The Slow Decline of the Rule of Law

Imogen Tyreman discusses the erosion of legal principles within modern society. 

In recent years, there have been many reasons to question the future of our democracy. The release of the Russia report is just a latest in a series of headlines and think pieces about disinformation campaigns, data breaches, and disinterest from the government in taking action. Yet, one fundamental element of our democracy has often been overlooked in such discussions: the rule of law.

There has been a slow and subtle campaign against the rule of law in the UK for some time. Despite the absence of direct attacks and threats, there is a clear pattern of language, and reactions to certain situations, that demonstrate the attitude of this government and its predecessors to the rule of law.

Some might only look to May of this year as a starting point for this campaign, when Dominic Cummings broke lockdown regulations by driving to Durham, and later to Barnard Castle for his infamous ‘eye sight test’.

Instead of sacking Cummings, the Prime Minister and cabinet members—including Suella Braverman, the Attorney General—took to Twitter in his defence, contradicting one of the fundamental aspects of the rule of law, namely that nobody is above it.

Many would argue the threat to the rule of law existed before this, when the Prime Minister indicated that he would rather break the law than delay Brexit, claiming he was only bound ‘in theory’. Despite the serious nature of such a statement, those in favour of Brexit used the narrative of the will of the people to suggest the government can act unlawfully, so long as it is acting in the interest of a perceived majority.

This is not a new tactic for the Conservatives. Straight out of the playbook of Viktor Orban, or the Law and Justice Party in Poland, whom the Conservatives shared a political group with in Europe, the so-called ‘will of the people’ has been used as an excuse by the government to attack the judiciary when rulings are not in their favour. This is a clear attempt to undermine the rule of law under the guise of democratisation.

With this in mind, it is clear that the campaign to weaken public trust in the rule of law began some time ago. In the both the court case that ruled that parliamentary approval was necessary to trigger Article 50 and the case that confirmed prorogation of parliament was unlawful, we witnessed unprecedented attacks on our judiciary.

Ministers and the media branded the judges involved as ‘enemies of the people’, framing the decisions as ones of ‘the judges versus the people’ as if they were political choices rather than a defence of one of the most fundamental principles of our democracy.

Of course, if Poland and Hungary are anything to go by, the worst threat to the rule of law is yet to come. Luckily, we’ve got warning of what to expect: the notorious page 48 of the Conservative manifesto.

This section of the manifesto promised an update to the Human Rights Act, citing national security as its reason, but with little detail as to what this would entail. Furthermore, it states there will be a review of the relationship between the government and the courts. These are the very courts the past two governments have spent their time framing as obstructions to democracy or as a way to conduct democracy via other means; the very ideas the courts are there to guard against.

The rule of law is often misunderstood. It is used rhetorically by both left and right, authoritarian and libertarian. Yet, it is a fundamental part of our democracy that provides checks and balances on power and ensures we are all equal before the law. As the Conservatives continue their campaign against the courts in the years ahead, we must be prepared to counter their narratives and defend the rule of law above all else. 

Imogen Tyreman began her career in European Politics. She was a policy advisor in the UK Labour delegation in the European Parliament, and also worked on democracy and the rule of law with the Party of European Socialists during the European elections last year. Now, after Brexit, this is all over, and she’s keeping herself busy by writing.

She tweets at @ImogenTyreman.

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