Demagogues like Johnson are putting the rule of law under threat. We have to fight to defend it

Celebrate the rule of law - we may need more of it in coming days.

Full marks to the British people: quick surveys yesterday showed strong support for the decision of the Supreme Court to reverse Boris Johnson’s suspension of parliament.

I suspect the advocates’ arguments that our current informal conventions do nothing to stop a prime minister winning an election and then declaring a five-year prorogation of parliament struck home.

But of course acidic, dangerous anti-judge poison is pouring out from the rightwing media – fed by the like of that great champion of the common people Jacob Rees-Mogg calling the ruling a “constitutional coup”. And it is running riot in the wilder reaches of social media.

The judges themselves, as respected commentator David Allen Green in the Financial Times reported, had done everything possible to not leave obvious points of attack. This was a unanimous verdict from the largest possible body of the court (not enough has been made of either of those points). 

It was expressed in the clearest, simplest, least open to interpretation language you could imagine in a legal document. It didn’t pull its punches, but didn’t indulge in rhetoric. It was forensic, clear, damning.

There was no figleaf of precedent for the judges – that great common comfort of lawyers – because the actions of the Prime Minister were unprecedented, the sheer bald effrontery of claiming that the suspension of parliament was not an attempt to thwart the will of elected members, drawing straight from the Trump playbook of “alternative facts”. 

Yet our Prime Minister has not changed his tactics. He’s in a situation that not many years ago would have been seen as a clear, unquestionable resigning matter, yet he’s continuing on like this is a minor hiccup – coming back for today’s parliamentary sitting, sure, but still bumbling, joking and citing Classical myths to bemused international audiences.

Michael Gove, asked on the Today programme, if he thought his boss had done something wrong, responded: “I don’t believe so.”

Then there’s the “minor” matter of Boris Johnson’s relationship with the entrepreneur Jennifer Ancuri, more questionable spending from his past to add to the garden bridge and the huge waste of the “Boris buses”. 

Meanwhile in the US our Prime Minister has just left, his ally and mentor Donald Trump faces impeachment, for allegedly seeking to blackmail a foreign power to strike against a domestic rival.

And Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has broken diplomatic protocol to express, in barely coded language, his support for Trump

We have in power in the Anglosphere three very dangerous men, allied in rhetoric, tactics and intent – to maintain and enhance the power of the few under the cover of populist rhetoric.

It is a good time to state it loudly and clearly – we believe in the rule of law. And we need to institute it in the UK with our constitution.

We’ve been ruled in the UK for many centuries by “convention” – the assumption that unwritten rules will just be followed by “good chaps” – so there’s no need to write down what they are.

That’s clearly failed and broken down.

I lived in Thailand for five years. I know what it is like to be in a country where there is no trust in the rule of law, where it was seen to be at best a thin fiction. 

Accompanying that was many ills – and above all a situation where money could buy you very nearly anything – including help you get away with murder or ecocide.

The rule of law is not guaranteed, even in places where it is seen as a given. It’s clearly being defied at the highest levels, against parliament and individuals, as again and again this government’s Hostile Environment has been exposed as acting illegally. 

It’s beholden on all of us to defend it, and to also deliver change, to ensure that there’s a democratic system of governance – the truly representative, functional democracy that the UK has never had.

That would mean much less need to recourse to law to defend against the misuse of the power of the state, whether it is being used against parliament, communities or individuals. We can celebrate the importance of what the judges have just done, while wishing we needed to rely on them much less.

Natalie Bennett is former leader of the Green Party and soon to be a Green peer. She is a Contributing Editor for Left Foot Forward.

8 Responses to “Demagogues like Johnson are putting the rule of law under threat. We have to fight to defend it”

  1. Patrick Newman

    Gove was allowed by Justin Webb on Today to get away with dissembling and talking of many other issues. Gove even complained of being constantly interrupted when he clearly was not going to give a straight answer to questions!

  2. spiv

    “……….. – and above all a situation where money could buy you very nearly anything”

    Yeah, like a compliant bunch of politically motivated ‘judges’ to help cancel Brexit, eh Natalie?

  3. Maurice Frank

    Impartiality of judges itself is a good chap convention, + made an impossibility to rely on by the fact of human nature. Just because this case went the way that progressives favour – and that after high nerves that it would not – does not take away the many cases where arguments have been left unanswered + judgments gone against ordinary people in terrible situations: e.g, in asylum cases or criminal appeals. Finality of decision is a mediaeval abusable power, + for 20 years all sides of the body pollitic have ignored, despite giving no argument against, evidence that finality has indeed been abolished as an effect of a court claiming a factual impossibility to be a final decision. That court actually being the European Court of Human Rights, too!: in case 41597/98 it made a final decision that an event at an earlier date followed an event at a later date. viz

  4. Hali

    The judges were not political. That is an accusation always made by people who have strongly political agendas and don’t like how the law is dispensed with fairness and clarity.

    when comments arisen claiming a judge is acting “politically”, — generally that means “not in accordance with what my political agenda is”. This judgement deals with how someone used politics for a specific agenda contrary to the will of Parliament and aimed to pitch a “Parliament vs the people” agenda which is itself clearly political in nature, not lawful.

    We must appreciate the court for upholding the rule of law – that a Prime Minister cannot act in such a clearly political way to manipulate the ability of Parliament to do its job. THAT attempt was “political” and not, as Johnson claimed, merely “administrative”.

    Apart from upholding rule of law, we also need to combat gaslighting techniques by those who wish to manipulate the judiciary, and Parliament for their own political agendas, up to and including the Prime Minister.

    Thank you, Natalie for your well thought out article.

  5. Ultraviolet

    Spiv, the judges have published their reasoning in full. The fact that you simply hurl abuse at them, rather than citing the judgement and explaining where the eleven finest legal minds in the country got the law wrong, is the ultimate proof that it is the attacks on the judges that are political and not the judgement.

    And Maurice, the very fact that there were nerves about which way the result would go drives a stake through the heart of the bias argument. If they were biased, there would have been no nerves, because we would already have known the outcome.

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