It’s difficult to remember a time when more people have been so engaged in politics. Nearly three quarters of the electorate turned out to vote in the EU referendum this summer, and the result has been the talk of cab journeys, dinner tables, park benches and cafés ever since.
But as interest grows, the government is building ever more barriers to democratic participation.
Over the summer, Justice Secretary Liz Truss reaffirmed the government’s commitment to scrap the Human Rights Act (HRA), replacing it with a ‘British Bill of Rights’ that will look more like a charter of privileges for the ‘deserving’ few. The HRA enshrines in UK law democratic rights like freedom of speech, protest, freedom of association, free elections and a private life – and obliges public bodies to take positive steps to protect them.
Crucially, these rights apply to everyone – no matter their race, gender, sexuality, religion or nationality. Take that universality away, and ministers are free to offer them as rewards for what they decide is good behaviour, and withhold them at a whim. Those who seek to hold the government to account – a fundamental role in any democracy – could see their most effective tool for doing so slip away.
Meanwhile, in the House of Lords, peers are seeing the new ‘Snoopers’ Charter’ (or Draft Investigatory Powers Bill) through its final parliamentary stages. It’s a terrifying behemoth of a bill – nearly 300 incoherent pages of technical jargon designed to bore those concerned with human rights into submission.
Once enacted, it will see the internet connections of everyone in Britain logged for a year. It could compel the likes of Gmail, Facebook and WhatsApp to remove encryption without telling their users. And it would grant police powers to hack phones en masse – perhaps, for example, at protests.
But this is just the start of a government clampdown on freedom of expression in the name of protecting the public from ‘extreme’ views. Britain already has a wealth of legislation restricting speech liable to encourage crime, including terrorism, or cause harassment, alarm or distress.
In this context, all that remains for the government to ban under its forthcoming Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill – which is expected to rely on a disturbingly vague definition of ‘extremism’ – is the legitimate expression of views it deems controversial. With people like Green Co-Leader Caroline Lucas MP and London Assembly Member Siân Berry having been monitored by the Met’s domestic extremism unit, we already have a sense of how widely the ‘extremism’ net can be cast.
A precursor to this roll-out of the government’s counter-extremism strategy is the notorious ‘Prevent’ programme. Since July 2015, teachers, doctors, nurses, police officers, prison officers and local authorities have been tasked with stopping people from being radicalised and drawn into terrorism.
The clumsy and discriminatory Prevent guidance has seen innocent children targeted for everything from asking questions and developing political awareness to drawing pictures and chatting to school friends. It has stirred up division in communities, and there are serious concerns that it breeds a culture at schools in which children are afraid to express themselves.
Rather than preventing poisonous anti-democratic ideas taking root in young minds, heavy-handed approaches like Prevent risk further alienating those at risk – and putting young people off discussion and debate can only have a detrimental effect on their willingness to engage in politics and democracy as they get older.
At Liberty, we want to see participation in conversations about the future of our country broaden to include, not intimidate, young people.
Like the Green Party, we support votes at 16, which would give teenagers who are already allowed to work, marry and join the armed forces the political voice they deserve. As we reassess our national identity in the coming months and years, gaining their perspectives and instilling in them a commitment to democratic participation would benefit us all.
This unique moment in our history is an opportunity to bring our systems of government into line with the democratic values the UK is famous for. By saving our Human Rights Act – and working to repeal and reform the laws that are so at odds with it – we can unify our quarrelling nation behind the principles of fairness, equality and justice that we share.
Liberty is an independent membership organisation working to protect civil liberties and promote human rights in the UK: www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk