To say that 2020 has been an unusual year is an understatement. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the package of government measures introduced in response, continue to dramatically impact our day-to-day lives. Even the most ordinary activities are subject to myriad restrictions and we find ourselves consciously weighing up the potential risks that even the simplest acts pose to others. In these respects, the pandemic has highlighted issues that form the crux of debates concerning human rights and civil liberties.
This week, a report into government procurement practices during the pandemic was released by the National Audit Office. According to the report, Covid-19 contracts worth over £9 billion were awarded without competitive tender. We also learnt that the government has been operating a “high-priority lane”, whereby politically well-connected suppliers were ten times more likely to be granted public contracts.
In the summer, it took a public campaign by Manchester United forward, Marcus Rashford, to force the government into providing free school meal vouchers to children from low-income households during the holidays. Commenting on the government’s U-turn, Boris Johnson, betraying not the slightest hint of shame, stated that “we have to understand the pressure that families are under right now”.
The government has announced to the world that it intends to break international law. It was an unusually frank admission from this government. Rather than heads shaking in denial, or the usual tripartite strategy of deflection, evasion and obfuscation, ministers have been very open about what they are doing.
Chemical castration or go to prison for up to two years – that was the choice faced by Alan Turing when he was convicted of “gross indecency” in 1952. “Gross indecency”, which here meant any form of homosexual activity amongst men, was a criminal offence under the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 (otherwise known as the Labouchère Amendment).
In 1517, on what became known as Evil May Day, an anti-immigration riot flared up in London. Resentment towards immigrants had been building for some time. Then, a fortnight prior to the riot, a broker named John Lincoln persuaded a preacher named Dr Bell (or Beal) to deliver a sermon in which he blamed immigrants for the abject poverty suffered by the local Englishmen, accusing the former of taking the latter’s jobs and depriving them of their livelihoods.
The Government failed to take the necessary action to safeguard our democracy from Russian interference. That was the damning conclusion drawn by the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (the “ISC”) in its report, which was finally released on Tuesday following a nine-month delay.
There is nothing new about political favours. Party leaders will often nominate loyal supporters for peerages, and key allies tend to find their way onto government or opposition front benches whether they are qualified for their office or not. Such appointments seem to have attained the status of political convention and are borne with a certain acceptance. That acceptance, however, has it limits.