Layers of Crisis
We clearly face in Britain two crises. Firstly, controlling, or at present, managing the Coronavirus. Secondly, negotiating Brexit, and making it through the turbulent waters of next January.
Any Government faced with two such crises would struggle, although in absolutely no way should this ever be compared to the crisis faced by Churchill in the Spring of 1940, as some have sought to compare it.
Everyone in the country still has a view about the way the Government is approaching both these issues. We are still deeply divided between Remain and Leave over Brexit, and now further divided over no deal versus deal. As for Corona virus we were largely behind the Government when the Prime Minister left hospital, but we are now, according to the latest Opinion Polls, largely critical of the Government's handling of the situation. Whatever one's own view it is necessary in a democracy to respect those with whom we disagree, even disagree fundamentally.
However, underlying these two crises is a further and much more alarming one; namely the Government's treatment of the constitution. Not only constitutional nerds like me but a whole raft of non-political opinion is entering this debate. Today, 19th October, The Financial Times published a letter from the five UK Anglican Archbishops. As far as I am aware this has never happened before. It is, for those of us interested in constitutional matters, reminiscent of the stand taken in the reign of James II by seven Anglican Bishops, which led to their trial and eventual acquittal. It was one of the blows that eventually led to the overthrow of James II and his absolutist authoritarian rule and the beginning of our modern democracy.
The Archbishops write, 'The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd have made clear that the bill's [Internal Market Bill] weakening of both the principles and the effect of devolved policymaking is of constitutional significance'. The message is clear; The breakup of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, in the case of both Scotland and Northern Ireland, looks increasingly possible. Given also that the majority in favour of independence north of the border has risen over recent months, and that the proportion wishing for independence is highest among the younger generations, then the likelihood of the breakup of the Kingdom looks more and more a possibility. As for Northern Ireland the only possible logical economic outcome, given the British Government's position on the issue, is, as envisaged in the 19th century by PM Gladstone, a united Ireland.
Yet, The Internal Market Bill not only threatens the very nature of our country but also, I would argue, more importantly still has challenged the rule of law, with the Government freely admitting that it will break international law. Added to The Home Secretary's and Prime Minister's outbursts against do-gooding lawyers and the Government's panel looking at judicial review, then we are heading into a very dangerous direction.
Lord Kerr, a former Supreme Court judge, told The Guardian today, 'If we are operating a healthy democracy what the judiciary provides is a vouching or checking mechanism for the validity [of] laws that parliament has enacted or the appropriate international treaties to which we have subscribed .....The last thing we want is for government to have access to unbridled power'. 'Unbridled power' really does seem to historians that we are back in the mid 1680s with the judges of James II's reign.
Lord Kerr continued to say, as reported by The Guardian, that ' he "fully agreed" with comments made by the former president of the supreme court Lord Neuberger, who last week said that the internal market bill, which enables the government to breach international law and exempts some of its power from legal challenge, was in danger of driving the UK down a "very slippery slope" towards dictatorship or tyranny'. Whenever have we heard a person of such impeccable credentials as Lord Neuberger talk about 'dictatorship and tyranny'. This has now become serious.
This huge constitutional concern was also picked up in the final part of the letter from the Archbishops, who wrote, 'If carefully negotiated terms are not honoured and laws can be "legally" broken, on what foundation does our democracy stand?' If that doesn't have frightening echoes of 1933 Germany I don't know what has.