Planned new bills were revealed in The Queen’s Speech last week. They are rather concerning, mostly because some appear to seek to curtail certain freedoms that we are accustomed to in the UK: things that are usually given in democratic countries. Apparently, the proposals are going to ‘strengthen democracy’, but that’s only really going to work in a 1984 sense of the word.
There are plans for us to need photographic identification to vote in future elections. If there was voter fraud in the country, we can accept that this could be necessary, but even in that case it would need to be carefully managed. However, it really isn’t necessary as voter fraud here doesn’t tend to happen. In 2020, there were just 15 allegations of electoral fraud, with twelve of those either being dismissed or resolved (Electoral Commission). In the last seven years, there have been only three convictions of impersonation at a polling station (Guardian).
Photo ID usually comes in the form of a passport or driving licence. The problem is that some people who are young or on a low income might not have a passport and driving license because they cannot afford foreign travel and the expense of running a car. Older people, too, become marginalised: they may no longer drive, or have no use for a passport. Why should they lose their right to vote?
It is widely known that Johnson has always portrayed himself as a libertarian, which is, someone who values freedom and minimal interference from the state in people’s lives. Indeed, in 2004 when writing for The Daily Telegraph, Johnson said:
“If I am ever asked, on the streets of London, or in any other venue, public or private, to produce my ID card as evidence that I am who I say I am, when I have done nothing wrong and when I am simply ambling along and breathing God’s fresh air like any other freeborn Englishman, then I will take that card out of my wallet and physically eat it in the presence of whatever emanation of the state has demanded that I produce it.” (Quoted in New Statesman).
So, how come he’s changed his tune now?
Anecdotally, there has been the suggestion that photo ID will conveniently have a bigger impact upon non-traditional Tory voters: the poor, the young and people of colour. The worry is that it is intended to deter, or more broadly, eliminate some people from voting, especially ones not inclined to vote Conservative. With voter turnout so low for elections as they are, the one thing we don’t need is a barrier which prevents people from voting.
There is another significant problem here, in that photographic ID will impinge upon all of us and our civil liberties, as it’s yet another step down the dark, authoritarian road we’ve been on for a while: what if we are told we need photo ID on us at all times, ‘just to protect democracy’? What if we are told we need to carry it at all times, or need to have it on display at all times in the future, ‘just to protect democracy’? Where will these unnecessary demands and expectations end?
Another concerning proposal is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. This bill will give the police more powers to break up protests, including and not limited to: imposing specific measures on routes for marches, imposing a start and end time (thus limiting spontaneous protests), set noise limits, break-up protests that become a nuisance to anyone observing them, and apply all of these rules to a protest of just one person (BBC).
All of the proposals within the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill are fairly broad and subjective – you can imagine how easily they could be abused by those in power, ‘We’re closing down your protest because someone thinks you’re too noisy/being a nuisance.’ How noisy is ‘too noisy’? What exactly constitutes a ‘nuisance’?
The French philosopher, Michel Foucault, theorised about the ‘society of surveillance’ whereby surveillance is used to coercively control, regulate and discipline people in order to make them internalise and conform to a certain set of societal norms, without the use of physical force. What we are witnessing here on our very own little island is a subtle but concerted way of Boris Johnson and the Conservative government exerting power. It is a power-grab that Brexit has made possible, as there is no more European Court of Human Rights which could limit some of these draconian proposals.
If our thoughts are guided by Foucault’s theory, then of course, the ultimate goal of the government is to get people into such a panic about what they are allowed and not allowed to do, that they end up regulating themselves by doing nothing; metaphorically paralysed and therefore easily controlled by the worry of falling foul of what these vague laws might mean for them.
Foucault also asserted that wherever there is power, there is resistance.
~ L&A 18.5.21 ~
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, (Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan), Verso, 1975.