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The Conservative Party is about the rule of law or it is nothing

Our tradition of respect for the law underpins who we are and how we are seen, writes Bob Neill MP. | PA Images

4 min read

The Government's admission on Tuesday that they would be willing to break international law is deeply concerning. Where problems have arisen in the Withdrawal Agreement, we need to find alternative solutions through negotiation, not unlawfulness.

The Government should be in no doubt: how we conduct ourselves and the manner in which we do business matters. That’s always been the case, but none more so than now. We are, after all, in the midst of a global pandemic, hurtling towards the end of the transition period at a time when the geopolitical outlook has rarely seemed so uncertain and fragile. 

There is never a time to play fast and loose with our international obligations, nor the rules-based order which underpins them, but to do so now would be an act of immeasurable self-harm. 

Over the last four years an incredible amount of energy and resource has been dedicated to promoting Britain’s global pedigree and recasting our image as an ambitious, outward looking nation ready to strike deals on our own. At the heart of that should lie an understanding of what the British brand means abroad. 

One of our primary selling points is our steadfast adherence to, and respect for, the law, making Britain both a reliable and respected trading partner and a safe and fair place to do business. Indeed, the rule of law is one of our great exports. 

Our uniquely eminent role, over hundreds of years, in furthering the cause of the law, forging many of what are now considered the norms of good governance around the world, should be a source of immense pride for the UK. It defines who we are and shapes how we are perceived by our international friends. 

The Magna Carta, habeas corpus, the Petition of Right, the Bill of Rights, the system of common law – this is the enduring legacy of our ancestors. Together, they have been used as models for, among others, the US Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to this day remain templates for fledgling democracies around the world.

In short, our tradition of respect for the law underpins who we are and how we are seen. We take that for granted at our peril. 

The admission yesterday that the Government would be willing to break international law, even as a contingency, no matter how limited in scope, is deeply concerning.

Not only would it damage our reputation, creating suspicion and mistrust as we seek to enter other international agreements, but it would also erode the authority we have to speak out when others act unlawfully, be that Russia carrying out crimes on foreign soil, or an increasingly aggressive and expansionist China committing heinous human rights violations or breeching the agreement they entered into in respect of Hong Kong. 

Breaking an international agreement, as one of our first acts as a once again fully sovereign state, would be a grave mistake.

Adherence to the rule of law is not negotiable. You can’t pick and choose which parts of it you abide by and the law applies equally, whether it’s convenient or not. As Thomas Fuller once famously wrote (and Lord Denning famously quoted), ‘be you never so high, the Law is above you.’ The Government would do well to remember that. 

The Prime Minister has my full support in the ongoing EU negotiations and I desperately want us to secure a deal. But the facts remain: the Withdrawal Agreement is an international agreement we negotiated, Parliament supported, and which has subsequently been registered as an international treaty with the UN. Being a sovereign state doesn’t mean you can unilaterally disapply the law or change the goalposts retrospectively. 

While some will say there are precedents for defaulting on specific obligations we’ve signed up to, these have been predicated on a major change in circumstances.

However much the majority of us don’t want it, the prospect of a no-deal has always been a risk the UK has been aware of and acknowledged. Where legitimate problems have arisen, including around the Northern Ireland Protocol, we need to find an alternative solution through negotiation, not unlawfulness. 

This shouldn’t be a factional issue. It isn’t even about Brexit. This concerns our commitment to the law and how we want to be seen in the world. Breaking an international agreement, as one of our first acts as a once again fully sovereign state, would be a grave mistake.  

The Conservative Party is about the rule of law or it is nothing. Expediency isn’t a reason to forfeit that. 


Bob Neill is the Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst and chair of the justice committee.

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