‘Hostile, authoritarian’ UK downgraded in civic freedoms index

The UK has been downgraded in an annual global index of civic freedoms as a result of the government’s “increasingly authoritarian” drive to impose restrictive and punitive laws on public protests.

The Civicus Monitor, which tracks the democratic and civic health of 197 countries across the world, said the UK government was creating a “hostile environment” towards campaigners, charities and other civil society bodies.

The UK’s willingness to clamp down on civic freedoms such as the right to peaceful assembly means it is now classified as “obstructed” – putting it alongside countries such as Poland, South Africa and Hungary.

“The downgrade reflects the worrying trends we are seeing in restrictions across civil society that are threatening our democracy. The government should be setting a positive example to countries that have clamped down on civic space,” said Stephanie Draper, the chief executive of the Bond charity, a partner in the Civicus collaboration.

She added: “The UK is becoming increasingly authoritarian and is among concerning company in the Civicus Monitor ratings as restrictive laws and dangerous rhetoric are creating a hostile environment towards civil society in the UK.”

Civicus is a collaboration between more than 20 civil society organisations around the world, providing an annual update of the global relative health of civil society. Countries are classified as: open; narrowed; obstructed; repressed; or closed. The UK has been downgraded from “narrowed” to “obstructed”.

Its latest annual report cites a number of restrictive laws introduced or proposed. These include the Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Act, which gives the police unprecedented power to restrict protests and marches, and the Public Order Bill, now going through parliament, which is aimed at curbing so-called guerrilla-style protests

But it is also concerned by what it sees as the UK government’s attempts to undermine human rights and its hostility towards charities and campaigners who actively oppose or speak out against its policies on climate change, anti-racism and refugee and asylum seeker rights.

The UK government’s increasingly hardline approach is reflected in a separate annual survey of charities by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation (SMK), which reveals widespread alarm at the extent of ministers perceived hostility to civil society and enthusiasm for cracking down on long-held freedoms to organise and protest.

“The results of our survey, alongside the news Civicus has downgraded the UK as obstructed, should be a wake-up call. Our civic space is experiencing death by a thousand cuts and, at a time when ‘Global Britain’ is trying to carve out its new space in the world, we find ourselves in the same class as countries we have previously been a democratic example to,” said the SMK chief executive, Sue Tibballs.

The SMK’s annual campaigner survey found 94% of campaigners said there were threats to the freedom to organise, contribute to public debate, influence political decisions or protest. The same proportion agreed that “negative rhetoric” from politicians towards campaigners was threatening civic space.

One respondent said: “The government’s crackdown on campaigning is deeply alarming … and part of a wider drive to silence civil society and restore charities to this backwards idea of just being a service provider for a withdrawing state, without any actual campaigning response being allowed.”

Increasing hostility towards charities and campaigners by politicians and parts of the media had a “chilling effect” on some of their activities, they said.

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Some respondents said they had sometimes censored themselves for fear of a backlash. “We can’t always openly declare the truth of a situation due to funding constraints and for fear of damaging public and political relationships,” one said.

Despite this, the majority (62%) of charities said high-profile media attacks on organisations like the National Trust and RSPB made them more likely to speak out. Just 11% said they were cowed by the threat of being picked on by the media or politicians.

There was also a perception among some charities that the public were increasingly open to their campaigning message. As one respondent put it: “The public seem slightly more ready to listen and engage in campaigns due to a general sense of things being unjust.”

A government spokesperson said: “This government is committed to protecting freedom of expression and protest, which is a fundamental principle of our democracy.

“However, the right to protest must be balanced with preserving the ability of the law-abiding majority to go about their daily business. We must ensure there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security, essential services and effective government.”

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