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Will Liz Truss continue Johnson’s assault on rights? Here’s what we know

The new PM promises an authoritarian crackdown on workers, protesters, migrants – pretty much everyone, in fact

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
22 September 2022, 1.45pm

Riot police in London, 2009

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Wikimedia Commons

As Liz Truss was trialling to be a final runner in the Tory leadership relay race, she made one thing very clear. She would take the authoritarian truncheon from Boris Johnson’s hand with gleeful zeal.

“There will be families who won’t be able to pay bills, who will have issues getting food on the table. Historically speaking, that means we’re in for some kind of protest,” says Malte Laub, an international political economy lecturer at King’s College London.

But it will be ”much harder to protest lawfully”, he says, because the new prime minister has inherited an armoury of “authoritarian legislation” to crack down on dissent, following a series of legal changes under the premierships of her predecessors Boris Johnson, Theresa May and David Cameron.

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And it’s not just this inheritance. Laub says Truss “has also articulated support for recruiting more police officers, more border guards, and she has voiced her – to put it mildly – unease about the European Court of Human Rights.” The result, he says, is likely to be an “explosive mixture” of social unrest and authoritarianism.

“Liz Truss has made it quite clear that having her as PM is going to mean more crackdowns on the right to protest,” said Nuala Gathercole Lam, a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion. Truss has, she added, “an intention to eliminate an essential part of our democracy”.

Anti-protest, pro-surveillance

While Boris Johnson’s brief regime delivered a string of anti-protest laws – including the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, which gave police the power to ban noisy or disruptive protests and could see activists jailed for up to a decade – Truss has already promised to go further.

After environmental activists had the audacity to heckle her at one of the leadership hustings, she promised a further crackdown on “militant” protests. Meanwhile, the Public Order Bill that is due to complete its passage through Parliament next month will, among other things, give courts the power to electronically tag protesters.

“In policing circles, I’m pretty sure they’re preparing for riots,” says Kevin Blowe from the police monitoring group Netpol. “If you remember the response to the riots of 2011, all-night courts and getting people into prison as quickly as possible – it’s horrible, but that’s what we’re likely to see again.”

Last year, police surveillance teams introduced a new label for the people they might be monitoring: “aggravated activism”. “Anybody involved within civil disobedience is likely to fall within that,” Blowe says.

He points to police powers to use people’s online presence as ammunition against them. When oil companies secured injunctions against fracking campaigners earlier this year, he says, “hundreds and hundreds of pages of people’s Facebook and Twitter posts”, outlining their opposition to fossil fuel extraction, were given as evidence in court.

This kind of surveillance is likely to come with new powers if another piece of Tory legislation makes it through parliament, according to Jim Killock, executive director of the online freedom NGO the Open Rights Group.

The Online Safety Bill, due to return to Parliament “quickly” according to the culture secretary, has generated much debate about how much racism and abuse should be permitted on social media – but discussion about some of the technical changes it will require has largely been sidelined, says Killock.

The measures amount to what the NGO has called a “paradigm shift” in online surveillance. It would “introduce the idea that encrypted messages should be able to be read”, forcing app providers to introduce mechanisms to scan people’s private messages.

Although this technology is framed as a way to tackle child pornography, Killock says it opens a route for the state to monitor a much wider range of messages, putting political (and journalistic) freedoms at risk.

Meanwhile, a proposed replacement to the EU’s GDPR laws on data will give corporations more freedom to do what they want with the information they hold about British people, including sending it overseas and using it for things you haven’t agreed to. “I cannot see any real advantage to what they’re doing, except for the likes of Palantir,” Killock said, referring to the controversial data-crunching company notorious for its collaborations with US security forces.

Fewer union rights, more police powers

This summer’s strikes are likely to continue into the autumn, as wages plummet in real terms. In that context, the incoming PM has pledged an assault on workers’ right to organise.

As gleeful reports in the Express have attested, she has promised new legislation “within months” to “crack down” on “militant trade unions” who she accused of “holding the country to ransom” – as if posties, train ticket inspectors and Amazon warehouse workers aren’t part of “the country”.

Specifically, Truss says she will bring in laws requiring minimum service levels in certain sectors – thereby banning effective strikes – and insisting unions achieve 50% support in ballots from across their membership, including those who don’t vote, before they can go on strike. She herself didn’t meet this threshold in the Tory leadership election.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch has described the proposal as “the biggest attack on trade union and civil rights since labour unions were legalised in 1871”.

Truss has also promised to scrap European Union rules and replace them with new laws (as outlined in the Tory 2019 manifesto), in the form of the Brexit Freedoms Bill. There are real worries that this legislation will hand vast powers to the government to create new laws without reference or accountability to the House of Commons – as the Hansard Society has pointed out.

Likewise, the new PM has pledged an expansion to police powers, promising to make tackling ‘anti-social behaviour’ a priority and calling for police to use stop and search powers even more. Officers in England and Wales are seven times more likely to stop Black people than they are white people.

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Lessons from her leadership campaign

In her leadership campaign, Truss insisted she would impose targets for police forces to “get tougher” on some blue-collar crimes, instead of “focusing on identity politics and social media”. We can assume that any introspection that might have followed Black Lives Matter protests will now be binned.

She also promised more Rwanda-style schemes to deport asylum seekers to third countries (in breach of international law); to increase UK border forces by 20%; and to look at “all possible turnaround tactics to deter migrant crossings" – despite then home secretary Priti Patel abandoning such plans under legal challenge.

Truss has denounced the idea of schools holding lessons on race, sexuality and gender as “tools of the left” and said she may not appoint a new ethics adviser, which would mean there would be no one to oversee the ministerial code of conduct or ensure that ministerial conflicts of interest are transparent.

She has allowed representatives to hint, heavily, that she will abandon plans to ban anti-LGBTQ+ conversion therapy, and was criticised by some LGBTQ+ Tories for using her leadership campaign to join in the moral panic against trans people, a current obsession of the British press.

She has floated the idea that the people of Scotland will not be allowed to determine our own constitutional future without adhering to rigged referendum rules; and has been denounced for endangering stability on the island of Ireland with her attempts to renegotiate the Northern Ireland protocol, as well as appointing anti-Europe hardliners Chris Heaton-Harris and Steve Baker to the Northern Ireland Office.

Oh, and she has made Suella Braverman home secretary.

Truss is “quite firmly on the right of the Conservative Party”, says King’s College London lecturer Mault Laub, part of a grouping that has “framed politics throughout the UK in a fairly authoritarian manner”.

“There is a degree of consistency within this: a focus on policing has been quite a consistent feature of neoliberalisation in the UK,” he added. After all, Thatcher’s rise to power came partly on the back of a moral panic about young Black men, and the last four decades have seen as much expansion of the security arms of the state as they have seen contraction of social security.

But the 2010 generation of Tories, which came into politics after the 2008 financial crisis and of which Truss is a part, have taken this to new extremes. Where neoliberalism once offered its Western subjects cheap credit and consumer capitalism as payment for social consent, now it breaks skulls.

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