Monday 25 May 2020

Making the rules unenforceable

Laws are rarely perfect, and laws made in haste even less so. They can never cover every eventuality or exception; almost by definition they have to be general in their application. Most laws are open to differing interpretations – that fact alone keeps thousands of lawyers in gainful employment. The interpretation, though, is something that happens definitively only in a court of law – it is not for ordinary citizens to ‘interpret’ the law for themselves, however ‘reasonable’ their interpretation may appear. At a governmental level, it is the judiciary, not the executive, which decides what the law actually says and whether, and to what extent, that law is compatible with the freedoms and rights of individuals.
In his defence of his chief advisor yesterday, that was another line which the Prime Minister crossed. Having promoted the passing of a set of rules and regulations which were stark in their clarity, and allowed for very few exceptions, he effectively announced that there were other exceptions which were not contained in any of the rules and regulations his government promoted, and that people were at liberty to ‘interpret’ those rules as they wish, as long as they were ‘reasonable’. I can well imagine a series of future court cases as people appeal against the fines that they were given for breaking lockdown rules, arguing that they were ‘interpreting’ the law and that their actions were entirely ‘reasonable’. Even if there are no appeals, I don’t doubt that that will be the defence used whenever the police try to enforce the rules from here on – to all practical intents and purposes, the PM announced yesterday that the enforcement of the lockdown in England is over. Even if the police would still be acting legally by imposing fines, every instance is likely to be publicly compared with what the PM said yesterday – the police’s job has been made near impossible as they try to avoid attracting unwelcome attention to the inconsistencies.
One can argue, of course, that the lockdown rules are unnecessary or excessive: that’s a valid (albeit misguided) political argument. But the rules have been laid down under what passes for democracy in the UK, and those rules apply unless and until they are changed by the same process. Government ministers – even the PM – don’t have the right to exempt individual people or specific actions without changing the rules for everyone. They apparently have the power to do so, however, in practice if not in theory. It’s not clear at present whether he’ll get away with it. His natural instinct will be to believe that he can – this is, after all, a man who has lived his entire life believing that rules don’t apply to him. The press and the opposition will huff and puff, but as long as his own party’s MPs do as they are told he is almost untouchable. His credibility wasn’t great to start with, and it’s now dissolving further in front of our eyes, but the only people who can change anything are Tory MPs. Unless more than 40 of them get to the point – whether driven by angry constituents or their own fear of losing their seats (which may amount to the same thing) – where they are prepared to act against him, the elected dictatorship (as the late Quintin Hogg called it) in the UK can do more or less as it likes. As things stand, there are few signs that sufficient Tory MPs will suddenly develop backbones. In the meantime, people will continue to be infected and to die on a scale which could and should have been avoided.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ending towards the US presidential pardon?