GOVERNMENTS at the fag end of their allotted time and awaiting electoral oblivion have a habit of going bonkers. This usually involves being fixated with irrelevant policy proposals  that are of more interest to their soon-to-disappear MPs than anyone in the real world.

Thus, Rishi Sunak is obsessed with spending multiple millions on sending a few dozen asylum seekers on an extended stay in Rwanda. Now Michael Gove – whose Cabinet job, remember, is about levelling up – has become obsessed with changing the law to ban political opinions that the government deems unacceptable.

Gove is normally one of the more sensible Tory ministers, though admittedly that’s a low bar. This week he is set to announce a controversial plan to ban from public life individuals and groups who “undermine the UK’s system of liberal democracy” This is  sneaky and the thin end of  a very long wedge.

Gove is not proposing outright legal bans on organisations or the jailing of individuals – yet. That would necessitate complex legislation and inevitable court challenges. Think Rwanda.  Instead, organisations and individuals that breach Gove’s new official definition of extremism will be excluded from meetings or engagement with ministers, civil servants, local authorities and – crucially – from state funding. This is demonisation by administrative fiat. But it is the road to authoritarianism.

According to The Observer newspaper, which has seen leaked copies of Gove’s plans, the Government intends to define a list of “core behaviours” which it deems to constitute extremism. Not illegal actions as such but attitudes. These will include attempts to “overturn, exploit or undermine the UK’s system of liberal democracy”, which seek to “confer advantages or disadvantages on specific groups”, and which “enable” the spread of extremism. Talk about loose drafting.

As a long-time supporter of Scottish independence, I certainly want to “overturn” the UK’s system of liberal democracy – largely because it isn’t liberal, and it certainly isn’t democratic.  In fact, I’ve spent decades marching, demonstrating, writing and fighting against a system  I consider domineering, exploitative and anti-democratic.

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I’ve even called for civil disobedience to end the Union. All of which makes me a prime contender to be “sectioned” under the new rules. And the rest of the national movements in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

That bit about “conferring advantages or disadvantages on specific groups” is an especially dangerous catch-all. I want to confer an advantage on the people of Scotland. I want them to govern themselves rather than be in a colonial relationship with Whitehall.

Also, I want to be able to meet with ministers, MPs, civil servants and quango bosses to lobby for Scottish rights and needs. I don’t want Gove banning such meetings on a political whim. If there is anybody trying to undermine the “liberal” bit of democracy it is Gove.

Wait, wait, I hear from the back of the room. These new rules are about curbing the influence of “extremist” organisations that knowingly take advantage of democracy (including the right to protest) in order to ferment chaos. That make life a misery for “ordinary folk” by creating a climate of fear. 

The trouble is that one Tory minister’s definition of “extremist” is not the same as mine or yours. And if democracy is about anything, it is about the right to dissent. Gove’s rules blur the distinction between legitimate dissent and deliberate subversion – and he knows it.

The Tory government is exhibiting all the signs of a moral panic. Recently, the Prime Minister (below) told a gathering of senior police officers that the UK is descending into “mob rule”. Cue a green light for the police to deal more harshly with demonstrators. 

The National: Rishi Sunak

Sunak also demanded a crackdown on protests outside Parliament, political parties’ offices and town halls that “cause alarm, harassment or distress”. Might it be that demonstrating is all about causing a little alarm in ruling circles?

The tone of Sunak’s remarks to the police chiefs is very worrying. He said: “There is a growing consensus that mob rule is replacing democratic rule. And we’ve got to collectively, all of us, change that urgently.”  Now, whatever side you take on issues of the day, by any historical standard recent protests in the UK have been fairly restrained.

At the start of the 20th century, at least four people were killed in violence deliberately instigated by supporters of direct action to gain female suffrage. Phosphorous letter bombs were sent to the prime minister and leading politicians – burning postal workers.

Railway signal wires were cut, disrupting rail commuting wholesale. Suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst was arrested for planning an attack on Lloyd George’s house. We are nowhere near this level of “mob violence”.

In the 1930s, Blackshirt fascist thugs clashed on British streets with left-wing and Jewish protesters, with a level of violence greater than anything we have seen in the UK in recent years.  In the Battle of Cable Street in October 1936, more than 100,000 anti-fascists fought the entire Metropolitan Police to a standstill, blocking a Blackshirt march through London’s East End.

There were repeated violent clashes in Scotland between fascists (often brought in from England) and protesters. In Edinburgh in 1934, anti-fascist demonstrators attacked a bus carrying Blackshirts, smashing the windows and blinding one fascist.

The result of this unprecedented street violence was the infamous Public Order Act, used by the Thatcher government half a century later to crush the 1984-85 miners’ strike. And talking of the miners’ strike, one can hardly compare the niggling provocations against the system of Extinction Rebellion with Arthur Scargill’s attempt to (in reality) bring down Margaret Thatcher. 

On June 18, 1984, 8000 miners assembled for a mass picket at the Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire. They were confronted by 4500 police officers from different forces who were there to batter the miners into submission. Much later, the miners sued for assault, wrongful arrest and malicious prosecution. In 1991, South Yorkshire Police paid out £425,000 in damages.

Sunak’s exaggerated protestations and Gove’s proposals for administrative bans are a sign this Tory Government is beyond being bankrupt of ideas – witness the vacuous, misleading Budget last week.

We are now in sinister territory. If history has any lessons, it is that loose, undemocratic legislation introduced in during a moral panic normally ends up later being used to restrict legitimate democratic rights. Which is why we must oppose Gove’s latest brainwave.

I’m suspicious about why  his plans have been leaked. Most likely he did it himself. It is part of the mood music the Tories are orchestrating as they head for electoral massacre. 

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They are indulging in a strategy of tension in order to hold on to whatever votes they can in the Tory heartlands and beyond the Red Wall. But they are only feeding the populist beast. Imagine Gove’s administrative bans in the hands of Nigel Farage or Suella Braverman.

Democracy is a tender plant. Late capitalism has showered us with commodities but only at the expense of eroding our humanity and making us perpetually anxious. To fill this emotional vacuum, the populist right is stirring up yet another  moral panic.  But remember – if they come for someone else today, they will come for you tomorrow.