The UK is heading towards authoritarianism: says a former communist
Written by Ioana Andrei
Okay, I’m not a former communist, but I may as well be. Born four years after the fall of the Ceausescu regime in Romania, I assimilated the ways, big and small, that the people around me scrambled to build a 20-million-strong country from the ground up.
Western European media has only ever reported the gawp-worthy pieces of my history. The barbaric assassination of the autocratic first couple. The hundreds of thousands of mistreated orphans. What has been consistently lacking has been the question, ‘What can lead a population to surrender to an authoritarian regime for such a long time?’
Authoritarianism is about a singular political power enforcing strict obedience at the expense of personal freedom. In Romania, pre-’89, this manifested as the Communist Party forcibly taking people’s lands as state property, dissolving any opposing political faction by labelling it as "treason", and systematically telling people as young as six that no country in the world is closer to paradise than the Socialist Republic of Romania.
But this didn’t happen overnight. Power-hungry politicians are not the imbeciles their critics claim they are. Authoritarian states are built by strategically pushing the limits of what their people are willing to accept. It starts with bills that are quietly passed in times of crisis. It continues with defending government policy via rhetoric instead of credible evidence. The language used by the political majority gets more and more divisive, to the point where any critic - citizen or journalist - is painted as an enemy. Actions that appear "progressive" are anything but; they are strategic retractions when the push has gone too far.
I have the utmost certainty that what we’ve seen happen with communist Romania - and other authoritarian states such as Nazi Germany - is now happening under the Johnson Government in the UK.
The 2020 Johnson cabinet reshuffle
Authoritarian leaders cannot operate without support systems. By the 1980s, the Romanian state had constructed a web of enablers to maintain power, which included provincial governors forcing locals to chant in the streets during presidential visits, and regular citizens receiving compensation in exchange for the names of neighbours expressing anti-regime sentiment.
Meanwhile, in February 2020: superbly coinciding with early-pandemic media frenzy, Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle was a move to silence opposition. Minimising the risk of any healthy debate or accountability, the Tory cabinet was designed to contain Johnson loyalists, anti-globalists supporting hard Brexit, and otherwise all-rounded careerists who’d back the Prime Minister without ever reverting to conscience.
The illegality of Patel’s refugee housing in Napier Barracks
The "us versus them" rhetoric is highlighted and doubly underlined in the authoritarian playbook. My parents recount the Ceausescu regime propaganda they were forced to hear, learn, and repeat throughout their childhoods, starting at school. Because being "socialist" was framed as a protective blanket of superiority, while the "West" represented chaos and immorality, there was no reason to question the status-quo. Until, of course, observable reality bore no semblance to politicians’ empty words.
In 2021, the UK Home Office was found guilty of housing asylum seekers under unlawful conditions in the Napier Barracks, which included a lack of protective measures against coronavirus and fire breakouts. After the ruling, Priti Patel still declared, in Parliament, that her Office offered suitable accommodation to Napier residents, as if the power of her words could undermine the reality of the court’s decision. In a typical display of authoritarian ego, Patel then refused to move the at-risk asylum seekers to lawful facilities, indicating to the public that, no matter what the government does, it is above the law.
The UK-wide ban on peaceful protests
If you ask most Westerners about the 1989 Romanian Revolution, they’ll probably say we shot our president dead, stopped communism, and began democracy. But democracy is not the opposite of communism: it’s a system that protects the rights and freedoms of all people, with healthy debate as an immovable tenet.
The first and last series of protests against the Romanian Communist regime in December ‘89 was so galvanising and threatening that the state scrambled to hang on to power by shooting protesters, calling them traitors on national television, and flying the first couple out of the capital. Prior to this point, not only was protesting illegal, but any minor negativity towards the ruling class would get picked up by an informant and land you in prison, or worse.
One only needs a pinch of foresight to see that what I’m describing is only a few steps away from the Johnson government’s attempt to end freedom of protest. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill contains a vague, but important clause that can shut down any protest deemed to be noisy and causing annoyance. Though framed as a way to improve policing capabilities and better serve the public, senior officials from the Metropolitan Police have said they’ve never asked for noise-related enforcing powers and that they’ve never been consulted on the Policing Bill, implying that Priti Patel had misrepresented the truth in Parliament.
For me, personally, Johnson’s stance on the right to oppose is the biggest red flag of them all and the official start of an authoritarian regime. While many news outlets are shielding their editorial sanctitude by naming the Policing Bill "draconian" at best, we have to call it like it is. A state-sanctioned criminalisation of peaceful protest, along with sustained negative rhetoric surrounding those who pursue it, is an authoritarian tactic.
Protests are powerful. They make the news. They get politicians, locally and internationally, talking about the issue at hand. They’re not the only thing that can make change happen, but they typically start or accelerate it. Politicians don’t always have to listen to protests. But they do have a democratic obligation to allow them to happen peacefully.
It’s high time we stop infantilising the current UK Prime Minister’s cabinet by calling them incapable or heartless. They’re strategic, using methods trialled and tested by many authoritarian leaders before them to stay in power. And I’m living proof that this too, with sufficient public outrage, can come to an end.