The threat to Britain’s democratic spaces is growing as charities and civil society groups come under “political attack” by ministers, a report has warned.
Anti-protest laws and culture wars perpetrated by the government are among the issues highlighted by two thinktanks, which said that the “urgent and alarming” problem was “largely going unnoticed”.
Wider parts of civil society meant to provide checks and balances in British politics have also been “portrayed as the problem, blocking the government’s plans and the will of the people”, it was claimed.
The findings came in a report titled Defending Our Democratic Spaces.
In an assessment about the state of British democracy, the report said there had been attempts to portray judges, lawyers, charities, campaigners and parts of the media as a “block to democracy rather than key components of it”. The report added: “We must recognise the crisis before it is too late.”
It called on people to “work together to arrest further decline, and reimagine our democratic space – one where people’s voices count and our democratic institutions are truly accountable”.
The UK was recently downgraded in an annual global index of civic freedoms as a result of the government’s “increasingly authoritarian” drive to impose restrictive and punitive laws on public protests.
A host of other factors were raised in the thinktanks’ report, published on Wednesday, including new ID restrictions on the right to vote and “gagging” clauses being inserted into government contracts tendered to not-for-profit groups.
Other issues – such as reduced access to judicial review to challenge the lawfulness of government decisions, recent clampdowns on the right to strike and claims of anti-terrorism laws being abused – were also highlighted.
“Government transparency, accountability, and willingness to listen are being reduced,” said the report. “The quality of our public services, policies, and governance suffers when this is the case and voter apathy, alienation, and political disengagement result.”
Many of those interviewed as part of the research reported concern about the impact of “culture wars” on political and public debate.
The report said such a move by some ministers had “created an intemperate environment in which it is becoming ever harder for both individuals and not-for-profits to debate differences of view or shape a common culture”.
One interviewee compared the threat to democratic spaces to a frog, which when placed in a boiling pot of water would jump straight out but does not notice the heat if it is only turned up gradually.
Some solace was taken by the report’s authors in Rishi Sunak pledging to lead a government of integrity and accountability, and Labour presenting itself as a party of change and reform – with several ideas for improving government integrity and ethics already advanced by the party’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner.
Caroline Slocock, director of Civil Exchange and a former private secretary to the Conservative prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, said successive government had “shown a loss of integrity and respect for the law and democratic institutions”.
She added: “We’re calling on charities to create a broad coalition of interests across the political spectrum and sectors to defend and reimagine a democratic space where people’s voices count and our democratic institutions are truly accountable.”
Source: The Guardian