Oliver Norgrove was a media analyst at Vote Leave.
Not many people benefited from last year’s EU referendum. The poll exposed unforeseen political allegiances, created a constitutional crisis that may be far from resolution, and left a bitter taste in the mouths of both Leave and Remain backers. Politics was transformed into a new kind of battleground; one in which party tribalism was abandoned and voters arranged themselves into two new camps. Two camps with intense hatred for one another. Two camps that, thanks mainly to the magnitude of June’s vote, would come to represent the latest forms of political identity. Brexit is politics. Politics is Brexit.
One person did emerge as a clear beneficiary of the Brexit vote, however: Theresa May. Positioning herself quietly behind Cameron, May sought to take advantage of Leave’s victory by posing as his credible replacement; a mild campaigner for Remain who made it clear that “Brexit means Brexit”. It is clear that the referendum was a steal for May, who assumed power after an underwhelming and lacklustre leadership contest. What is perhaps less obvious is how she continues to use the referendum result to her advantage.
On November 29th, the Investigatory Powers Bill received Royal Assent and was ushered into law. The Act gives intelligence services and police forces unprecedented access to the cyber and tech activities of citizens, allowing for snooping into private messages, mobile devices and personal computers. In a rather frank assessment, Edward Snowden called it “the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy”.
Fast forward a few weeks and we find ourselves again standing on the precipice of new, authoritarian legislation. Section 40 of the hotly debated Crime and Courts Act, 2013 has emerged, after a few years of trepidation from by the government, as a direct threat to press freedom in Britain. It states that, unless newspapers sign up to new state regulation in the form of the new regulator ‘Impress’, they must pay full legal costs in disputes over libel an privacy cases. This is a threat to the survival of local papers, but also glaring state interference with press freedom; one of the most integral characteristics of a free society.
So why has there been so little outrage? Well, dare I say it: Brexit. Theresa May has cunningly allowed herself to become a sort of ‘one-issue’ politician. Assuming office under the umbrella of the Brexit vote, May’s tenure in office, it would seem, is likely to be judged entirely by her provision of Britain’s European Union withdrawal. Exactly the cover she needs. With Brexit sitting on the Government’s shoulder and dominating political discourse, other policies which would otherwise have been met by vastly heightened scrutiny can more easily be slipped through Westminster’s chambers and into law.
And for those wondering, these policies are not coincidental. May is a renowned opponent of freedom of speech and assembly. Some of her most micro-managerial moments came as Home Secretary, with her selective no-platforming of individuals wanting to come to Britain (the cases of Julien Blanc and the American preacher Terry Jones are particularly extraordinary) and her banning of substances like Khat despite a Home Affairs Committee finding no social or medical reason to do so. May also introduced Extremist Disruption Orders (EDOs) which would be used to prevent people bearing ‘extreme’ opinions from using social media or from speaking at universities.
If we are not careful, and if the national focus continued to be as misplaced as it has been for the last seven months, the Prime Minister may start to slip even more cynical legislation through parliament. She recently suggested that Ofcom be given the power to block any television material that it deemed to include content that was extreme. No doubt justifications for policies like this will remain roughly the same: that in order to protect the public we must infringe upon the freedoms of others. The usual spin designed to get ordinary people on side.
The trouble is, right now nobody is bothered with politics that isn’t Brexit-related, if at all. This is for two reasons. Firstly, the referendum left many people exhausted and wanting a break from politics; an understandable reaction to a gruelling campaign and shocking result. But secondly, with Brexit drama being deliberately delayed (note May’s blatantly ambiguous answers to Sophie Ridge’s questions about Single Market access on Sunday) and drawn out, other policies, which could be just as important to lots of people, can sneak in through the back door. Bills such as the Investigatory Powers Act may just be the start. Section 40 has received some substantive coverage, but only because the very people it affects are the press. Most aren’t at all bothered with it or its ramifications. God only knows what is coming next, or if it will take full advantage of the Brexit mask covering a host of other, forgotten issues.
May knows that Brexit is dominating the agenda, and with any luck that will continue. But as far as the population should be concerned, forget leaving the European Union for a moment. Fundamental British freedoms are under attack. Surely that is worth uniting over.