Stopping the slide

Photo by Element5 Digital:

In many elections, the key issues are living standards and the state of the economy. In the UK today,  voters are (rightly) concerned that their living standards are lower today than they were in 2010 and that public services (especially the NHS) are in crisis. These valid concerns can however obscure an even more fundamental point: our democracy is under threat.

This article explores the typical warning signs of a country at risk of sliding towards dictatorship and the reaction of a voting population to those signs:

  • It begins with a description of some generic warning signs which are often present just before such a slide becomes irreversible and asks the reader to think of a country which exhibited these signs;
  • It takes three real-life examples of countries on the brink of a slide toward dictatorship which showed many of these warning signs – and in the case of those which are historical, it looks at what then happened in reality;
  • It sets out what this means in practice for the UK in 2024.

Guess the Country

Country x is on the verge of a critically important election.

In recent history, a worldwide economic crisis – originating in, but spreading far beyond, the United States – had ushered in a period of painful austerity. As the population suffered from falling living standards, so did the apparent attractiveness of radical change driven by strong, charismatic leaders.

These leaders claimed not to be far-right, but to represent the voice of the people. They also claimed that the economy was strong, though the data did not show this, and living standards continued to fall. The leaders blamed the country’s problems on the opposition and on ethnic minorities, using ever more inflammatory rhetoric and failing to condemn the inevitable violence this sparked.

They systematically took control of the organs of the state which might hold them to account, putting the state broadcaster under the management of party members, reducing the independent power of the judiciary, taking what had been independent regulators under ministerial control and increasingly challenging international law.

While claiming to respect human rights, the leaders took steps to erode them – first of all those of the targeted minority, but ultimately for all citizens. They formulated plans to deport their targeted minority, but instead held them in conditions resembling prisons.

As the election approached, they took increasingly desperate steps to manipulate the results in the name of reducing (almost non-existent) voter fraud.

As the voters went to the polls, some wondered whether when they awoke in the morning they would still be living in a functional democracy or whether, in all but name, their country would be sliding into dictatorship.

Real-life examples

There are (sadly) many countries which would match the description above quite closely. Three in particular are:

  1. The US in 2020;
  2. Germany in 1933;
  3. The UK in 2024.

As the table below indicates, despite the obvious differences between these three, they all exhibit the vast majority of these signs.

The US in 2020Germany in 1932The UK in 2024
Recent worldwide economic crisisY(Global Financial Crisis)Y(Great Depression)Y(Global Financial Crisis)
AusterityY(Bruening’s austerity)Y(Cameron / Osborne’s austerity)
Falling living standardsYY
Charismatic leadersYY
Claim to be the voice of the peopleYYY
Blaming minorities with inflammatory rhetoricY(Immigrants)Y(Jews etc)Y(Refugees)
Failing to condemn violenceY(Charlottesville)Y(Pardoning of imprisoned Nazis convicted of murder)Y(Cenotaph)
Control of state broadcasterYY(BBC management)
Reducing independence / power of judiciaryY(Supreme Court)YY(Judicial Review Act)
Controlling regulatorsY(Eg EPA)YY(Electoral Commission)
Plans to deport targeted minorityYY(Madagascar)Y(Rwanda)
Holding in prison-like conditionsYYY
Pre-election attempts to sway resultsYYY(Elections Act)

In the US, voters did reject Trump – though of course he did not accept the result, and it is still quite possible that he will return to office. And it is clear that if he does so, true democracy in the US will be unlikely to survive. Many commentators in the US believe that the country remains on the brink of dictatorship.

In Germany, Hitler did not obtain an outright majority but became Chancellor in 1932 and was able to pass his ‘temporary’ Enabling Act in 1933. On Hindenburg’s death in 1934, Hitler consolidated the roles of President and Chancellor and became the Fuehrer. The impact of this accession to power is well-known.

What this means for the UK

Trump is not Hitler, of course; and Sunak is not Trump. We are not on the verge of a slide towards Nazism, but we remain uncomfortably close to re-electing a government which has already shown a track-record of systematic removal of democratic safeguards.

In the UK, the polls suggest that this far-right version of the Conservative Party will lose the next election. But should they find a way to win, despite their weak overall track record and lack of popularity, it would be debatable whether Britain remains a functioning democracy. If they somehow retain power, and continue with their dismantling of our democratic safeguards, Britain might soon look more like Hungary under Orban than Denmark under Frederiksen. The consequences for British citizens would be dire – and long-lasting.

For this reason, in my opinion, the next election is by far the most consequential in our lifetimes (and some of the others have been very consequential). If too many of us ignore the warning signs, functioning democracy in the UK may become just a century-long interlude in our history.

If you want to be sure we remain a democracy in more than just name, then you have a part to play:

  • Make sure you will be allowed to vote at the next election – that means registering and making sure you have valid voter ID;
  • Use your vote tactically – even if that means holding your nose and voting for a party you do not really admire;
  • Do whatever you can to raise awareness of these issues – for example, by sharing this article using the buttons below.

And if you are a politician from any party who would like to see a return to sanity, please reach out.

If you think you might like to help more, take a look at The 99% Organisation and join us.

Editor: If you live in one of these constituencies: South Devon, East Wiltshire, Melksham and Devizes, East Wight, North West Essex then please participate in the primary – a grassroots-designed and run process which seeks to stop a Conservative win on a minority of the vote and where the progressive vote is split. Constituents select the progressive candidate they want to back to beat the Tory.