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Why the UK must uphold its international obligations

Rule-breaking legislation does not represent the kind of country we are, says the Chair of the Justice Select Committee

By Bob Neill  

As the land of Magna Carta, the UK’s international reputation rests on its long tradition of respect for the rule of law. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Archive/PA Images

With an expansionist China seeking to extend its sphere of influence, Russia constantly on the lookout to disrupt and undermine, and a group of autocratic regimes flexing their muscles within and on the borders of Europe, one attribute has a higher currency in diplomatic circles than any other: dependability.

In such uncertain times, our allies in the EU, Nato and elsewhere look for and value the triumph of steady, pragmatic foreign policy over erratic short-termism—perhaps even more so than they respect economic might or military firepower. Among other things, that means being able to rely on friends to keep their word, fulfil their agreements and not default on shared obligations.

The risk to a country’s reputation when it cannot be relied on is plain to see. The US has for many years been our closest ally, and I hope and believe it will remain so under President-elect Biden. But its international image here and around the world has undoubtedly taken a knock from four long years of Trumpism. Of course, personalities and domestic policies play a part in that, but as much as anything else the fault lies with the Trump administration’s willingness to walk away from international agreements recently negotiated, namely the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal. Vitally important as the content of these agreements is, it is the act of unilaterally turning one’s back on them that inflicts real political damage, calling into question the long-term commitment of a partner to a mutual goal.

The government’s publication of the Internal Market Bill in September caused such consternation for the very same reason. Far from seeking to re-examine the merits of Brexit (as some have cynically sought to frame our concerns), those of us who hold significant doubts about certain aspects of the bill instead focus our arguments on the UK’s commitment to the rule of law and how we want to be seen in the world. As part of those considerations, we should bear in mind two salient facts.

First, the UK has long been renowned for its unfailing respect for the law. Ours is the land of Magna Carta, habeas corpus, the Petition of Right, the Bill of Rights and the system of common law, all of which feed into our image as a reliable trading partner and a safe and fair place to do business. That is the British brand we should be looking to sell to our partners post-Brexit, something the government has itself recognised through its “Legal Services are GREAT” campaign. It is why, just at the moment we need to be seen as a dependable and active player on the world stage, increasing our presence, any out-of-character flirtation with international rulebreaking would be so ill-advised.

And second, the mere suggestion of reneging on an international agreement, even as a contingency plan or negotiating tactic, does significant harm to our reputation and undermines our ability to speak out when others act unlawfully. Our adherence to the law should be what sets us apart from those who brazenly seek to destabilise the rules-based order.

If we look at the broader picture, we can, I believe, take a further lesson from all this: pick at one or two loose threads of the rule of law and the whole fabric can unravel. This is frequently seen in other countries where ad hominem attacks designed to weaken the legitimacy of the judiciary have paved the way for further dilutions of the rule of law.

While I do not for one second wish to suggest we face a similar path in the UK, we should be in no doubt that the manner in which the legal profession is spoken about by elected representatives matters. Lawyers are there to represent the interests of their clients, regardless of whether that’s convenient for the government or not. Labelling them “lefty do-gooders” or painting them as out-of-touch fat cats for doing their job breeds hostility and calls into question the motives of a worthy and valuable profession. Where the system contains faults that are open to abuse, the onus is on parliamentarians to put them right.

Those who truly believe in the rule of law know that it applies consistently. We cannot approach it as if perusing some sort of legal pick’n’mix. With so much riding on the next few months, merely resting on our historically strong reputation as a country that not only respects the rule of law, but actively promotes and furthers it, will not suffice. We must be seen to be what we claim. In the eyes of our peers, there can be no room for doubt.

This article features in Prospect’s new legal report in partnership with the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, Jones Day and the City of London Corporation

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