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Is the UK turning into a rogue state?

James Jackson
James Jackson
October 4, 2020

The UK is more isolated than ever. Boris Johnson's Conservative government is breaking international treaties, ignoring political conventions and attacking human rights, writes DW's James Jackson.

Caricature showing Boris Johnson with the Union Jack in the background

"This is going to be a fantastic year for Britain" was Prime Minister Boris Johnson's prediction for 2020. He couldn't have been more wrong.

After a grueling winter election, months of parliamentary chaos and years of Brexit dominating British politics, many wished him well and supported the prime minister's optimism about Britain's future.

With one of the pandemic's highest excess deaths rates and over a million jobs lost, few are feeling quite so upbeat now. Worse yet, this Conservative government does not feel bound by any rules.

Johnson's affable, bumbling persona is something many Brits like. But while a gung-ho attitude and plenty of bluster can be useful on the campaign trail, Brits are rapidly discovering it is no way to run a country. As well as a cavalier approach to international law, many of the key figures in government don't even follow their own rules.

Johnson's adviser Dominic Cummings is seen as the brains behind the government and the wider Brexit project. But when his wife displayed COVID-19 symptoms, instead of following government guidelines and self-isolating at home, he drove with his family to a second home 300 miles (480 kilometers) away. He said he drove up there to be with his parents, as he feared he and his wife couldn't look after his kids if both he and his wife fell ill. Cummings subsequently also had coronavirus symptoms.

Later, he added that, when he was feeling better, he drove around the area "to test his eyesight," stretching credibility beyond its limits.

Despite an international outcry, Johnson refused to fire him. Invaluable public trust in social distancing measures was lost when citizens saw that it was one rule for their rulers and another for them.

Sowing discord and chaos

Johnson's parliamentary majority came on the back of disproving the naysayers and getting a Brexit deal without the backstop for Northern Ireland. His campaign's slogan was "get Brexit done," which attracted Leave voters from across the political spectrum, as well as those fed up of parliamentary chaos.

But nine months later, it seems like far from being "oven-ready," his Brexit deal is more of a dog's dinner. The new Internal Market Bill will break the law "in a specific and limited way," according to a minister. Try using that excuse next time you get caught drunk-driving. This shouldn't be the behavior of a country that prides itself as one of the founders of the post-war international order.

We saw hints of this Trumpian approach to laws and conventions with Johnson's threats of no-deal Brexit and when he suspended Parliament to prevent scrutiny of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. It was only actually voted on in Parliament due to a ruling by the Supreme Court, which was attacked by the right-wing press and labeled as "enemies of the people." 

Read moreOpinion: Boris Johnson's chaotic Brexit strategy 

DW editor James Jackson
DW's James JacksonImage: DW/P. Böll

Reliably unpredictable

The government isn't just ramming through illegal changes to Brexit bills that they campaigned on less than a year ago. More insidious is the "Overseas Operations Bill," which effectively decriminalizes torture by British soldiers if they aren't prosecuted within five years.

Contempt for human rights and international law is not new for the Conservatives. Johnson's predecessor Theresa May displayed an obsession with leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights and attacking lawyers, but she didn't have the political capital to pull it off.

Some will point out that British lawbreaking is nothing new. From colonialism to the Iraq war and the war on terror, the relationship of the UK to international law has always been murkier than assumed. But in the past, the country was bound by conventions, treaties, and alliances that it is now all too happy to jettison. Even senior US politicians have expressed concern about the Brexit bill's ramifications for the Good Friday agreement that ended the troubles in Northern Ireland. This new isolation and lawlessness, combined with its political strength, makes the government more unpredictable than ever.

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