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The thin end of the wedge: The UK and escalating global authoritarianism

Article by Dr Chris Ogden

August 18, 2022

The thin end of the wedge: The UK and escalating global authoritarianism

Western democracies are facing significant political upheavals and domestic crises from populism to coronavirus to Brexit – events which are diluting their core political values. Such upheavals are occurring in unison with mounting authoritarian tendencies across the world, frequently buoyed by economic precarity and the increasing use of technological surveillance. If these trends continue to coalesce and accelerate, they will come to dominate the nature of global politics. At best, the remaining liberal democratic rights enjoyed in the UK and the West will be fundamentally threatened, and at worst they could be entirely subsumed and replaced by repressive authoritarian governments.


Underpinning this development is a need to recognise that authoritarianism and democracy are not diametrically opposed political systems but are characteristics that appreciably intertwine, overlap and influence each other. In this way, democracies are not immune to authoritarian tendencies (and vice versa) and are susceptible to such tendencies creeping into everyday politics, as well as being active even in well-established liberal countries. This authoritarian creep is taking place when the liberal international order is currently not only under question but is being virulently contested. Such a contestation now reaches into and affects the political basis of all countries, each of whom are susceptible to being pulled towards the authoritarian zone of the political continuum.


Amidst a ‘democratic recession’, a 2021 survey pertinently showed that only 8.4% of the world’s population live in a fully functioning democracy.[1] Signifying a global decline apparent since the 1970s, such ‘democratic backsliding’ is intensifying a broader sense within many populations of an impending authoritarian future. For many people across the world, a phenomenon that ‘could never happen here’ is now taking place, curtailing their freedoms. Such democratic backsliding is increasing globally, which over the last decade has occurred in democracies ranging from – but by no means limited to – Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Israel, Peru, Myanmar, India, Mali, Afghanistan, Serbia, Morocco, The Philippines, and Turkey, as well as crucially in the United Kingdom and the United States.[2]


Recognising Authoritarianism

Observers have documented this deeper continuum and inter-connection between different political systems over time through the presence of hybrid regimes. These regimes displayed both authoritarian and democratic traits, resulting in a ‘blurring’ and shifting quality. We can thus see ‘pseudo-democracies’ and ‘democratically disguised dictatorships’ that mimic but do not adhere to democratic practices.[3] Others identify ‘electoral authoritarianism’ whereby elections are held but are biased towards those in power via the widespread abuse of state resources and restricting media access.[4] In turn, we can refer to ‘illiberal democracies’ or ‘semi-authoritarianism’ wherein civil liberties lag behind political liberties, and do not satisfy a full range of ‘democratic conditions’.[5]


From this basis, authoritarianism can be defined as “a type of government based upon strong central authority and limited political freedoms”. In these ways, we can identify authoritarian regimes if they display notable and longstanding deficiencies concerning:


  • a legal system based upon rule by law – this contrasts with systems based upon rule of law that have an independent judiciary, a transparent and participatory law-making process and a legal process that provides reliable oversight of ruling elites;
  • a moribund civil society – the part of a country’s social fabric that lobbies for national causes, including the presence of active trade unions, and which in a democracy would be separate and independent from government and business; and
  • a lack of nationwide democratic elections and universal suffrage – that in a functioning democracy facilitates the peaceful transition and alternation of power between different political actors, and which provides equal access to all citizens.


Importantly, according to Schedler’s “chain of democratic choice”, a government or regime is considered to be authoritarian if it violates even one of these elements.[6] Such a criterion demands that democracies ought to be assessed to the highest standards possible and avoid any back-sliding at all costs, so as to not enable wider authoritarianism.


An Autocratic United Kingdom

In the last few years, the underlying nature of the UK’s political system has firmly shifted from the democratic end of the political continuum towards its authoritarian zone. Across a range of factors indicating autocratic tendencies, the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been introducing – through new or planned legislation – a range of powers that negatively impact on the rule of law, civil society and political participation.


A Legal System Becoming Based Upon Rule by Law

The present Government has abetted a range of political attacks upon the judiciary and the rule of law, whereby ‘”the courts have been subjected to ministerial and media pressure in the years following their protection of Parliament’s right to vote on the EU deal and their reversal of a prolonged suspension of Parliament by the Prime Minister”’.[7] Such actions are seen to be undermining the constitution, democracy and human rights, and are encapsulated by government criticism of legal decisions in the media. In Parliament, the Government has also sought to marginalise the Commons, has attempted to overturn the parliamentary commissioner for standards and has ignoring breaches of the ministerial code.[8] Recently, Boris Johnson amended the Ministerial Code (meaning that ministers who breach the Code will no longer be automatically expected to resign).


Moreover, the Judicial Review and Courts Bill will prevent citizens from being able to challenge how the Government implements and interprets the law. As a leading observer has noted, ‘”the scenario where Parliament passes an Act in order to render a previously unlawful decision of the executive lawful would radically change the optics of the balance of power. It would unambiguously transfer legislative sovereignty to the executive and would … effectively place Parliament in a subservient position to the executive”’.[9] Under an Interpretation Bill, the Government would also be allowed to ‘strike out findings from judicial reviews … mak(ing) the courts overtly and dangerously political’.[10] Such changes would usher in a government functioning under principles of rule by law, whereby the judiciary would no longer be separated from the state and would lack the capacity to hold those in power accountable in a transparent or comprehensive manner. Instead, the judiciary would be an extension of the political power and control of those in government.


Notably, during the pandemic, government ministers ignored longstanding principles that ‘only Parliament can legislate to create a criminal offence’.[11] Rather, ministers made laws themselves through secondary legislation, and the use of so-called Henry VIII powers, which no peacetime UK government has done for hundreds of years.[12] Government ministers have also announced plans for new laws to contain “ouster clauses”, which would place them entirely outside of the oversight of the legal system.[13] The Government’s politicisation of public bodies, achieved by appointing Conservative donors and Tory former politicians to lead major national organisations such as the Health and Safety Executive, the BBC, Ofcom and the Office for Students compliments this process. Such an undertaking is seen by critics to have a ‘chilling’ impact upon the independence of national bodies and is making them biased towards the Government.[14]


An Ever-Weakening Civil Society

Encapsulating threats to a dynamic and effective civil society, the Police, Sentencing and Courts Bill dramatically limits the ability of the population to protest. It includes making it a criminal offence to block major transport works, hugely expands police stop and search powers without suspicion (if officers think that a protest may occur “in that area”) and makes ‘it difficult to attend a protest without committing an offence’ including provisions against “noisy” protests or simply posting about a protest on social media.[15] The Bill thus ‘provides the Government with the ability to quash public displays of dissent against Government policy at the whim of the Home Secretary’.[16] New preventive “serious disruption prevention orders” will also be used against repeat offenders, which would ban them from attending any further protests.[17] It also targets Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, allowing police to confiscate their homes if they stop in undesignated places.[18]


Other legislation also appears to pose a threat to individuals who contradict government policy. As such, the Nationality and Borders Bill contains provisions for the Home Secretary to extend the power of the Government to remove the citizenship rights of dual nationals and naturalised British citizens if doing so is “conducive to the public good”. These threaten the citizenship of up to a quarter of the UK population, creating ‘a massive pool of second class citizens who are mainly ethnic minority and whose status is contingent on good behaviour’ and is backed up by a legal mechanism.[19] The Bill’s “push back” policy towards migrants attempting to cross the English Channel, as well as plans to send them to Rwanda, also breaches the European Convention on Human Rights.[20]


In turn, the intended new Bill of Rights, to replace the 1998 Human Rights Act, ‘plans to make universal rights subordinate to ministerial opinion and political whim, mark(ing) a backwards step for British democracy’, and weakening the rights of the population.[21] It also eviscerates ‘one of its most fundamental tenets: basic human rights exist for all and must be enforceable at the instance of all’ and hence weakens universal human rights on the world stage, thus legitimating authoritarian governments to act in a similar way.[22] In turn, the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Act allows ‘government departments, police forces, intelligence agencies and the armed forces to authorise anyone … to commit crimes “in the course of, or otherwise in connection with” any covert operations’, which further reduces the essential human rights of the UK population to government control.[23]


Successive measures have also undermined the independence of the media, including freezing the funding of the BBC (leading to £2 billion in cuts) and ongoing plans to privatize Channel 4.[24] The Government has further provided large COVID subsidies to the countries’ biggest newspapers (amounting to between £100-200 million over the last two years), which has skewed the autonomy of these publications, making them reliant upon government aid.[25] Also weakening the scope for unfettered and open public debate, the recent Higher Education Bill furthermore permits the appointment of a state official ‘to determine the parameters of legitimate public debate in higher education institutions,… (which) creates a new avenue for direct state interference in higher education bodies’.[26]


The Online Safety Bill similarly empowers the Ofcom regulator (a position appointable by the Government) to censor any online material deemed to be “harmful” (not illegal) or that risks having “a significant adverse physical or psychological impact” on someone with “ordinary sensibilities”.[27] Such deliberations can be tilted towards government policy and could have a negative impact upon ethnic and LGBTQ+ minorities. Government consultations on secrecy laws are also perceived to threaten free speech by curtailing the work of editors and journalists reporting “unauthorised disclosures” to the public.[28]


Less-Than-Universal Suffrage

The Government has also enacted legislation that has impacted upon equality of access and participation within the democratic process. Through the Elections Bill, a mandatory requirement was introduced for all voters to have to show a form of photo ID before being allowed to vote. It is estimated that around two million people do not have the correct form of ID, a measure which will disproportionately affect ‘low-income voters and some black, Asian and ethnic minority communities’, who are six times less likely to have a photo ID that richer potential voters.[29] Apart from disenfranchising a significant portion of the voting population, in an act of voter suppression, the Bill also moves the demographic basis of the electorate, arguably towards the incumbent governing party. Similarly, in an act of clear gerrymandering, the greatest beneficiary of planned changes to England’s parliamentary constituency boundaries would be the Conservative Party.[30]


The Elections Bill also has an impact upon the independence of the Electoral Commission, whereby the Government can define the body’s priorities, including the regulation of party and election finance. These are seen to favour the Conservative Party at the expense of the Labour Party, and others, as well as to reduce the means by which the Government – and political parties in general – can be held accountable.[31] The move can thus be seen as a further act of voter suppression that introduces biases within the electoral process. In response to these changes, nine of the ten members of the Electoral Commission board wrote to the Government stating that the body’s ‘independence is fundamental to maintaining confidence and legitimacy in our electoral system’, that ‘strong accountability is essential’ and that on a fundamental level the new proposals were ‘inconsistent with the role that an independent electoral commission plays in a healthy democracy’.[32]


Further affecting the ability of all citizens to actively participate in democratic practices, are rising levels of corruption in the UK. Turbocharging this process in recent years has been the Coronavirus Act, which allows the Government ‘to introduce regulations without parliamentary scrutiny’.[33] This development has been coupled with increasing levels of cronyism that has provided Tory donors with government contracts worth at least £3 billion, while a quarter of the top donors (who donated more than £100,000) have received a title or peerage.[34] Such practices not only confirm a nexus between political access / power and financial influence, but also how “clientelism” (receiving benefits in return for political support) has become an everyday feature of UK politics. Plans to allow unlimited political donations from UK citizens living abroad (often to target marginal seats), as well as to stack the House of Lords with Tory loyalists (most likely via multiple appointments when Boris Johnson formally leaves office), underscore such biases.[35]


Reversing the Back-Slide

There can be little doubt that the UK is experiencing a widespread – and arguably systematic – authoritarian tilt. So pervasive is this phenomenon that observers note that we are seeing the construction of a “new legislative architecture… (that will) culminate in a form of elective dictatorship or authoritarian democracy,… (which will) allow a racialised state-corporate executive to operate without accountability to voters or the rule of law”.[36] It is also confirming that “our democracy is sheathed in a flimsy confidence that demagoguery and authoritarianism are conditions that afflict foreign nations with immature institutions”.[37] Such conditions are not restricted to the smaller international actors, with there being rising authoritarian tendencies across all the international system’s largest great powers from China and Russia, to the United States and India.


Beijing is at the vanguard of normalising such a process, with a political system that rests upon rule by law, a near non-existent civil society, demonising minority groups and the systematic repression of human rights. Even though what we are currently witnessing in the UK is a far milder version of such traits, ultimately authoritarianism in the UK is legitimising China’s preferred new world order, which seeks to replace the liberal international system with a new authoritarian version and an Authoritarian Century.[38]


Regardless of where the UK lies on the political continuum relative to other countries, it is clear that autocratic values and outlooks are now deeply embedded across the UK’s legal and governing structures, signifying the country’s ongoing democratic decline. Importantly, all of the measures noted above can be accelerated by further government legislation, meaning that they are at the thin end of an ever-more highly authoritarian wedge. In this way, plans by Conservative Prime Ministerial candidates to abandon all European legislation by the end of 2023 would drastically reduce the human and working rights of the population.[39] Similarly, the threatened use of contract workers to break strikes would fundamentally undermine the right to protest, could potentially be against international law and are regarded to observers to be “undemocratic and unsafe”.[40] Such moves would only fast-track the UK’s democratic decline and authoritarian descent, as well as a potential future downgrading by leading global bodies such as Freedom House.


In order to prevent any greater slippage toward authoritarianism, populations need to be actively (and regularly) informed concerning their rights, and how such rights were originally won historically, through publicity campaigns and mandatory ongoing civic education classes as both children and adults. Influential individuals – such as television producers, directors, authors, artists, musicians, teachers, journalists and any kind of elected official – need to pre-emptively use their positions now to insist upon the production and promotion of such necessary educational campaigns. Without such a knowledge base, citizens will be evermore susceptible to different narratives, especially in periods of tumult that frequently serve to accentuate and speed up a country’s assimilation to authoritarianism. The ever-escalating cost of living crisis in the UK, the country’s imminent descent into a long recession and the increasing potential for widespread civil unrest, all signal such a period of substantial turmoil and uncertainty.[41]


Chris Ogden is Senior Lecturer / Associate Professor in Asian Affairs at the School of International Relations, University of St Andrews. His latest book The Authoritarian Century: China’s Rise and The Demise of the Liberal International Order.


[1] The Economist, Global democracy has a very bad year, February 2021,

[2] AFP, US added to “backsliding” democracies for first time, The Guardian, November 2021,

[3] Diamond, L.J. (2002) ‘Thinking about hybrid regimes’, Journal of Democracy, 13(2): 23. Brooker, P. (2014) Non-Democratic Regimes, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

[4] Schedler, A. (2002) ‘The Nested Game of Democratization by Elections’, International Political Science Review, 23(1): 103-122.

[5] Zakaria, F. (1997) ‘The Rise of Illiberal Democracy’, Foreign Affairs, 76(6):22.

[6] Schedler, A. (2002): 103-122.

[7] David Hencke, Johnson’s Culture War Against Judges Having a “Chilling Effect” on Rule of Law, Byline Times, June 2022,

[8] Professor Meg Russell, The Owen Paterson standards row reflects worrying broader trends in our politics, UK in a Changing Europe, November 2021,

[9] Nafeez Ahmed, Enabling Acts’, Byline Times, January 2022,

[10] Gina Miller, Boris Johnson’s War on Judges is a Fiction – the Truth is, the Attack is on All of Us, The Guardian, December 2021,

[11] David Renton, Partygate and the Excuse that Doesn’t Excuse a Thing, Byline Times, April 2022,

[12] UKIACE, What are the Henry VIII Powers?, UK in a Changing Europe, September 2020,; Renton, D. (2022).

[13] Annette Dittert, The Politics of Lies: Boris Johnson and the Erosion of the Rule of Law, New Statesman, July 2021,

[14] Robert Booth, Tory Intrusion “Chilling” Independence of National Bodies, Critics Claim, The Guardian, November 2021,

[15] George Monbiot, Imprisoned for 51 Weeks for Protesting? Britain is Becoming a Police State by Stealth, The Guardian, December 2021,

[16] Ahmed, N. (2022) ‘Enabling Acts’.

[17] Jun Pang, England and Wales’s Police Bill Threatens Anyone With a. Cause to Believe In, openDemocracy, December 2021,

[18] George Monbiot, The UK is Heading Towards Authoritarianism: Just Look at this Attack on a Minority, The Guardian, January 2022,

[19] Colin Yeo, a top immigration barrister at leading human rights firm Garden Court Chambers quoted in Ahmed, N. (2022) ‘Enabling Acts’.

[20] Editorial, The Guardian View on Human Rights and the Borders Bill: the Wrong Path, The Guardian, December 2021,

[21] Editorial, The Guardian View on Raab’s Bill of Rights: Liberty Bent on Prejudice, The Guardian, June 2022,

[22] Haroon Siddique, UK’s New Bill of Rights Will Curtail Power of European Human Rights Court, The Guardian, June 2022,

[23] Ahmed, N. (2022) ‘Enabling Acts’.

[24] Brian Cathcart, 10 Favours the Government Has Done Its Press Friends At Our Expense, Byline Times, February 2022,

[25] Cathcart, B. (2022)

[26] Ahmed, N. (2022) ‘Enabling Acts’.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Duncan Campbell, How a Proposed Secrecy Law would Recast Journalism as Spying, The Guardian, July 2021,

[29] Josiah Mortimer, The Conservatives are Fundamentally Rewriting Britain’s Electoral Rules, Byline Times, May 2022,; Bob Kerslake, With All Eyes on Ukraine, the UK is Set to Quietly Disenfranchise 2 Million Citizens, The Guardian, April 2022,

[30] Ben Walker, English Boundary Changes – Notional Results, New Statesman, June 2021,

[31] Letters, Elections Bill is a Dangerous Assault on Democracy, The Guardian, September 2021,

[32] Peter Walker, UK Elections Watchdog Warns Bill Threatens Its Independence, The Guardian, February 2022,

[33] Dittert, A. (2021).

[34] Sam Bright, How Political Corruption Works in the UK, Byline Times, November 2021,

[35] Letters We Cannot Stand By As the Tories Quietly Erase All Checks on Power, The Guardian, October 2021,; Robert Peston, Revealed: Secret Plan to Pack Lords With Tory Loyalists, ITV News, July 2022,

[36] Ahmed, N. (2022) ‘Enabling Acts’.

[37] Rafael Behr, Tory MPs Call it Reform, But The Elections Bill Looks More Like a Heist, The Guardian, 8 September 2021,

[38] Ogden, C. (2022) The Authoritarian Century: China’s Rise and the Demise of the Liberal International Order (Bristol: Bristol University Press),

[39] Adam Forrest, Brexit: Liz Truss Warned New Plan to Ditch Thousands of EU Laws By End of 2023 Will Cause “Chaos”, The Independent, July 2022,

[40] Rowena Mason, Gwyn Tophan and Denis Campbell, Boris Johnson Plans to Break Rail Strikes by Allowing Use of Agency Workers, The Guardian, June 2022,;amp;amp

[41] Institute for Government, Cost of Living Crisis, August 2022,

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