The Dark Legacy of Boris Johnson: Authoritarian Populism and Creeping Ethno-Nationalism
Featured image by Lina Kivaka (Courtesy of Pexels)
By John Harriss
Boris Johnson, sometime prime minister of the United Kingdom, offers the world a smiling, genial presence. Part of the command that he has exercised over the electorate in Britain stems from the positive attitude that he projects while his buffoonery plays well with many. Hard though it may be to believe of a prime minister who showed such little administrative competence, beneath the froth of his performance, Johnson – abetted by his Home Secretary, Priti Patel – has brought about a centralisation of state power that bodes ill for democracy. At the same time, he and Patel – though herself the child of immigrants - have encouraged the racially discriminatory and exclusionary ethno-nationalism that has long been latent in English society and that serves so well to win populist consent.
Johnson presents a persona very different from that of Margaret Thatcher, but for all his jokey incompetence he has renewed the project of the radical right that Stuart Hall dissected in the 1970s. Under Thatcher’s premiership the British state was described by Hall in terms of authoritarian populism. This he described as “an exceptional form of the capitalist state – which, unlike classical fascism, has retained most of the formal representative institutions in place and which at the same time has been able to construct around itself an active popular consent”. A series of ‘moral panics’ in the 1970s in Britain, having to do with race, law and order, and permissiveness, “served to win for the authoritarian closure the gloss of populist consent”. Similarly, panic over the threat that immigration was held to pose to ‘our way of life’, and resistance to what was described as ‘wokeism’, led many Britons to support Brexit and the call ‘to take back control’ - and subsequently to support the Johnson administration because it promised to do this.
Like other contemporary populist leaders he sought to enhance his own executive power, flouting the rule of law, while vaunting his credentials as a patriotic nationalist.
Johnson, happy exponent of a cult of personality, always sought to project himself in a presidential role. Even as an unprecedented number of ministers resigned from his government, he claimed the authority of ‘14 million voters’ for remaining in office. Implicitly, he represented himself as the embodiment of the will of the ‘the people’ against the political elite even of his own party. Like other contemporary populist leaders he sought to enhance his own executive power, flouting the rule of law, while vaunting his credentials as a patriotic nationalist. In the process, the status and interests of ethnic minorities who have long been settled in the United Kingdom – never mind asylum seekers - have been sacrificed.
Four Acts of Parliament that have passed into law this year (all were enacted on April 28, 2022): the Nationality and Borders Act; the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act; the Judicial Review and Courts Act; and the Elections Act, together highlight the subtle erosion of liberal democratic norms. Each one of these was controversial, and together they threatened, according to the Editorial Board of the Financial Times (FT) – a determinedly independent but hardly radical left-wing newspaper – the “attrition of civil liberties by a government that displays contempt for established checks and balances on power”. Halima Begum, the Chief Executive of The Runnymede Trust, a long-established think-tank working on matters of race equality, wrote of the policing, elections and borders bills, that they constituted a triple-whammy for ethnic minority communities in Britain, risking the deepening of the social disparities that these groups suffer.
Boris Johnson is a man who finds it very hard to accept that rules that apply to everyone else should apply to him. Some of the motivation for the legislation to which I am referring appears to have come from his determination to kick back against the law after he had been prevented from getting his way. An example of this is his response to the ruling of the Supreme Court that the proroguing (or the suspension) of parliament that he had ordered in 2019, shortly after taking office as prime minister – a move suspected as being driven by the aim of preventing parliament from legislating against a ‘No-Deal’ Brexit – was both justiciable and illegal. Johnson’s response was to seek to limit the powers of the judiciary to rule on parliamentary matters. It resulted eventually in the Judicial Review and Courts Act.
The Editorial Board of the FT commented on this legislation while it was being debated, “The ability to hold an elected government to account is a central pillar of a democracy. Sadly, the UK government seems determined to erode it. Its latest attempt to evade scrutiny involves proposals to enfeeble legal challenges against government decision-making”. In a letter to the same newspaper the President of the Law Society of England and Wales said, with reference to the same bill, that “respect for the rule of law in this country is declining”. Another instance of Johnson’s kicking against a democratic institution that had got in his way is in the Elections Act which includes measures limiting the powers of the Electoral Commission to initiate prosecutions for electoral abuses. Proposals for these measures came after the Commission had launched an investigation into the funding of the (lavish) refurbishment of Johnson’s flat at Number 10, Downing Street (the Prime Minister’s residence in London).
Boris Johnson is a man who finds it very hard to accept that rules that apply to everyone else should apply to him.
The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 establishes in law a two-tier system of asylum. Those who arrive in the UK through a pre-agreed legal route such as a resettlement or family reunification scheme are entitled to full protection. Those who arrive through an irregular means – as very many do, necessarily, because coming from a war zone or fleeing from an oppressive regime or a failing state, they are unable to access such a ‘pre-agreed legal route’ – are not. The Law Society of England and Wales in its commentary, says: “We have significant concerns that a number of the Act’s measures are, or are likely to be, incompatible with international law (and) to damage access to justice. In particular, we’re concerned that penalising refugees who arrive in the UK via an irregular means is incompatible with the Refugee Convention 1951….We also believe the changes to procedures and appeals processes remove important safeguards and unfairly disadvantage those seeking asylum”.
The Act also includes what the FT described as “a cynical late addition”, in (what is now) Clause 10, which exempts the Home Office from having to give written notice to those from whom it intends to strip citizenship, if it is deemed to be against national security or the public interest generally or is simply impractical to do so. Introducing this measure late in the process of drawing up the legislation was held by the FT to be “no way to introduce measures that would deprive people - disproportionately of colour – of the practical means to fight deprivation of citizenship”. The power of the government to deprive people of their citizenship is an old one, but one that was never used until this century. The 2022 Act reinforces the second-class citizenship of a very substantial fraction of the British population – at least six million people, including large numbers of South Asian origin, for instance – who can be considered to have a claim on citizenship elsewhere. Such people were already in a different position from other citizens of the UK before the passage of the new Act, but at least they had a right to be informed of attempts to revoke their citizenship.
The Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act [PCSC] was described by a commentator who had served an earlier Conservative administration as “a monstrous jumble of laws that wouldn’t look out of place in Soviet Russia”. It provides the Home Secretary with wide powers to quash and criminalise protest, leading a member of the House of Lords to describe the legislation as “draconian laws that are part of a wider assault on our democracy”. These parts of the Act were intended to target, for example, environmental activists such as those of Extinction Rebellion. Even after some measures were dropped as a result of opposition in the House of Lords they have subsequently resurfaced in a new Public Order Bill, introduced in the House of Commons in May 2022 by Priti Patel. As the FT had it, “England should tolerate, not criminalise, protest”, but the PCSC, exactly as the Board feared it would, erodes “freedoms that are the hallmark of a healthy democracy”. Putting together the implications of the Nationalities and Borders Act with those of the PCSC it is easy to understand why members of the ethnic minorities of the UK are fearful.
The British government under Johnson has renewed the authoritarian populism of the Thatcher era, and found popular support for it with implicit or explicit claims to be protecting ‘our way of life’ – displaying xenophobia but with more than a trace of racism.
The Bill that has been enacted as the Judicial Review and Courts Act rang alarm bells for the President of the Law Society, who feared that it would establish “new powers (that) may limit or remove the retrospective effect of a judge’s finding that a government decision was unlawful, so that there would be no redress for the people affected … (which ) … would make life easier for government at the expense of accountability and justice”. This is exactly what the Act does. Decisions or actions of a public body may be found to have been illegal, but they are only stopped from applying in the future. In the words of the Law Society, “any previous uses of the decisions, despite being found unlawful, would be upheld”. Remarkably, the Society expressed only “some concerns” about the implications of this.
A senior Conservative MP, David Davis, who might have become leader of the party in 2005, said of the Bill now brought into law as the Elections Act, that the claim that it will protect our democracy is “nonsense”. Despite strong opposition to the measure, the Act includes a requirement for voters to show photo ID in order to enter a polling booth. This threatens the exclusion of around two million voters – mostly older and working class people and members of ethnic minorities – according to the government’s own data. The measure is a solution in search of a problem, there having been extraordinarily few cases of vote fraud in the United Kingdom – just two convictions, for instance, between 2010 and 2018. The provisions in the Act for parliamentary oversight of the Electoral Commission constitute an assault on its independence, described in an open latter by nine of the ten present commissioners (the odd one out being a Tory) as having no precedent in comparable democracies. The Act expressly removes the possibility for the Commission to bring criminal prosecutions against those who break electoral law.
The four recent Acts of Parliament are not the only legislation to have been proposed by the Johnson administration that reduce democratic accountability and enhance the powers of the executive. Nor are they the only measures that reinforce the division between white, ‘native-born’ citizens and others. The British government under Johnson has renewed the authoritarian populism of the Thatcher era, and found popular support for it with implicit or explicit claims to be protecting ‘our way of life’ – displaying xenophobia but with more than a trace of racism.
This despite the fact that senior ministers in the Johnson cabinet, and contenders to replace him, include men and women from ethnic minorities. One of them, Rishi Sunak, aiming to reinforce his claims to become prime minister, in the final vote among members of the Conservative Party, promised plans, directed against ‘Islamist extremism,’ that include the “vilification of the United Kingdom” in the term’s official definition. The centralisation of state power that is threatened by the new legislation, and the ethno-nationalism that it betrays, are in line with the authoritarian populist nationalism of other contemporary regimes, like those of Viktor Orban in Hungary or of Narendra Modi in India. This is the dark legacy of Boris Johnson that none of those who contended to replace him in the summer of 2022 promised to challenge.
1- Stuart Hall (1979), ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, in S. Davison et al. (eds) Stuart Hall Selected Political Writings (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2017), p. 174.
2- Stuart Hall (1985), ‘Authoritarian Populism: a reply to Jessop et al., New Left Review, 151: 115-124. Though he formulated the concept of ‘authoritarian populism’ a little later, the substance of Hall’s analysis, and his analysis of the moral panices of the 1970s, is found in a book written with colleagues: Policing the Crisis (London: Macmillan, 1978).
3- The character of the Financial Times is the reason why I have chosen to quote from it extensively in this essay, as a source that can be relied upon to reflect a ‘moderate’ viewpoint.
John Harriss is Professor Emeritus of International Studies at Simon Fraser University, and previously taught at the LSE and the University of East Anglia. He has done research in and on India since 1971. Most recent book (with Craig Jeffrey and Trent Brown), India: Continuity and Change in the 21st Century (Polity Press, 2020).