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Our ‘Little Dark Age’: Britain on the Brink?

"Forgiving who you are for what you stand to gain, just know that if you hide, it doesn't go away"…lyrics from the song "Little Dark Age" by MGMT. It is a haunting song that, even to this day, after hearing it multiple times, stirs an indescribable feeling in me. That being said, when I listen to this in 2024, the song makes me think of the tottering and stumbling nature of our invaluable British democracy and tolerant society. 

Over the last decade, it has been consistently undermined, and within the last three years, more and more laws have been put in place which threaten our liberties and rights while the so-called "culture war" is used to stoke hatred and bigotry. This piece is different from what I usually write, darker in tone and without my usual humour; however, as a member of the younger generation, I feel a stern duty to speak out. 

I'm aware that the opening to this piece, and yes, its very title, could be construed by some as a hyperbole and exaggeration. "It's not really that bad" they might scoff. I admit to some exaggeration but not by much; Britain as we know it is entering a new dark age in terms of the encroachment upon our rights to speech, protest, unionise, and a new acceptance of bigotry.

Let's begin our dissection of this sorry state of affairs with the increasingly divisive society in which we now find ourselves: the "Culture War", a right-wing and populist slogan spoken with almost as much reverence and fervour as a medieval crusader. Unfortunately, it's not just a fringe concept, having leading government figures from backbenchers all the way to the Prime Minister and his Cabinet routinely cite it.

Let's take, for example, Rishi Sunak's constant refrain of "just another lefty lawyer" when facing Sir Keir Starmer during PMQs; or Suella Braverman's right-wing zealotry as Home Secretary, openly spouting transphobic and dangerous rhetoric. Some may say that is all it is – rhetoric. But words have power, especially when coming from those in power themselves. 

In 2012, under Cameron's coalition government, Parliament passed the Gay Marriage Bill, legalising for the first time in the UK gay marriage. The UK was ranked 1st in Europe for the best place to live as an openly LGBTQ person…today however we are 17th. In a decade, we have regressed. Generations of progress made and fought for are being undone. Add on top of this the increasingly common attacks on trans rights, and it paints an increasingly grim picture of an increasingly intolerant and bigoted society. All this is justified in the name of "protecting children" when in reality, it is about fighting a totally imaginary "culture war".

The next aspect I wish to discuss is the increasing fragility of our democratic system and encroachment on our rights and liberties, not least amongst them our rights to strike, right to protest, and indeed our very right to free speech. Stated in a list like this, one would be mistaken for thinking I was describing an authoritarian state. 

Let's start with the attacks on our right to strike. Back in July, Sunak's government pushed the 'Minimum Service Levels' Act through Parliament. Ostensibly, this legislation was designed to ensure safe servicing levels in public sector services, such as the NHS and transport. In reality, it was a blatant and clear undermining of our right to strike. 

According to the TUC (Trade Unions Congress), as a result of this "wrecking ball to the right to strike" a whopping 1 in 5 (or 5.5 million people) risk losing their right to strike. To me, trade unionism and exercising the right to strike is one of the truest expressions of democracy. It strips back democracy to the barest essentials, voting to attempt to get a better life. It's, therefore, a massive blow to our wider UK democracy that a government would attack this fundamental and vital right. 

Next on our autopsy report of the demise of our tolerant society and fading vitality of our democracy are the attacks on our right to protest. This will get a little technical. Under UK Law, there is a specific right to protest; however, under Article 11 of the Human Rights Act (which, conveniently, the Tories want to do away with), protest is enshrined as a human right and protected under various other international law provisions. 

This leaves our right to protest in a grey area. There is nothing grey, however, in the recent attacks on this right. The Public Order Act 2023 builds upon the previous PO Act 1986. It beefs out and gives further powers for police to add restrictions known as 'Serious Disruption Prevention Orders' or SDPOs. While in theory, these are designed to minimise disruption from protests such as sit-ins by Just Stop Oil, etc., the reality is far scarier. 

As Liberty puts it "SDPOs can require you to do anything, or prohibit you from doing anything, described in the order." It's this broadness and vagueness that is so dangerous. Examples of the things a SDPO can prevent you from doing are even grimmer, for example: being in or entering particular places or areas, including at particular times or days; being with particular people; using the internet to help or encourage people to commit protest offences / breach a protest injunction / carry out protest-related activities that cause, or are likely to cause, 'serious disruption' to two or more individuals or an organisation. This is a serious and dangerous degree of broadness. Protest is one of our main ways of showing displeasure with the government outside election time; by limiting it, the government takes away one of our main avenues for holding them to account.

The question this all raises is simple, 'What can I do?' The answer is equally simple – vote, take a stand, and make your voice heard loud and clear in opposition to the ever-declining nature of our country! When you see something you disagree with, either in relation to reductions in gay and trans rights, or laws targeting something you fundamentally believe in, take a stand. Protest and post about it on your social media. Be more than just a citizen of your country – be an active citizen. Contribute to the political debates which shape our future. We, the youth, are the future; we have a responsibility to make our voices heard and known!

Image: PA Media/via The BBC

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