Beware the march of the authoritarians!
16th March 2016
Is the UK sinking into authoritarian rule? That's how it looks, writes Jonathon Porritt, as the government joins with right wing media and fossil fuel companies to attack local democracy and environmental campaigners. Is this 'merger of state and corporate power' a sign of more, and worse, to come?
Readers will not be surprised to know that the government's astonishing attack on the autonomy of local authorities was met with widespread approval across the Tory press - particularly within the Murdoch titles.
Bit by bit, the true authoritarianism of this Government is revealing itself.
Way back in 2011, in what now feels like the good old days, myself and Bethan Harris (a colleague in Forum for the Future) did some serious research into what we described as 'the creeping illiberalism' of the Coalition Government - notwithstanding the notional commitment of the Coalition's Lib Dems to a 'rights agenda' of every kind.
We wrote the paper to send a warning shot across the bows of the Environment Movement, which in those days seemed to be entirely oblivious to a number of gathering stormclouds which should have been on their radar. I have to say we failed entirely. We got not one serious response from any of them.
And hot on the heels of the concerns that we raised about the right to protest, police surveillance and so on, came the frighteningly repressive Lobbying Act in 2014, which has severely constrained the activities of many civil society organisations in terms of the work they do lobbying politicians and getting involved in elections.
As Lord Harries of Pentregarth, Chair of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, said at the time: "In trying to ward off a hypothetical abuse of the electoral system the Government is inflicting unnecessary and unenforceable regulation on campaigning groups, who now play such a key role in keeping our democracy alive."
Now they have come out in their true colours
Two years on, these issues are now raging all around us, and my colleagues in the Environment Movement are much more attentive now than they were then - battered as they are by one attack after another from a Government (now freed of those half-hearted Lib Dem squeaks of protest) that is only too happy to show its true, deeply authoritarian colours.
But let me start with the newly-proposed ban on local Councils and public bodies which would prevent them from deciding which companies they felt comfortable about buying from and investing in, and which companies they didn't. On ethical grounds, for example.
According to Oliver Wright, Political Editor of The Independent: "Under the plan, all publicly-funded institutions will lose the freedom to refuse to buy goods and services from companies involved in the arms trade, fossil fuels, tobacco products or Israeli settlements in the Occupied West Bank."
And as J W Bode wrote on The Ecologist, "All in all, preventing councils from boycotting oil and gas is ill considered and threatens not just local authority assets but the financial security of future pensioners, especially in light of COP21 and the commitment made to investing in renewables."
Wright went on to quote from Government sources claiming that such boycotts "undermined good community relations, poisoned and polarised debate and fuelled anti-semitism."
National security - the last refuge of the scoundrel?
Elaborating on all that, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General Matthew Hancock made it very clear where he stood on all this, indicating that in his opinion the autonomy that local authorities have to make ethical purchasing decisions was "undermining Britain's national security".
Undermining national security! Always the favourite go-to place for unscrupulous politicians seeking illegitimately to curtail people's freedom - which shows you just how far along the spectrum of authoritarian rhetoric we've already moved. What about undermining the Government's theoretical commitment to localism? Let alone undermining democracy itself?
(It's the same Matthew Hancock, of course, who is assiduously seeking to stop charities from using government money to influence and improve government policy, and who seizes hold of every available opportunity to attack the reputation of leading charities here in the UK.)
Readers will not be surprised to know that this astonishing attack on the autonomy of local authorities (which are often responding to the wholly legitimate concerns of NGOs and civil society organisations) was met with widespread approval across the Tory press - particularly within the Murdoch titles.
As we know, these papers long ago renounced any real claim to 'independence', and have morphed over the years into the compliant mouthpieces of right-wing, anti-European, Little Englander politicians.
They're also, of course, robust defenders of any business interest either with a large advertising budget or which is dutifully carrying out Government policy. Such as Cuadrilla, perhaps the most prominent of all those companies now lining up to get their snouts into the Government-enabled fracking trough.
Friends of the Earth in the firing line - on trumped up charges
So again, no surprises then that it was Cuadrilla in cahoots with The Times (via its infamous 'Environment' Editor, Ben Webster), that recently launched a full-frontal attack on Friends of the Earth about its anti-fracking campaign.
Webster's story was notionally about the suggestion that Friends of the Earth had been waging its campaign via FoE Trust (which is primarily an educational charity, but also has a perfectly legal campaigning remit) rather than FoE Ltd (purely a campaigning organisation).
As a former Director of Friends of the Earth, I know a bit about that particular balancing act, and having looked into it this time round, it all seemed to be a massive storm in a trumped-up teacup - but apparently worthy of the lead story on The Times front page.
And Ben Webster didn't seem to be particularly interested in the view of the Charity Commission itself, which had said earlier: "Charities have a right to campaign. When this campaigning becomes political, trustees must take care that it furthers the charity's objectives, and does not stray into party-political campaigning.
"Our investigation has revealed nothing to suggest Friends of the Earth Trust has contravened our guidance (CC9) on this issue. We are, however, aware that the lack of differentiation between some charitable and non-charitable bodies is of growing concern. We have therefore commenced a policy review on what can be done to avoid this difficulty in the future."
Cuadrilla gets down and dirty. Could they be scared of something?
And what made this all the more disturbing were the comments immediately offered up by one Francis Egan, Chief Executive of Cuadrilla: "We've long been concerned about the myth-pedalling scare-mongering of Friends of the Earth on shale gas and fracking. Now we discover that they have misled their own regulator.
"The Charity Commission has to trust trustees to be both honest and competent because it has to regulate 160,000 charities. It follows that when that trust has been breached so severely as with Friends of the Earth, the regulator has to step in."
What??! One wonders if Francis Egan had actually read the comment from the Charity Commission itself. Or does he have some insight into what their policy review will actually conclude? Do you think, perhaps, that Ben Webster actually scripted these words for him, to make his sad little story marginally stronger than it might otherwise have been?
Friends of the Earth was admirably restrained in the face of this stitch-up: "Cuadrilla seem to be trying to silence their opposition. They should stop changing the subject from the real issues at stake, and join us in engaging in democratic debate on fracking and climate change."
The reason why Cuadrilla is so shit-scared, by the way, is that Friends of the Earth is seriously on their case regarding the mix of chemicals used in the fracking operation.
Unlike in the USA, where the notorious Donald Rumsfeld succeeded in negotiating an exemption from the Environmental Protection Agency's regulatory powers over the impact of fracking operations on groundwater, the UK's Environment Agency has made it clear that any fracking operations here in the UK - should the Government ever bully one through the planning process - will need to reveal the full details of all the chemicals being used, and will be strictly regulated in terms of any impact on groundwater.
So Friends of the Earth will certainly weather this little storm. It's also decided that there's no reason to be cowed by the menacing machinations of our anti-European media.
But believe me, this story will run and run. Watch this space.
This article was originally published on Jonathon's blog.
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