LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, bruised by scandal and faced with an alarming rise in coronavirus cases, is refusing to change course. “We have a chance,” he bullishly proclaimed on Jan. 4, “to ride out this Omicron wave without shutting down our country once again.”
Public health experts may disagree. Yet Mr. Johnson is at least being consistent — not only with his conduct throughout the pandemic, where lockdowns were a last resort and restrictions were to be shelved as soon as possible, but also with the political platform that elevated him to the highest office. After all, this is the man who rose to power — bringing about Brexit in the process — on the promise to restore “freedom” and “take back control.”
Undeterred by the pandemic, Mr. Johnson has been quietly pursuing that agenda. But instead of reforming the country’s creaking democracy and shoring up Britons’ rights, he and his lieutenants are doing the opposite: seizing control for themselves and stripping away the freedoms of others. A raft of bills likely to pass this year will set Britain, self-professed beacon of democracy, on the road to autocracy. Once in place, the legislation will be very hard to shift. For Mr. Johnson, it amounts to a concerted power grab.
It’s also an answer. Mr. Johnson is a political chameleon, and his true ideological bent — liberal? one-nation Tory? English nationalist? — has long been a subject of speculation. Now he has, beyond any doubt, revealed who he really is: a brattish authoritarian who puts his personal whims above anything else. And whatever his future, Britain will be remade in his image.
Amid the chaos wrought by the pandemic, Brexit tumult and increasing questions about the stability of Mr. Johnson’s individual position, the full scale of the impending assault on civil liberties has — understandably — not yet come into focus for much of the British public. The list of legislation is long and deliberately overwhelming. But pieced together, the picture is bleakly repressive.
First, there’s the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, a draconian and broad piece of legislation that effectively bans protest in England and Wales. The police would be equipped to shut down demonstrations that create “serious disruption.” Those who break this condition, which could be done just by making noise, would face prison sentences or hefty fines. Combined with other measures, such as outlawing traditional direct-action tactics like “locking on,” the bill could eventually make it almost impossible to attend a demonstration without committing an offense.
Yet it goes beyond protest, putting minority groups in the cross hairs. New trespass provisions, which make “residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle” a criminal offense, would essentially erase nomadic Gypsy, Roma and Traveler communities from public life. And the expansion of police powers would not only allow officers widespread access to private education and health care records, but also pave the way for suspicionless stop and search. Ethnic minority communities, disproportionately singled out for police attention, are likely to bear the brunt of such overreach.
Similarly punitive is the Nationality and Borders Bill. Stiffening Britain’s already hawkish immigration policy, it seeks to criminalize asylum seekers who take unsanctioned routes: Refugees who arrive by boat, for example, could face up to four years in prison, regardless of the validity of their claim for safe haven. And if claimants escape traditional jail, they would be kept in concentration camp-style housing and offshore processing centers, sites long denounced by human rights activists.
Not even British citizens are safe from the dragnet. A provision slipped into the bill in November by its architect, the home secretary, Priti Patel, would endow the government with the power to remove British citizenship from dual nationals without notice. Those singled out might not even have recourse to the law: Proposed reform of the Human Rights Act would make it easier for the government to deport foreign nationals and deny them claims of mistreatment.
Such draconian measures, in time, are sure to be contested. But the government has a plan for that: draining the life blood from democracy. There’s the Elections Bill, which — alongside potentially disenfranchising millions through the introduction of mandatory voter ID — aims to furnish the government with new powers over the independent elections regulator, sealing up the political process. Unless substantially amended, the bill’s consequences could be constitutionally far-reaching.
The urge to centralize power also underlies the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which would enable Mr. Johnson and his ministers to overrule judicial review findings that challenge their agenda. The Online Safety Bill, ostensibly designed to regulate Big Tech, is yet to be introduced to Parliament. But many free-speech advocates fear that it could be used to silence critics on social media, censoring those reporting details Mr. Johnson’s government would rather keep from public view. No more pesky judges or overly inquisitive journalists interfering with government business.
It’s a truism that nations sleepwalk into tyranny, and England — the most politically powerful of the nations comprising Britain — is no exception. For decades it has possessed all the necessary ingredients: ever more spiteful nationalism, press fealty sold to the highest bidder and a fervent, misplaced belief that authoritarianism could never set up shop here, because we simply wouldn’t let it.
In this event, though, concerted opposition to Mr. Johnson’s plans has not materialized. Establishment politics have been no match for the determination of Mr. Johnson and his allies: A hefty and largely supportive Conservative majority means that even when the Labour Party has decided to oppose legislation, its votes have barely counted. And despite valiant efforts by a coalition of grass-roots groups and the initial groundswell of the “Kill the Bill” protests, a mass movement opposing these bills has failed to come together. Instead, a miasma of grim inevitability has settled in.
That’s dangerous, not least because this authoritarian assault is so comprehensive that once settled as law, it will prove very tricky to unpick. Like many leaders who seek to transcend the constraints of democracy, Mr. Johnson may not foresee a future where he isn’t the one calling the shots. But the miserable shadow his power grab will cast over Britain is likely to last far longer than the tenure of the would-be “world king” himself.
His place in the history books, however, is secured. He will forever be the libertine whose pursuit of personal freedom and “control” saw his countrymen robbed of theirs.
Where did Donald Trump come from? Where is the GOP going? Should the whole thing be burned down? A lot had to go wrong before we got a President Trump. This fact, once broadly acknowledged, has gotten lost, as if a lot of people want it forgotten.
Mr. Trump’s election came from two unwon wars, which constituted a historic foreign-policy catastrophe, and the Great Recession, which those in power, distracted by their mighty missions, didn’t see coming until it arrived with all its wreckage. He came from the decadeslong refusal of both parties’ leadership to respect and respond to Americans’ anxieties, from left and right, about illegal immigration. He came from bad policy and bad stands on crucial issues.
He came from the growing realization of on-the-ground Americans that neither party seemed to feel any particular affiliation with or loyalty to them, that both considered them lumpen bases to be managed and manipulated. He came from the great and increasing social and cultural distance between the movers and talkers of the national GOP, its strategists, operatives, thinkers, pundits and party professionals, and the party’s base. He came from algorithms that deliberately excite, divide and addict, and from lawmakers who came to see that all they had to do to endure was talk, not legislate, because legislating involves compromise and, in an era grown polar and primitive, compromise is for quislings.
He came from a spirit of frustration among a sizable segment of the electorate that, in time, became something like a spirit of nihilism. It will be a long time repairing that, and no one is sure how to.
And here, in that perfect storm, was Mr. Trump’s simple, momentary genius. He declared for president as a branding exercise and went out and said applause lines, and when the crowd cheered, he decided “This is my program,” and when it didn’t cheer, he thought, “Huh, that is not my program.” Some of it was from his gut, but most of it was that casual. After the election a former high official told me he observed it all from the side of the stage. This week the official said that after a rally, on the plane home, all Mr. Trump and Jared Kushner would talk about was the reaction. “Did you see how they responded to that?”
The base, with its cheers, said they weren’t for cutting entitlement benefits. They were still suffering from the effects of 2008, and other things. They weren’t for open borders or for more foreign fighting. They were for the guy who said he hated the elites as much as they did.
The past four years have produced a different kind of disaster, one often described in this space. The past six months Mr. Trump came up against his own perfect storm, one he could neither exploit nor talk his way past: a pandemic, an economic contraction that will likely produce a lengthy recession, and prolonged, sometimes violent national street protests. If the polls can be trusted, he is on the verge of losing the presidency.
Now various of his foes, in or formerly of his party, want to burn the whole thing down—level the party, salt the earth where it stood, remove Republican senators, replace them with Democrats.
This strikes me as another form of nihilism. It’s bloody-minded and not fully responsible for three reasons.
First, it’s true that the two-party system is a mess and a great daily frustration. But in the end, together and in spite of themselves, both parties still function as a force for unity in that when an election comes, whatever your disparate stands, you have to choose whether you align more with Party A or Party B. This encourages coalitions and compromise. It won’t work if there are four parties or six; things will splinter, the system buckle. The Democratic Party needs the Republican Party, needs it to restrain its excesses and repair what it does that proves injurious. The Republicans need the Democrats, too, for the same reasons.
Second, if the Republicans lose the presidency, the House and the Senate in November, the rising progressives of the Democratic Party will be emboldened and present a bill for collection. They’ll push hard for what they want. This will create a runaway train that will encourage bad policy that will damage the nation. Republicans and conservatives used to worry about that kind of thing.
Third, Donald Trump is burning himself down. Has no one noticed?
When the Trump experience is over, the Republican Party will have to be rebuilt. It will have to begin with tens of millions of voters who previously supported Mr. Trump. It will have to decide where it stands, its reason for being. It won’t be enough to repeat old mantras or formulations from 1970 to 2000. It’s 2020. We’re a different country.
A lot is going to have to be rethought. Simple human persuasion will be key.
Rebuilding doesn’t start with fires, purges and lists of those you want ejected from the party.
Many if not most of those calling for burning the whole thing down are labeled “Never Trump,” and a lot of them are characterologically quick to point the finger of blame. They’re aiming at Trump supporters in Congress. Some of those lawmakers have abandoned long-held principles to show obeisance to the president and his supporters. Some, as you know if you watched the supposed grilling of tech titans this week, are just idiots.
But Never Trumpers never seem to judge themselves. Many of them, when they were profiting through past identities as Republicans or conservatives, supported or gave strategic cover to the wars that were such a calamity, and attacked those who dissented. Many showed no respect to those anxious about illegal immigration and privately, sometimes publicly, denounced them as bigots. Never Trumpers eloquently decry the vulgarization of politics and say the presidency is lowered by a man like Mr. Trump, and it is. But they invented Sarah Palin and unrelentingly attacked her critics. They often did it in the name of party loyalty.
Some Never Trumpers helped create the conditions that created President Trump. What would be helpful from them now is not pyromaniac fantasies but constructive modesty, even humility.
The party’s national leaders and strategists don’t have a lot to be proud of the past few decades. The future of the party will probably bubble up from the states.
But it matters that the past six months Mr. Trump has been very publicly doing himself in, mismanaging his crises—setting himself on fire. As long as that’s clear, his supporters won’t be able to say, if he loses, that he was a champion of the people who was betrayed by the party elites, the Never Trumpers and the deep state: “He didn’t lose, he was the victim of treachery.”
Both parties have weaknesses. Liberals enjoy claiming progress that can somehow never quite be quantified. Conservatives like the theme of betrayal.
It will be unhelpful for Republicans, and bad for the country, if that’s the background music of the party the next 10 years.
This is what real “decolonization” should look like.
“Decolonize this place!” “Decolonize the university!” “Decolonize the museum!”
In the past few years, decolonization has gained new political currency — inside the borders of the old colonial powers. Indigenous movements have reclaimed the mantle of “decolonization” in protests like those at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access pipeline. Students from South Africa to Britain have marched under its banner to challenge Eurocentric curriculums. Museums such as the Natural History Museum in New York and the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels have been compelled to confront their representation of colonized African and Indigenous peoples.
But what is “decolonization?” What the word means and what it requires have been contested for a century.
After World War I, European colonial administrators viewed decolonization as the process in which they would allow their imperial charges to graduate to independence by modeling themselves on European states. But in the mid-20th century, anticolonial activists and intellectuals demanded immediate independence and refused to model their societies on the terms set by imperialists. Between 1945 and 1975, as struggles for independence were won in Africa and Asia, United Nations membership grew from 51 to 144 countries. In that period, decolonization was primarily political and economic.
As more colonies gained independence, however, cultural decolonization became more significant. European political and economic domination coincided with a Eurocentrism that valorized European civilization as the apex of human achievement. Indigenous cultural traditions and systems of knowledge were denigrated as backward and uncivilized. The colonized were treated as people without history. The struggle against this has been especially central in settler colonies in which the displacement of Indigenous institutions was most violent.
South Africa, where a reckoning with the persistence of the settler regime has gripped national politics, reignited the latest calls for decolonization in 2015 with the #RhodesMustFall movement. Students at the University of Cape Town targeted the statue of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, but saw its removal as only the opening act in a wider struggle to bring white supremacy to an end. Under the banners of “more than a statue” and “decolonize the university,” students called for social and economic transformation to undo the racial hierarchies that persist in post-apartheid South Africa, free university tuition and an Africa-centered curriculum.
Now, partly riding the global surge of Black Lives Matter mobilizations, calls for decolonization have swept Europe’s former imperial metropoles. In Bristol, England, last month, protesters tore down the statue of Edward Colston, the director of the Royal African Company, which dominated the African slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. Across Belgium, protesters have focused on statues of King Leopold II, who ruled the Congo Free State (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) as his personal property from 1885 to 1908. King Phillipe II of Belgium recently expressed “regret” for his ancestor’s brutal regime, which caused the death of 10 million people.
Colonialism, the protesters insist, did not just shape the global south. It made Europe and the modern world. Profits from the slave trade fueled the rise of port cities like Bristol, Liverpool and London while the Atlantic economy that slavery created helped to fuel the Industrial Revolution. King Leopold amassed a fortune of well over $1.1 billion in today’s dollars from Congo. His vision of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, which opened in 1910 soon after his death, reproduced a narrative of African backwardness while obscuring the violent exploitation of the Congolese.
By tearing down or defacing these statues, protesters burst open the national narrative and force a confrontation with the history of empire. This is a decolonization of the sensory world, the illusion that empire was somewhere else.
Laying a flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo on the statue of King Leopold or hauling the Colston statue into the sea, where thousands of enslaved women and men lost their lives, tears apart the blinders and boundaries between past and present, metropole and colony. Insisting on the presence of the past, the protests reveal Europe’s romance with itself, unmasking its political and economic achievements as the product of enslavement and colonial exploitation.
This historical reckoning is only the first step. Acknowledging that colonial history shapes the current inequalities and hierarchies that structure the world sets the stage for the next one: reparations and restitution.
Reparations is not a single act. The Caribbean Community has already demanded reparations for slavery and Indigenous genocide from Britain, France, Spain and the Netherlands. Although there is little movement at the level of states, the University of Glasgow agreed last year to pay 20 million pounds (about $25 million) for development research with the University of the West Indies in recognition of how the university benefited from the profits of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The Herero of Namibia, who suffered the 20th century’s first genocide at the hands of Germany, have also called for redress. Their efforts follow the successful bid for reparations by the Mau Mau of Kenya, many of whom were tortured during Britain’s brutal suppression of their independence movement in the mid-20th century. In other contexts, activists have focused on the return of the looted artifacts that fill Europe’s great museums. France, for instance, has committed to returning 26 stolen artworks to Benin.
But reparations should not focus only on the former colonies and their relations with European states. Colonialism lives on inside Europe’s borders, and Europe itself must be decolonized. Black Europeans experience discrimination in employment and education, are racially profiled and are subject to racist violence at the hands of the police and fellow citizens.
The European Union recently avowed that “Black lives matter,” but its policies deprive Black people of equal rights, imprison them in camps and drown them in the Mediterranean. Overseas imperialism was once believed to be a political necessity for European states; today, anti-immigrant politics plays the same role. In either case, European policymakers disavow responsibility for the misery they bring about.
Repair and redress is owed as much to Black Europeans as it is to former colonial states. It would mean treating Black Europeans, and all migrants from the colonized world, as equal participants in European society. And this form of reparation cannot be perceived as one-off transactions. Instead, it must be the basis of building an inclusive and egalitarian Europe.
This is no easy task and will not happen overnight. But we should remember that just 80 years ago, colonial rule appeared to be a stable and almost permanent feature of international politics. In just three decades, anticolonial nationalists had transformed the world’s map.
The struggle for racial equality in Europe is a fight for a truly postcolonial condition, and its creation is implied by each dethroned statue. If colonialism made the modern world, decolonization cannot be complete until the world — including Europe — is remade.
I have a feeling, in a few years people are going to be doing what they always do when the economy tanks. They will be blaming immigrants and poor people
Immigrants and poor people will always get the blame when capitalism fails.
Clip from the movie The Big Short.