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Barrister Sam Fowles: Beware the authoritarians stealing our democracy

Sam Fowles is a barrister and author of Overruled, a new book exploring the erosion of democracy and descent into authoritarianism around the world. So what can we do to stop it?

Illustration: Sunak and Truss whackamole

Illustration: Chris Bentham

Barrister Sam Fowles is the author of Overruled, offering an inside look at the British legal system.

We are in the midst of simultaneous crises: climate change and the cost of living. Yet our prime ministerial candidates barely seem interested. Why? The answer goes back to the Second World War. In the 1940s politicians across Europe worked together to draft the European Convention on Human Rights.

For the first time in history, human dignity was protected in law. The drafters knew Nazism was not the only threat to human rights. Just a few years earlier, British soldiers had massacred unarmed civilians in India and Ireland. Other European states had equally problematic pasts. Oppression takes many forms. It can only be avoided by empowering ordinary people. 

Today’s candidates for prime minister want to leave the Convention. The rights that Winston Churchill and his colleagues thought essential are incompatible with government policy. This includes rounding up a hated minority (refugees) and deporting them to camps in countries thousands of miles away. But Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak’s enthusiasm for persecution is just the tip of the iceberg. The UK has been sliding towards authoritarianism for years.   

Authoritarians don’t always wear jackboots. Democracy is based on the premise that all citizens are equal in dignity. Authoritarians reject that premise. They seek to dominate politics, society, culture, education, and reach into the most private parts of our lives, consolidating power in the hands of a small elite. For most of our history the UK wasn’t a democracy. Even now our electoral system gives the votes of (generally) wealthy shire dwellers greater weight than (generally) poorer urbanites. More than half of our legislators are appointed for life by the prime minister of the day. The foundations for auto-cracy have always been there. 

Truss and Sunak are increasingly enthusiastic authoritarians. Truss proposes to “crack down” on opposition politicians, workers asking for a pay rise and civil servants who are not ideologically pure. Sunak promises to enshrine discrimination against trans people in law and treat “vilification of the UK” as extremism. But authoritarian creep is not confined to the right. Two years ago Keir Starmer instructed Labour MPs to abstain in the vote regarding the government’s Covert Human Intelligence Sources Act, empowering ministers to direct the “rape, torture, murder and assault of those they consider a risk to national security”, even if they are not suspected of a specific crime. (His instruction led to a series of
high-rank resignations.)  

As a constitutional lawyer, I have seen first-hand how precarious our democracy has become. The cases I’ve helped argue catalogue a descent into autocracy: the 2019 prorogation of Parliament to prevent MPs blocking a “no-deal” Brexit; suppression of evidence about interference in our elections. My book, Overruled: Confronting our Vanishing Democracy in 8 Cases, tells the story of how powerful individuals  have eroded our democracy for decades.  

Successive governments have consolidated power within a small cadre of ministers. The unwritten rules, which once preserved the independence of Parliament, have collapsed. Ministers now control MPs rather than the other way around. Cuts to legal aid make it practically impossible for any but the very rich to challenge the government. In June an inquiry, to which I acted as counsel, determined that the government has put improper pressure on judges. Most forms of public protest are now banned. Brexit has ensured that treaty negotiations, which used to be scrutinised by elected representatives in the European Parliament, are now conducted by unelected Whitehall officials.  

Overruled by Sam Fowles
Overruled: Confronting Our Vanishing Democracy in 8 Cases by Sam Fowles is out now (OneWorld, £16.99)

Democracy is about culture as much as politics. But centres of free thought like the arts have been stripped of funding. Television channels are pressured to cancel shows that criticise the government. Meanwhile the humanities, which centre on the questioning of political orthodoxy, are all but excised from school and university curricula. The media, both traditional and social, is largely controlled by a tiny cadre of billionaires. Unless we can stem the UK’s slide towards authoritarianism, our leaders won’t address problems that matter to ordinary people – because ordinary people won’t matter to them.  

The only way to ensure government tackles crises like the cost of living is through democratic reform. That’s why I founded the Institute for Constitutional and Democratic Research, to bring the country’s best minds to the challenge of re-democratisation. My book makes some initial proposals but it’s a conversation that must happen across society, not just between lawyers and politicians. Our leaders won’t care about citizens until citizens demand to be taken seriously.  

Sam Fowles is a barrister specialising in public and constitutional law.

You can buy Overruled from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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