In the past fortnight the UK has left the EU and plunged into a third lockdown (the latter some two weeks after doing so was recommended by the government’s medical advisers), while, in the US, right-wing terrorists stormed the Capitol.
Strangely, all three provoked responses along the lines of “Boris Johnson is a liberal”. For Robert Tombs, writing in The Telegraph, the chief benefit of Brexit is a “reinvigorated democracy”. For Robert Peston, Johnson’s repeated ignoring of scientific advice is due to “a political philosophy… that he will not restrict our liberties unless there is an overwhelming reason to do so.” For James Forsyth in The Times, “Johnson is not Trump’s Transatlantic twin”.
To call Johnson a “liberal” is to buy spin over reality. Johnson may talk about “liberty” but, as Lord Toulson (one of my favourite judges) liked to put it, “fine words butter no parsnips”. Johnson’s actions are closer to those of an autocrat. Liberals believe in maximising personal freedom, the rule of law, free markets, and small and accountable government (or at least as small as is consistent with achieving the above). Johnson’s government has stripped individuals of rights and freedoms, attacked the rule of law, created barriers to trade, and expanded the power of the centralised state.
Johnson likes to claim Britain is a “freedom-loving country”. In reality, however, his government has removed more freedoms than any since Pitt’s “English Terror” of the 1790s. Brexit, Johnson’s flagship policy, was always going to lead to the loss of rights and freedoms. Many of these, however, may have been preserved. During the early stages of negotiations, EU leaders even appeared open to a form of “associate EU citizenship” for any British citizen who chose to “opt in”. Johnson’s government made a deliberate decision to pursue the hardest possible version of Brexit, eliminating any possible hope of maintaining individual freedoms. As a result, UK citizens have been stripped of rights to travel, work, settle, trade, provide services, and even exchange information on the same terms as before.
We have been stripped of rights to hold our government to account in an independent court, and rights to have our elected representatives vote on trade and foreign policy issues. It would take hundreds of pages simply to list all the freedoms that UK citizens have lost. Here, instead, is an article (with a helpful diagram) setting out just a few.