In How Democracy Ends, David Runciman cautions against the expectation that democracies will end in the future in the way that they have ended in the past. Our pictures of the death of democracy, he says, are pictures of military coups and dictators, of the collapse of short-lived, fragile institutions. But these pictures are misleading: history does not repeat itself. The biggest contemporary threat to democracy is not some American reenactment of the March on Rome, but Mark Zuckerberg and the slow replacement of democratic politics with a kind of utilitarian technocracy.

How Democracy Ends was written in the wake of the election of Donald Trump. Part of Runciman’s aim was to counter hyperbolic liberal reactions to that election and to the new US President. But widespread refusal among Republicans to recognise the 2020 US presidential election result and the subsequent Capitol Insurrection were still to come. Had Runciman known about them, perhaps he would have drawn different conclusions. If history is not repeating itself, it may nevertheless be echoing.

The public has been listening most intently to the echoes in the US, where there is dramatic talk of insurrection and civil war. Yet the echoes resound in the UK, too. And although these may be less fascinating, they are arguably more alarming. For overthrowing a democratically elected government, as Trump’s supporters apparently hoped to do, is not the only way that democracy has been extinguished in the past. Another has been for governments to do it themselves from the inside, dismantling essential institutions until what remained was merely a zombie democracy, a charade of representation and choice. What is more, this way of doing things is more likely to be effective precisely because it is so much less flagrant, attracting less attention as the work of governments regarded as democratically legitimate.

And that is what has been happening in the UK. I am not talking about the Government’s attempt to prorogue Parliament in 2019 as a way to avoid scrutiny of its plans for leaving the EU. That may have been a foretaste, but as part of the Brexit storm that had battered the country in the years following the 2016 referendum it was a matter of very public contestation, and a temporary measure in any case. By contrast, a raft of legislation that the Government has pursued in the last two years threatens permanent damage to UK democracy, yet has barely pierced public consciousness. The Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts (PCSC) Bill, the Nationality and Borders Bill, the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, the Elections Bill, and the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Act are nakedly authoritarian efforts both to increase the state’s power over British citizens and to curb those citizens’ capacity to resist.

Among anti-democratic measures too many to list here, the Government has sought to limit the ability of citizens to seek judicial review of unjust government decisions and the ability of journalists to report whistleblowers’ claims of government wrongdoing. It has sought to criminalise protests that block roads, or that the police deem noisy enough to cause “serious unease” to passers-by, or that involve protesters holding hands. It has sought to ban citizens from attending protests on the mere suspicion that they might do any of these things, and to give the police powers to stop and search people even without suspicion if they think a protest may occur in the area. It has empowered the police to authorise criminal conduct by undercover officers—including rape, murder and torture — merely in the name of “preventing disorder” or the economic interests of the United Kingdom. It has sought to criminalise trespass in a targeted attack on the already persecuted Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller minority, to require compulsory photographic ID in order to vote, in full knowledge that millions of British citizens—chiefly those who tend not to vote Conservative—have no such ID, to remove the independence of the Electoral Commission (which oversees elections), and to give the Home Secretary the power to strip anyone she likes of British citizenship without telling them if she thinks they are theoretically eligible for citizenship elsewhere. Many of these measures were introduced in non-standard ways, via Parliamentary mechanisms designed to avoid full democratic scrutiny, such as cramming readings that would normally take days into a single afternoon, and introducing momentous amendments in the Lords rather than the Commons.

Some of this made short-lived headlines here and there. But notwithstanding the heroic efforts of a few vigilant journalists, the sustained assault on democracy that the bills constitute as a whole has largely been ignored, if not actively supported, by the media institutions that the British rely upon for their sense of the world. The Government certainly felt confident enough to ignore familiar voices speaking out against it: the petitions, the briefings by human rights groups, the letters signed by charities, academics, community leaders, and professionals. It felt confident enough, too, to ignore the Kill the Bill protests that flared up around the country in response to the PCSC Bill in particular, no doubt reassured by the relatively small numbers and the prominent presence among the protesters of the very activists and minorities it aimed to stifle. Widespread distaste for these people (despite recognition of the justice of their causes), long encouraged by mainstream media, made it unlikely that the public would pay them much heed. Niemöller was talking about somewhere else, of course.

The Government was also perhaps emboldened by the supine response of a Labour Party more preoccupied by dissociating itself from the left and the charge that it is soft on crime than by fundamental democratic rights. Labour MPs and peers trooped through the lobby in opposition to some of these measures, but on several occasions the party decided to oppose them only at the last minute, or did not whip the vote. And instead of telling a story of the freedoms being stolen from us all, the Labour leadership largely bought into the personality cult surrounding Boris Johnson, focusing on his personal failings rather than the deeper and much more chilling creeping authoritarianism of his government. Maybe some Labour strategists were quietly looking forward to the day when they would form a government again and would be able to avail themselves of the powers to stifle dissent that they had so weakly opposed. Maybe the alleged civil libertarians on the Conservative benches who voted for them were rash enough to think that their interests could never be sufficiently threatened for them to resort to protest. Either way, the Government seemed likely to get away with its assaults.

But then hope dawned. In January 2022, Peers sitting in the House of Lords inflicted an extraordinary 14 defeats on the Government over the PCSC bill. They voted against banning orders designed to stop citizens from attending protests; against new police powers to impose noise restrictions on protests and to restrict public assemblies; against the criminalisation of one-person protests, of ‘locking on’, of obstructing major transport works and “key national infrastructure”, of wilfully obstructing the public highway; and against the expansion of stop and search powers. Elected representatives in the House of Commons had either voted these measures through or been powerless to stop them. But the unelected members of the House of Lords— hardly a jewel in the UK’s democratic crown—had stepped up to defend democracy.

You might be forgiven for interpreting this as a surprising lesson in the wisdom of the great and the good, or noblesse oblige. But in fact it is as much a story of democracy’s fightback, of citizen power. For lying behind these momentous votes in the House of Lords was an unprecedented campaign of citizen lobbying, at the heart of which was a small, committed team of activists from Extinction Rebellion. Appalled and alarmed by the Government’s actions and parliamentarians’ apparent insouciance, this team diverted its attention from the civil disobedience that is Extinction Rebellion’s normal modus operandi to stage a ‘Digital Rebellion’. If peers could ignore or underestimate the strength of feeling on the streets, insulated from it as they were in the Palace of Westminster, they would not be able to ignore this.

That the Digital Rebellion got through to peers was not fundamentally thanks to any new technology, however. Despite the name, it represented a return to basic ideas of institutional democracy: ordinary citizens contacting legislators to make known their concerns about proposed legislation. The Digital Rebellion website listed crossbench peers carefully chosen, after detailed research by the Digital Rebellion team, for the likelihood that they would be open to persuasion to speak and vote against the Government. It provided their parliamentary telephone numbers and scripts for respectful telephone calls, templates for emails, and the option to record contact efforts and peers’ responses to them.

Simple as these ideas were, they amounted to something new in contemporary UK democracy: a kind of levelling of the lobbying playing field between ordinary citizens and the professional lobbyists who have enjoyed more or less unique access to legislators in the Lords. And those ordinary citizens embraced the chance they had been given: more than 22,000 letters and emails were sent to peers, and—even more strikingly—more than 800 phone calls were made. Peers found themselves speaking to ordinary people from around the country in a way that they had never done before. One reported receiving such a flood of messages and calls that dealing with it became a “nightmare”. If the vote had looked like a bloodless exercise in legality and constitutionality before, it did not now. It was about real impacts on real people, people whom peers speaking in the Lords could now claim to represent with new authority.

The success of the Digital Rebellion highlights the democratic power that ordinary citizens still have even as formal electoral systems are stacked against them, institutionalised campaign groups are just a predictable part of the furniture, and protestors on the street are demonised. The remoteness of legislators from most of the citizenry makes it easy for them to ignore dissident voices in these circumstances. But the legislators are human, and most of them take themselves seriously as servants of the public. As lobbyists have always known, there is a special power in human contact, in making abstract ideas about the public and its concerns concrete through respectful conversations with individuals. It is not surprising that peers could be moved by the force of thousands of such conversations.

If democracy is to survive, the connection between representatives and those they represent must be more than merely formal. It must be personal. When the representatives live lives apart from the great majority, that personal connection cannot be taken for granted, and if it withers, democracy will wither too. The need for the Digital Rebellion in response to the PCSC Bill was a reminder of the danger. But it was also a reminder of the way democracy can withstand assault: not only via protest and disobedience, but via a reforging of that personal connection, a broadening of channels of direct communication between citizens and legislators. Digital technology will have an essential role to play, but the underlying principle is as old as democracy itself.

Resounding as the Government’s defeat in the House of Lords was, the assault on democracy goes on. Many of the measures that the Lords rejected will be reinserted when the PCSC Bill returns to the House of Commons on Monday, and of course that bill is only one of many anti-democratic legislative moves that the Government is making.

It has never been more important to broaden and use the channels between legislators and citizens. 80–90 Conservative MPs in the House of Commons must defy the whip if the democratic protections won in the House of Lords are to be defended. Like the peers, those MPs are not immune to the democratic power of citizen contact. And as with the peers, the team behind the Digital Rebellion have done the work of identifying those MPs likely to be most amenable to persuasion and drafting template telephone conversation scripts and email templates. Thanks to their extraordinary efforts, the channels have been opened for us; now we must, as citizens, make use of them. The threat to democratic freedom is real. But this is how democracy fights back.

Go to to defend democracy now.

Thomas Sinclair

Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wadham College and the University of Oxford

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