Bob Neill MP: Article 50 case has exposed worrying vacuum in our understanding of UK constitutional politics
4 min read
Ignoring the sacrosanctity of parliamentary sovereignty and judicial independence has had repercussions in Britain before warns Bob Neill MP.
Adorning the walls of Westminster Hall in 2015 was an excellent exhibition celebrating 800 years of Magna Carta. Thousands of visitors of all ages came to see the series of impressive banners designed to bring to life the events, people and movements that have made Britain the modern democracy it is, starting, rather haphazardly, with a despotic king appeasing his rebel barons in a field in Runnymede.
While King John’s promises to uphold certain liberties may have rung hollow in a matter of months, what this great charter has come to represent - the notion of the rule of law, the applicability of trial by jury, and the limitation of regal authority – has charted the course of this nation and stood as a checklist for fledgling democracies around the world.
The independence of our judiciary remains central to this, as does the commitment made by all British governments, now through the Lord Chancellor, that our judges will not be leant upon or bullied while carrying out their duties. After all, it is their role to ensure the law is enforced impartially and consistently, and that includes in cases brought against the executive. As Thomas Fuller once famously wrote (and Lord Denning famously quoted), ‘be you never so high, the Law is above you.’
In recent months members of our judiciary, first at the High Court and then, last week, at the Supreme Court, were asked to answer a legal point of significant importance on the process of leaving the EU, and they did so, rightly and faithfully, in accordance with their oath. They were not making a judgement on the legitimacy of the Referendum vote, and they certainly weren’t seeking to thwart the ‘will of the people’ in an act of judicial activism, as some have suggested. They were simply ensuring the Government triggered Article 50 through the proper, legal process. That a member of the public was able to hold the Government to account on this issue in the highest court in the land is a triumph for democracy, and something we should be immensely proud of.
The outburst of ill-informed, personal vilification, and in cases, homophobic abuse, that followed the November decision, including from the media and some politicians, discredits us all. Of course, many people will have not agreed with their judgement, and of course, there is nothing wrong with those people saying so. But to do so in a way that brings into question judicial integrity and insinuates any motivation other than to uphold the rule of law undermines the independence of our judges. Ultimately, the freedom of expression, another cherished cornerstone of our democracy, should not give license to abuse against individuals who, by virtue of their oath, cannot defend themselves publically.
What’s more concerning, despite this process having been explained for the umpteenth time, there are still some who – either through ignorance or wilful neglect – propose a shake-up of the way judges are appointed, suggesting credit should be given to those who blindly enforce the will of the people or who demonstrate complicity with the state. Just look at any of the world’s violent authoritarian regimes and you will see this approach at their rotten core. It leads to either vigilantism or executive lawlessness. In such situations, the law should be our only guide.
The Article 50 case has exposed a worrying vacuum in the understanding of the legal processes and constitutional politics that underpin our way of life. Britain’s future leaders, in every line of work, need to better comprehend the rule of law, and I am delighted that organisations like the Bar Council and the APPG for Public Legal Education are taking steps to address this problem, including through a programme of classes in schools.
Ignoring the sacrosanctity of parliamentary sovereignty and judicial independence has had repercussions in Britain before, most notably with a ruler losing his head on a plinth opposite modern day Downing Street. Based on the reactions of some, it would have been wise if an outing to the 2015 Magna Carta exhibition had been made a three line whip for all of us involved in politics.
Bob Neill is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Bromley and Chislehurst
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