it harder for constituencies which have not traditionally supported them to cast valid ballots. In America, they call this “voter suppression” – and the Republican Party are now past masters at dressing up their ethnic animus as high-minded concern with electoral integrity.

The core voter suppression strategy is simply to make it harder to vote, and to impose additional administrative and time costs on voting in a way which structurally disadvantages your opponents. Think of it this way. Who is unlikely to have photographic ID, a passport say, or a driver’s licence? UK social data shows that wealthier people will have a clutch of different documents to hand over on polling day – but that poorer Britons are much more likely not to own valid ID. This month, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimate that something like 1.7 million low-income Britons will be affected by the policy.

The UK government ploughed on anyway, saying that folk without documents can apply to their council for a voter’s card – just another bureaucratic hurdle to overcome. My favourite detail from the Act is its explicit commitment age discrimination. It says that older people’s bus and railcards will be valid ID, but a young person’s railcard wouldn’t.

And we haven’t begun to contemplate the way officious polling station officials will enforce these new restrictions. When the proposals were piloted in 2019, 1,968 people were turned away from polling stations for not having the correct ID. Of these, 740 did not return to vote. The policy is yet another manifestation of the pettily bureaucratic culture of suspicion – the Home Office philosophy, if you like – which runs through this government like Brighton rock.

The Elections Act also includes measures to clip the wings of the Electoral Commission. The Commission has been a bête noire of Brexity Tories since it dished out fines to the Vote Leave campaign, having discovered the campaign had discreetly funnelled £675,000 to third party groups to circumvent campaign spending caps. Boris Johnson also has reasons to resent the Commission’s attentions. They investigated his party over the who footed the bill for Boris Johnson’s Downing Street refurbishment – ultimately fining the Tories £17,800 for failing fully to disclose the donations.

The idea the Electoral Commission is an organisation committed to take out vigilante hits against the government and its supporters is pure fantasy, but one which seems to have a significant proportion of the parliamentary Conservative Party in its grip. The truth is – the Commission is a paper tiger, with limited resources to enforce electoral law against even the obvious wrongdoers who try to pull a fast one on their election expenses. What are the chances of them really catching up with the fungal growth of online advertising and dark money ads, with cash flowing through obscure legal entities from uncertain sources? Minimal I’d say. But under the new rules, UK ministers will be entitled to give directions to the Commission on strategy and policy and hold them to account for compliance.

On policing, immigration and asylum, on free and fair elections – each of these Bills is a little essay on the toxic instincts of Tory Britain. Each of these Bills shows us what is really means for powers to be reserved to Westminster. Each of these Bills show us what kind of country this UK government wants to create. I don’t know about you, but I want no part of it.

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