Prime Minister Boris Johnson says a ‘new golden age’ for the UK is in reach, but in fact there’s much to be alarmed about in the new Queen’s Speech, especially the overhaul of security laws.
As Harold Wilson famously remarked, a week is a long time in politics. I wonder how many of those who trooped out in the pouring rain to vote for Boris Johnson only seven days ago might have been experiencing some buyer’s remorse on listening to the Queen’s Speech, which outlined the re-elected government’s new legislative programme.
Yes, of course, Brexit was there. Britain will be leaving on January 31, 2020, without any further ifs and buts. But apart from that? It’s good that for the first time a government has enshrined in legislation the money it’s pledged for the NHS. There’s going to be an extra £33.9bn per year by 2023/4. That sounds quite a lot, but in terms of year-on-year increases in expenditure at 3.4% a year, it’s actually still much lower than the 6% average annual increases under Labour under Blair and Brown. Basically all Johnson is doing is making good some – but not all – of the damage done to NHS funding under Cameron and May.
In fact, you could say that almost all the good stuff in the Queen’s Speech was Johnson trying to put some sticking plaster on the wounds caused by a decade of Tory austerity. Boarded-up British High Streets? BoJo’s cutting retailers’ discount on business rates to 50% – but why wasn’t this done before? Ditto making dangerous terrorists serve their full sentences. A removal of rip-off hospital car parking charges is pledged – but only for those “in greatest need”. How’s that going to work? Johnson says the government is focusing on the “people’s priorities,” but there’s nothing about how Britain’s rail fares – the highest in Europe – are going to be reduced. They go up by another 2.7% in January. Isn’t privatisation wonderful?
As for the bad stuff, well there’s plenty of that. Johnson confirmed plans to go ahead and make photographic ID at polling stations mandatory. Passports cost a pretty penny in the UK nowadays (8,500 pennies for a standard adult one, to be precise), and lots of people don’t have driving licences. So there’s no doubt the move will disadvantage the poor. “Make no mistake – these plans will leave tens of thousands of legitimate voters voiceless,” says the Electoral Reform Society.
Climate change? The government is lifting practical limits on the number of planes which can be accommodated in British airspace. That’s plain daft if you want to go net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Civil liberties are also threatened. The most disturbing aspect of the Queen’s Speech in this regard was the announcement of new laws ostensibly aimed at tackling “hostile activity by foreign states,” but which could easily be used to close down free speech and criminalise law-abiding British citizens who do any work for a country deemed to be a ‘Hostile State’. We are told that ministers are considering introducing a US-style register of ‘foreign agents’, with failure to register a criminal offence, as well as updating the Treason Laws. The background briefing notes to the ‘Espionage Legislation’ section could have been drafted by Senator Joe McCarthy.
The aim, we’re told, is to make “the UK a harder environment for adversaries to operate in”. Note, we are only talking about ‘Hostile State Activity’ and not espionage, sabotage or subversion by all foreign powers. Israel – whose interference in British politics is well-documented (just check out the Al Jazeera documentary The Lobby) – would be exempt from the new laws, but Russia would not. Just to make it clear that it’s countries like Russia which are the target of the planned legislation, the government spells it out in a ‘Key facts’ paragraph: “This work is delivering on a commitment made by the former Prime Minister in the wake of the Salisbury attack”.
The fact that Salisbury is being dragged up again despite the fact that the case is still far from solved (the Skripals have vanished into thin air and the inquest on poor Dawn Sturgess, who we were told died of Novichok poisoning, has been postponed indefinitely) tells us that Johnson’s government won’t be engaging in a rapprochement with Russia any time soon. Instead, we’ll probably get a further ratcheting up in tensions once Brexit is out of the way.
The government also pledges an “Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review,” which it says will be the “deepest review” since the old Cold War. What’s the betting that it will find in favour of a new Cold War and lead to even greater powers for the democratically unaccountable state security services?
The worry is that under the guise of fighting ‘subversion’, ‘extremism’ and other ‘thought crimes’, individuals who simply hold anti-hegemonic views on foreign policy could face prosecution and websites may be closed down. Am I overstating it?
Just one day after last week’s general election, the government’s new antisemitism ‘Tsar’, the former right-wing Labour MP Lord John Mann, tweeted that he will be instigating an investigation in January into the pro-Corbyn left-wing publication The Canary ‘and other websites’. Imagine if Labour had won, and a Corbyn appointee had announced an investigation a day later into right-wing/neocon websites. We’d never have heard the last of it. The government says it is committed to protecting our liberties, but the small print tells a different story.
Neil Clarkis a journalist, writer, broadcaster and blogger. His award winning blog can be found at www.neilclark66.blogspot.com. He tweets on politics and world affairs @NeilClark66
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of CRN