The rule of law is the cornerstone of democracy. In Israel, the authoritarianism of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his extremist coalition partners seeking to appoint and curb the Israeli judiciary has brought more than 250,000 protestors onto the streets. In Britain, we seem less concerned about attacks on custodians of the law.
Last week it was Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s turn to call Keir Starmer, the leader of the Opposition, ‘a lefty lawyer’. It has become standard Conservative Party fare.
Between 2008-2013, prior to entering politics, Keir Starmer was Head of the Crown Prosecution Service and Director of Public Prosecutions. From 2010 to 2013 he was the main legal adviser to the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government. He was knighted in 2014. When in early 2020 he was competing to be leader of the Labour Party, Corbynistas worried that his politics were far from ‘leftist’. ‘Lefty lawyer’ may be a handy alliteration but Sunak’s language is further indication of the Conservative Party’s continuing populist mindset.
Starmer is known in the legal world for his record on human rights. The ‘McLibel’ case, a challenge to freedom of speech over a leaflet denouncing different aspects of McDonald’s corporate practice, is famous. After the case progressed through the British courts, Starmer in 2005 represented pro bono two environmental activists against the might of McDonald’s in the European Court of Human Rights. He was human rights adviser to the Policing Board of Northern Ireland and noted for his work – also pro bono - opposing capital punishment in several Caribbean and African countries. Is the promotion and executive enforcement of human rights law still being branded as ‘lefty’ repeating Boris Johnson’s ‘lefty human rights lawyers’ attacks? By that token John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis qualify for abuse as ‘lefty Popes’.
Presumably the Conservative Party is in the business of conserving. But it has become hard to believe that conservatism aims to conserve the key institutions of UK governance and our – unwritten - constitution. In an unusual moment of anger, the historian of government and broadcaster Peter Hennessy, less well known as the cross-bench peer Baron Hennessy of Nympsfield, described Boris Johnson in a BBC interview as “the great debaser in modern times of decency and public and political life, and of our constitutional conventions – our very system of government”. Yet Johnson remains popular with the grassroots of the Conservative Party.
No Government likes the constraints imposed upon it by law but dismissing with taunts of ‘fat-cat lawyers’ (yes – once used by Tony Blair), or more dangerously ‘lefty lawyers’, subverts one of the institutions by which we are all protected. It is not so much that Sunak’s playground jibes should be beneath his dignity as Prime Minister diminishing the respect he has gained for his diplomacy in Northern Ireland and Paris, but that such demeaning name-calling subtly undermines the law itself.
From where did we get the binary division of ‘left’ and ‘right’ now so entrenched in the language of politics? It dates from 1789 when the French King’s supporters began sitting to the right of the President of the National Assembly with the revolutionaries to the left, though the occupants of the House of Commons benches can hardly be described in terms of royalists versus revolutionaries. Political Parties love binaries. The national argument about EU membership gave us Remainer/Remoaner v Brexiteer as well as ‘the people’ versus ‘the elite’. More appropriately on a global scale we now speak of democracy versus authoritarianism.
Political Parties have problems putting ‘clear blue water’ between them. Johnson-style bluster, obliterating any nuance in different political visions within the Opposition plays to the back-benches and is amplified in social media and Sun, Express, Mail and Telegraph. The Opposition are then turned into a monolithic enemy. But today’s political divisions are not adequately expressed by terms such as left versus right.
Right and left labels are even less appropriate when they are applied to religious believers. Catholics, for example, are held to be ‘right-wing’ if they hold pro-life, anti-abortion, views. Worldwide there are c. 1.3 billion Catholics, many of them may hold such views; this is a large number of people to designate as politically ‘right wing’. They may, as well as being protective of life in the womb, also have a strong commitment to peace, elimination of capital punishment, trade unionism, the environment, and ‘the preferential option for the poor’ - including refugees and economic migrants. These views are hardly right wing.
Just one individual example. Amnesty International was founded in 1961 and in its early years campaigned exclusively in support of prisoners of conscience. It later broadened its mandate to promote all the human rights enshrined in the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights. Between 2007 and 2008, under pressure mainly from their US section, a woman’s right to choose was proposed as an addition to their UN ‘s list. The movement was split pretty evenly on the issue.
In response, the late Bruce Kent, an internationally known peace-campaigner, went to see Amnesty UK to ask them not to go down the road of adopting access to abortion as a human right (which Amnesty did unequivocally in 2018). He pointed out that two of the key founders of the organisation, Sean Mcbride and Peter Berenson, were Catholics, and the result would probably be the loss of Catholic members. Bruce as General-Secretary of CND in the 1980s had been a great supporter of the Women’s Peace Camp resisting the placement of cruise missiles at Greenham Common. But, while very sympathetic to the concern for pregnant women’s health and safety, he did not view abortion as a fundamental human right.
The 1980s were the last decade of the Cold War and CND was both under surveillance by British Security Services and infiltrated by them at Board level. So not right-wing but a dangerously popular ‘lefty’ then? Up to a point Lord Copper. There are few as courageous and honest as Bruce Kent but there are many others who do not fit into the crude political stereotypes that they are alleged to inhabit. You wouldn’t guess that from the parliamentary Punch and Judy of Prime Minister’s Questions.
Instead of answering questions with bluster and aggression, in a poor imitation of Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak would do well to douse what Lord Hennessy called the ‘Bonfire of the Decencies’. He described respecting those decencies as the ‘good chaps’ theory of governing. It needs to be revived if we are to conserve the best of Britain.
Rishi Sunak is promising that the Home Office’s - in his words - ‘Stop the Boats Bill’ (the Illegal Migration Bill) will be unveiled within weeks and placed on the government legislative timetable. It is destined for the courts. This year, aspects of Suella Braverman plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda go before the Court of Appeal. We already have a sample of the Home Secretary’s preferred language, a foretaste of how she hopes to deal with legal challenges. An email sent to Conservative Party members in her name blames “an activist blob of leftwing lawyers, civil servants and the Labour Party” for the failure to stop the growing number of little boats heading for Britain. We are yet to hear that her denial of any knowledge of the email being sent has resulted in anyone being disciplined or sacked for failing to get clearance.
We may be on the brink of a slippery slope. The Prime Minister should resolve now to respect our own Judges - along with solicitors and barristers - and to acknowledge their important role in a democracy, not least one whose constitution is unwritten.
See TheArticle 14/03/2023