The UK risks losing all moral authority on law-breaking if the Internal Markets Bill goes ahead
The UK Internal Market Bill is one of the most important that this House will debate this session – as important as the EU Withdrawal Bill, voted on in January, that it seeks to undermine, writes Alistair Carmichael MP. | PA Images
The UK Internal Market Bill strikes at the future constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom as a unitary state. There is still time for us to reject this murky path the government have decided on.
We have probably all heard it said that justice sometimes not only has to be seen to be done, it sometimes has to be seen to be believed.
Many years ago I had a colleague in legal practice who prosecuted a case in Inverurie District Court. At the end of the trial the magistrate returned a verdict of NOT guilty – and then proceeded to lecture the accused in the dock that this was unacceptable behaviour and that he “really must not do it again”.
I don’t remember much about the detail of the case, but I am pretty certain that it could have been described as a “specific and limited” breach of the law.
As even the magistrates in Inverurie District Court eventually understood, this was only relevant as mitigation and not to the question of innocence or guilt. What mattered was that the law had been broken.
Unfortunately, it is a distinction which does not seem to be understood by ministers in the current government and possibly even their own law officers.
Last week the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland stood at the despatch box and admitted that the proposals published in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill would breach international law in, as he put it, “a very specific and limited way”.
Will a gathering of seven or eight people be allowed to get off because the law has been broken only in a specific and limited way?
It was a quite remarkable admission. The ministerial code gives ministers an overarching duty to obey the law and that includes international law.
As of next week we shall be asking police officers to break up gatherings of more than six people. Will a gathering of seven or eight people be allowed to get off because the law has been broken only in a specific and limited way?
Some members of the Scottish National Party would like to see a “wildcat”, unilateral independence referendum. This would be illegal and I would oppose it on that grounds – but what moral authority would the Prime Minister have to deny it when he is so ready to dispense with inconvenient laws himself?
On the other side of the world British Passport holders in Hong Kong wanting to protect their freedoms will be brutally supressed by the Chinese government in contravention of their treaty obligations under the Joint Declaration of 1984. What authority will we have to lecture the Chinese if we are choose to pick and choose those parts of international law that we obey?
The UK Internal Market Bill is one of the most important that this House will debate this session – as important as the EU Withdrawal Bill, voted on in January, that it seeks to undermine. It strikes at the future constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom as a unitary state.
The future of our country as a union of four nations is under greater threat than ever before - not least from the actions of our own government.
Members from the Conservative Party who have backed the government thus far but feel concerned about this attack on international law have a choice to make. They have to decide if the hardest Brexit possible is still worthwhile if it means sacrificing the values of rule of law and honour that once defined our country.
There is still time for us to reject this murky path the government have decided on. If we do not, the effects may not be visible to the eye, but they will be felt across the world – all the way from Hong Kong to that district court in Inverurie.
Alistair Carmichael is the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland and Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Home Affairs.