Nik Williams: The coronation of Theresa May - A cautionary tale

Scottish PEN's Nik Williams asks what the era of Theresa May as prime minister will mean for civil liberties

THE swift accession of the surveillacrat Theresa May is now complete. Following her stewardship of the Home Office and the stepping aside of Andrea Leadsom as a leadership challenger, Theresa May has taken over the role of prime minister of the UK and all defenders of civil liberties should be deeply concerned.

May’s tenure of the Home Office has been defined by a heavy hand that brought a distinct lack of humanity to immigration, the treatment of refugees, rights governance across the UK and Europe, LGBT rights, torture and, most recently, suspicionless surveillance. We can only imagine how this approach will colour her time in Number 10.

May will lead a much changed and fragmented UK following the tumult that has followed the EU referendum. Healing is needed between and within parties, communities and countries. 

May’s tenure of the Home Office has been defined by a heavy hand that brought a distinct lack of humanity to immigration, the treatment of refugees, rights governance across the UK and Europe, LGBT rights, torture and, most recently, suspicionless surveillance.

At this time of unprecedented instability, May has championed her steadiness, even more so in the face of Leadsom’s emotionally charged call to arms for the traditional conservative issues (Europe, fox hunting and motherhood). 

This has not been a choice between the right and the centre of the Tory party; the choice has, instead, been between two conflicting sections of the party’s right wing.

During her time as home secretary, a coherent defence of civil liberties was severely lacking throughout the government’s actions. You only have to revisit May’s treatment of Abu Qatada and the drawn out attempts to deport him to understand her antipathy towards civil liberties – the very real threat of torture was seemingly not enough to dampen her desire to see our shores rid of him.

Human rights protect everyone, even those who may wish us harm; if they do not, they can no longer be called human rights, but something else entirely. This has defined the government’s approach to human rights: when questioned by the House of Lords about the much-maligned British Bill of Rights, Michael Gove followed May’s lead, stating: "We may emphasise the importance of one right over another." Treating human rights, it seems, like a game of Top Trumps.

This is a deeply troubling approach to principles that underpin our democracy. It is compounded by May’s recent declaration that "if we want to reform human rights laws in this country, it isn’t the EU we should leave but the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its court". 

This has not been a choice between the right and the centre of the Tory party; the choice has, instead, been between two conflicting sections of the party’s right wing.

While she has recently back-pedalled from this statement, we cannot see this as a U-turn, but rather as an evidence of her astute reading of the current political landscape, which is far from fixed or immovable.

Citing a lack of a 'parliamentary majority' as the reason for her change of heart, she knows that this is something she can hold up her sleeve waiting for the make up of parliament to change, something the Labour chaos may help bring about.

This brings us swiftly on to the Investigatory Powers Bill (IP Bill). Here at Scottish PEN we have vigorously opposed this Bill as a real and distinct threat to free expression and privacy, but our calls and the calls of organisations and individuals across the UK have gone unheeded. 

The Bill now travels through the House of Lords, with very few substantial amendments expected. We are now in the position where the Bill’s architect, the mind behind the most audacious expansion of our surveillance capabilities in the modern age, has secured the highest office in the land. 

This is a Bill that has no precedent in established western democracies, finding support instead from both China and Russia who have either directly cited the IP Bill as an influence for their own surveillance laws, or have repurposed the Bill’s powers for their own domestic laws. 

What does her accession mean for the IP Bill? The overwhelming support for the Bill, as evidenced in the vote in the Bill’s third reading, which saw only one Conservative rebel, gave her a broad pool from which to select her successor.

It is unclear as to whether offering a blueprint to two of the world’s worst human rights violators was what Theresa May meant when she proclaimed the Bill to be "world leading".

What does her accession mean for the IP Bill? The overwhelming support for the Bill, as evidenced in the vote in the Bill’s third reading, which saw only one Conservative rebel, gave her a broad pool from which to select her successor.

With Amber Rudd announced on Wednesday as the new home secretary, the PM might have found someone unlikely to rock the boat or meaningfully challenge the existing government line on the need for the Bill. But with both the House of Lords' response and the upcoming independent review of bulk powers undertaken by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson QC, to contend with, Rudd’s appointment is not without significance.

But will any call for reform be heard and acted upon by the secretary of state put in place by the very minister who drafted the Bill in the first place? Patronage can be a powerful driver, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Only time can tell.

Theresa May as prime minister is a development that positions civil liberties on the firing line of the Conservative party. Her antipathy towards our fundamental freedoms demands greater scrutiny and involvement by politicians of all parties and civil society to proclaim that human rights are not obstacles that need to be avoided, they are protections for all of us that sit at the heart of our democracy.

With Amber Rudd announced on Wednesday as the new home secretary, the PM might have found someone unlikely to rock the boat or meaningfully challenge the existing government line on the need for the Bill.

An informed and engaged electorate is needed now more than ever; ensuring our voices are heard over the trumpets heralding Theresa May’s coronation. 

Our silence would be the greatest housewarming gift she could ask for.

Picture courtesy of Cheshire East Council

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