UK democracy has a serious problem. No one, not even an organisation with 1.2 million members, is allowed to call government ministers liars when they tell lies.
On Wednesday, the RSPB, the charity for bird lovers, tweeted its objection to the government’s U-turn on its promise not to weaken environmental laws, a move that will allow even more pollution to stream into England’s already shit-filled rivers.
“LIARS! @RishiSunak @michaelgove @theresecoffey you said you wouldn’t weaken environmental protections. And yet that’s just what you are doing. You lie, and you lie, and you lie again. And we’ve had enough.”
It was retweeted 20,000 times.
But by the following morning, bosses at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had been forced into a humiliating backdown after pressure from a Conservative MP and much of the British media, and the threat of an investigation by the charity watchdog.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Beccy Speight, the charity’s chief executive, said she did not approve the post, and apologised for it. This was not, it’s worth noting, because she thought the government hadn’t lied.
The new policy, Speight said, “completely goes against the commitments that the government has made many times in the past, not to weaken environmental protections, most recently when the retained EU law bill was going through in the summer.
“This completely contravenes those commitments and that’s what’s led us to be so frustrated and so angry about the proposed amendment coming through.”
She said the charity was apologising because “the nature of public discourse does matter and that we have a role to play in that, and that we campaign on policy, not on people. So, the framing of that tweet, where we called out individual people, we felt was incorrect and inappropriate, and we apologise for that.”
The evening before Speight’s apology, Tory MP Mark Jenkinson had called on the Charity Commission to strip RSPB of its status. The Commission, astonishingly, responded by saying they were “assessing this matter”.
The tabloids also weighed in. Even after Speight’s apology, The Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh accused the charity of becoming a “provisional wing of the Labour Party” and The Telegraph published an article headlined: “How the Left turned the RSPB from pro-conservation to anti-Conservative”.
The reality is, of course, obvious. The people who pollute our public discourse are liars like the prime minister and environment secretary, who make and then flagrantly break promises.
Trust in British politics is astonishingly low because people see how politicians lie again and again and again with no consequence and no one calling them out, and come to the conclusion that no political promise is worth anything. They conclude that there is no point in voting because politicians will say anything to get elected and then do the opposite.
When the RSPB’s social media staffer wrote, “You lie, and you lie, and you lie again. And we’ve had enough”, they spoke not just for the organisation, but for the country – for the hundreds of people I’ve chatted with up and down Britain in recent months, and for millions more who feel the same way.
If we’re going to win ourselves a democracy we can have any kind of faith in, it will start with robust civil society institutions standing up to those in power and speaking the truth on behalf of their members, not kowtowing to the feudal rules of propriety dictated from the House of Commons.
Of course the state of public discourse matters. Of course we shouldn’t threaten violence or use bigoted language or focus on salacious details of each others’ personal lives.
But RSPB didn’t do any of that. They spoke the truth. They challenged lies. And they were savaged for it by a system terrified of any confrontation with reality.
This might all seem like the usual fluff in social media land. But we have to understand it in a broader context.
The 2014 Lobbying Act, introduced by David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s government, radically restricted charities’ ability to participate in the democratic process. Big businesses, millionaires and shady think tanks were left to set the agenda of national debate, while people concerned about poverty or wildlife or cancer care were told to shut up or face heavy fines.
The world is in the middle of its sixth mass extinction event. Britain – one of the most nature-depleted countries on earth – has seen an astonishing decline in its wildlife in recent years and decades. 30% of British bird species are threatened with extinction. And yet the charity that exists to protect them can’t even call out political lies when it sees them.
Conservative commentators love to bleat about supposed cancel culture whenever anyone points out that one of their self-selected talking heads is a bigot. But when an organisation that represents literally millions of members speaks up with a peep of truth, they scream them down with threats and fury. And that’s the real cancel culture.
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