So, apparently, suggests... the Lord Chancellor? You are kidding me, right? It seems not.
What that means is one of four things;
- He actually believes that, in which case, he needs to come up with a definition of “acceptable”, and fast, or;
- He didn’t mean that, in which he needs to clarify the position, or;
- He doesn’t understand the significance of what he said, or;
- He believes that retaining his job is far more important than the rule of law, which means that he is unfit for public office.
Actually, he probably needs to go in cases 1, 3 and 4 but, given that I am yet to see that case 2 is pertinent, he probably just needs to go.
This is, for anyone in a regulatory role, more than a little troubling. If the Lord Chancellor suggests that there is an acceptable level of law breaking, there is the obvious question, “And why doesn’t this apply to me?”. It is, under such circumstances, not a wholly unreasonable question.
Now, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that, if the law is designed to protect citizens from anything from personal violence to abuse by an over-mighty state, anything that undermines it offers potential risks to us all. And yes, I do hear the argument that breaking the law for a righteous cause is defensible, but the response I would offer is, what if somebody else’s righteous cause is decidedly harmful to others? Not so sure now, are you?
And, of course, a government deciding what parts of the law are acceptable or unacceptable and trying to change them in Parliament is one thing - it happens all of the time - but doing it to an international agreement that you signed and stating publicly that you’re going to do so is quite another, especially if you’re hoping to conclude a whole bunch of other international agreements. You see, people talk to each other, they read our press, they see the statements of our politicians in real time. In other words, this isn’t a game where, if you’re losing, you can just quit playing without consequence and start again.
But then, this increasingly seems to be a government which operates on the principle that the rules don’t apply to it. And maybe, domestically, that’s true to a certain extent - you only need to convince enough people of your credibility to win a majority, and there are a lot of very trusting, or very naive, or very stupid, or a combination of the above, to allow a group of people for whom lying appears to have no consequence to hold and use power. It isn’t true internationally.
International agreements tend to hinge on two things - power and trust. If you’re China, or the United States, or the European Union, you have power, either economic, military or both. If you’re Norway, or Canada, or New Zealand, you have trust - people tend to think of you as the “good guys” whose word can be relied upon. Alternatively, you’re Zimbabwe or Venezuela - nobody trusts your government, you have no military or economic power, and you’re isolated in your misery.
Britain had both - as a nuclear power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council and as the fifth largest economy - although the value of the size of your national economy does drop off quite quickly (the United States had a nominal GDP of $21.4 trillion in 2019, China at $14.1 trillion, the United Kingdom in sixth place at $2.7 trillion). That was significantly augmented by our membership of the European Union (nominal GDP of $18.7 trillion).
That latter figure kind of explains why the European Union can throw its weight around in talks with China and the United States, and why the United Kingdom alone can’t.
So, if you can’t play with the big boys on equal economic terms, and you can’t threaten them militarily, you have to rely on your reputation and trustworthiness. can see where the problem is with having a government which plays hard and fast in its dealings with its neighbours.
In a proper government, the law officers are there to ensure that the law is adhered to. Their advice should be above reproach, untainted by politics. Here, that really can’t be said, which means that there is nobody to say, “hang on a moment, you really can’t do that”. And when a Cabinet Minister gets up in Parliament and says, “we are breaking the law”, and the response of the Lord Chancellor is to quibble about the extent to which the law is being broken, we have a system of governance which is broken.
Can you run a country like that? If you can, what would it look like? We may be about to find out...