‘Partygate’ is a Profound Crisis Endangering the Rule of Law in Britain
The bigger story of the scandal of Downing Street lockdown parties is how fundamentally they strike at the foundations of our democracy, says barrister Gareth Roberts
Boris Johnson has broken the law, we all know that. The Metropolitan Police have issued him with a fixed penalty notice and he has accepted his guilt and paid up. He is not the only Downing Street miscreant. As a result of unlawful behaviour in breach of Coronavirus lockdown laws at the home of our Prime Minister, the police found cause to issue a further 126 fines to a further 83 individuals – including to Johnson’s wife and the Chancellor. This is unprecedented.
Johnson has the ignominy of being the first and only Prime Minister ever convicted of a criminal offence while office. Downing Street holds the record for attracting more breaches of lockdown laws than any other place in the country.
Should we bothered? Not according to those who seek to defend him and his Government. Their defences have ranged from the predictable – ‘we should all move on’ – to the absurd – ‘he was ambushed by cake’ – to the technical – ‘what he was doing was reasonable within a work environment’.
All of these attempts to secure Boris Johnson’s acquittal in the court of public opinion demonstrate a deep and dangerous failure to understand the significance of the rule of law and, more importantly, the process by which law evolves and its role within our society and constitution.
Some lawyers and politicians like to portray legal process as simply the reading of words in a statute and trying to fit the facts of any given case or argument into this. In recent days, these individuals been out in force armed with the words of the Coronavirus regulations, attempting to suggest that because the statute allowed for workplace gatherings reasonably necessary for work, then having a cake and a few beers at the end of a long working day in Downing Street was necessary and lawful.
But to treat the law as an academic exercise or a means to a debate about semantics is dangerously simplistic – because the rule of law isn’t about that, it is about people.
The rule of law is not something that appeared set in stone, delivered by a bearded deity from on high – the rule of law has evolved as the result of a process. Statutory law is driven by politicians and politics. In the UK, the adversarial nature of our political system, in theory, leads to laws being made by a Government elected because what it was promising to do was deemed to be right by the majority of the electorate. It means that politicians promise what they hope will be both popular and socially responsible.
The criminal law exists to curtail certain freedoms with the intention of keeping us all safe. After the Dunblane massacre of 1996, for instance, there was an understandable clamour for new laws to be introduced to limit the ownership of guns. This gave rise to the Firearms Act 1997 as the government of the time saw the need to act; limiting our ability to possess a gun was deemed necessary to keep us safe.
A more esoteric example would be the Finance Act, passed by Parliament each year. It sets duties, tariffs, rates of tax and similar. It follows the government’s financial programme and becomes the law of the land; a curtailment on our freedom to do what we want with our money with the promise that, as a result, the wellbeing of the nation will be enhanced.
Because these laws follow a political process, that process – and the law that results from it – must have at its heart three important factors: honesty, reliability and trust. We the people, who give up our freedoms, who allow those to make our laws on our behalf, are entitled to assume that those who are in charge of that process are honest, reliable and trustworthy.
And by reliable, I mean that the parameters of the debate that precedes the enactment of laws must consist of true and properly reliable facts – not lies or distortion brought about by polemic or misplaced ideology. In theological law, it is possible to say ‘man shall only eat fish on a Friday’ because God says so – but that can’t be the case with statutory man-made laws, unless, of course, Parliament was presented with a good factual premise as to why fish must be eaten every Friday. The Brexit debate was so dominated by unreliable facts and misinformation that it is no surprise that the result has been poor law.
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The facts that are presented to the people and their representatives in Parliament must be done so honestly. We must expect, at the very least, that when a government minister stands at the despatch box to deliver utterances that affect, often profoundly, all our lives that he is telling us the truth – anything less and the entire system becomes worthless. We may as well be ruled by dictator or directly by a monarch.
And, of course, there must be trust – the government trusts that those who are being subjected to the rule of law will try to obey it, while we the people have the right to expect that those who have set the law will follow it in the same way. There can be no distinction between we the people and our representatives in Parliament – we are all equal in the eyes of the law and even the merest suggestion to the contrary is devastating for society.
The ‘partygate’ scandal is so much more than an argument about cake and beer. It goes far beyond the juvenile behaviour of one Prime Minister and his colleagues in Downing Street. Instead it goes to the very heart of what is meant by the rule of law in this country.
The Coronavirus lockdown rules involved some of the most profound and significant limitations upon our freedoms that our nation has ever been asked to endure and Boris Johnson’s failure to implement them with the same care and diligence that he urged upon everyone else, together with his decision to lie about his failure because it suited his ambitions and personality, is something that we must not accept.
We cannot just move on, because ours is a liberal democracy and our laws result from that pluralist process. And if we the people can’t trust that process, and if our Prime Minister who is charged with overseeing that process is dishonest, then why should any of us treat any of the laws that are imposed upon us with anything other than contempt?
Gareth Roberts is a barrister
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