RECENT NEWS HEADLINES offer an alarming glimpse of how the UK is run. This includes government ministers repeatedly bending and possibly breaking rules, overriding checks and balances and pushing through policies which inflict huge harm, especially on the most vulnerable.
Extraordinary developments include the Cabinet Office contesting an instruction by Dame Heather Hallett, the head of the official Covid inquiry, that Boris Johnson’s diaries and WhatsApp messages be handed over in their original form, which may end up in court. Worse still, many lawmakers seem most angry at those bringing concerns to light, with echoes of the situation in the USA. particularly among those who still admire Donald Trump.
There have been media accounts of allegations about Boris Johnson, a former prime minister, and Suella Braverman, the home secretary, in addition to previous scandals. Supposedly, he held social gatherings in addition to those previously investigated, breaking Covid prevention laws, and she asked civil servants about special arrangements when caught speeding and wrongly failed to declare her links to Rwandan government lawyers.
Such matters may seem trivial compared to drastic policies which inflict misery and harm on people in Britain and beyond. Extra hardship, humiliation and worse have been inflicted on workers hit by the cost-of-living crisis and taking industrial action, the unwaged, children and adults unable to get timely NHS care, peaceful protesters, asylum-seekers, trafficking victims and many others. Those in charge appear largely to have abandoned even the pretence of concern for the welfare of every citizen, let alone anyone else. For the cabinet member responsible for keeping all communities safe and secure to inflame hostility amidst violent disorder, or, instead of promoting reasoned discussion about the complexities of equality for different groups, direct crude jibes against one of these, is remarkable.
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and other leaders of faith groups or voluntary organisations, are among those who have spoken out about one or other of the measures damaging people in vulnerable situations and society overall. Yet senior figures in the ruling Conservative party are pressing ahead – and in some cases the main Labour party opposition frontbenchers are ramping up the rhetoric.
The latest targets include legal ‘migrants’, such as international students due mostly to leave after their courses finish, who by some estimates contribute £42 billion a year to the UK economy. They will soon mostly be banned from being accompanied by dependants during their stay, which will deter many from studying here. People doing vital, sometimes seasonal, jobs are another. If fruit and vegetables are left to rot in the fields or those needing social care so as to meet the most basic needs such as eating, drinking and going to the toilet cannot get it, top politicians and those in their social circles may be spared the worst consequences but ordinary people here will not. Glasgow and other researchers previously estimated that austerity led to a third of a million extra deaths in just seven or eight years. Against this background, speeding and partying might seem minor matters.
Certainly politicians, like the rest of the population, are prone to human weakness, while cover-ups are not new. Yet the notion that those at the top should be above the law, and indeed that it is obstructive or treacherous to hold them to account, is alarming and makes it easier for a range of abuses to go unchecked.
When a former business secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg, appears to admit gerrymandering so as to affect election results, and the current one, Kemi Badenoch, is challenged by the speaker of the House of Commons for her barely-concealed contempt for Parliament, this points to a weakening of democratic norms. Though, as it is, numerous people have very limited control over many aspects of their lives, things may be getting a great deal worse. The apparent unwillingness of the current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, to correct misinformation helps to normalise an environment in which the Department or Work and Pensions misleads or hides evidence from public bodies and those investigating deadly failings, while future plans threaten the wellbeing and, in some cases, survival, of many others in future.
It is important to keep drawing attention to the most outrageous actions (or failures to act) by those who are, or would like to be, in charge. Yet wider issues of democracy and human rights also deserve to be tackled, while some basic freedoms still exist.
© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016) and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (DLT, 2017). Her latest articles can be found here. Archived articles (pre-2020) are here.