August 05, 2020 09:00
Ahead of the publication of his book Populism on Trial, former judge and barrister Inigo Bing talks about his inspirations and the dangers of populism...
What inspired you to write Populism on Trial?
I would not use the word ‘inspiration’, it was more a realisation that the judiciary were becoming a target for ill-informed attack from angry politicians and journalists, which were often in the form of sneers and jeers. There was precious little truth in what was being written and said about the role of judges in modern Britain. I thought it was time that the words ‘rule of law’ were explained properly. We take it for granted that we have a rule of law and that judges are independent, but what exactly does this mean? The more I thought about it the more I realised that populism was drowning out some obvious truths about law and our unwritten Constitution.
I then started to try and find out how this all started. Why did judges become the target for attack? It started in the mid-1990s when populism became a part of politics. The more I looked into it, the more concerning the attacks on the judiciary had become. The notorious headline about judges being ‘enemies of the people’ was part of a trend and it continued with the attack on the Supreme Court in the prorogation decision. I decided that it was time for the anti-populist arguments to be made as strenuously as the populist ones. Serving judges cannot answer back because of their independence and political neutrality. As I am now retired I thought that I could put my experience to good use and put across the other side of the populist appeal.
Can you sum up what it’s about?
Basically, it is about three things: populism, the rule of law and the threat populism poses to the rule of law. I have devoted the early part of the book to trying to define what populism is. In essence the politics and economics of globalisation have left many less well off than they expected to be and these people have felt helpless in tackling the forces beyond their control. Populism appeals to this sense of disaffection and says: ‘Listen to us, we can solve your problems for you.’ The solution they offer is simple: ‘Your problems have been caused by elitists, remote systems of government and international institutions. It’s not your fault. We can represent you directly by changing the way these institutions have failed you.’ Therefore, populism is a creed of direct, not representative, democracy. This sort of democracy is different from our traditional model. First, everything is simple, not complicated. Second, language must be strident and uncompromising. Third, there must be a charismatic leader to deliver the message. Once in power, populists try to dismantle the institutions that representative democracy protects. President Trump called it ‘draining the swamp’, but we must not pretend the same processes are not going on in Britain. Representative democracy is never a single voice. Our elected representatives should reflect a plurality of interest where the majority may rule, but where minorities must be protected and the majority must not become a tyranny.
This is where the rule of law comes in. The rule of law incorporates two elements: protection of our rights through independent courts and the protection of our Constitution to ensure the executive is not too powerful. In our system it is Parliament which is supreme. The Prime Minister does not hold exclusive power.
Over the last twenty-five years the inevitable tensions that exist between the judiciary and the executive on the one hand and Parliament and the executive on the other have become strident and shrill. The judiciary have been caught in the cross-fire. I have picked a few controversial cases in criminal law, immigration and human rights where judges have suffered undeserved hatred and contempt. I have tried to explain what led to those decisions and the broad principles that the judges applied. In this way I hope that the book will make the public better informed about how judges go about their tasks. Finally, I have offered some thoughts of my own about how populism should be challenged.
What challenges face those people making and upholding the law in Britain today?
For those making the law – MPs and peers in the two Houses of Parliament – the main challenge has been the arrival of referendums in British politics. There have been quite a few: on devolution, proportional representation and the creation of mayors for example, but the referendum on the membership of the EU presented a big challenge. Who is more powerful? Those who were elected to represent us in a general election, or the people who voted directly in a referendum? This question has not properly been answered and it is a challenge which those who make laws must confront.
For those whose job it is to uphold the law, the main challenge is to maintain strict judicial independence. Judges are good at stoically withstanding unfair criticism but the government holds the purse strings. Law is undermined if there is no functioning court system, if legal aid is withheld in deserving cases and if an all-powerful state is not held to account by the judicial review of executive decisions. It is common knowledge that our courts are underfunded and now there are moves to restrict access to judicial review. Serving judges, led by the Lord Chief Justice, have been courageous in standing up for the rule of law, but sometimes it is necessary to go further and to expose what may lie behind a determination by politicians to threaten the values of toleration and pluralism which underpin law. This is a big challenge which is really a political issue and my book tries to confront it. Serving judges cannot do this as they would be entering a political debate which their independence forbids them from doing.
How have recent tumultuous events such as Brexit affected people’s trust in the law?
Brexit and its aftermath affected trust in our institutions enormously. At the heart of this was the clash between Leavers led mostly by Conservative politicians against their Remainer leader, David Cameron. Those who were against Cameron believed, when they won, that the referendum result should be interpreted as a direct instruction. This meant that it was an instruction to Theresa May. This inevitably involved side-lining Parliament, yet Parliament was supposed to be one of our trusted institutions. On the other side of the argument there were those who said that despite the referendum, Parliament remained supreme and it was for Parliament to decide how, when and on what terms Britain would leave the EU. This clash involved trust on many levels. Judges were called ‘enemies’ and those who wanted a sensible parliamentary debate about Brexit were called ‘Remoaners’.
Trust was shattered all over the place and in the turmoil some simple constitutional principles were forgotten. When the judges were drawn into a battle that was already fractious and unpleasant it was inevitable that the trust in law would suffer as a result.
What are the dangers of this?
I think the dangers are all too clear. The tensions between politicians and judges had been simmering for a number of years, notably in the clashes between Michael Howard, when he was Home Secretary, and the judges during the early 1990s. Brexit provided the opportunity for this simmering discontent among those who thought judges were too powerful to come to the surface. This is dangerous because the rule of law is fundamental to a liberal democracy. If we believe in personal autonomy, gender equality, privacy, freedom of speech and assembly and so on, we depend on the rule of law and the independence of our judges to protect these valuable results of human progress. If the judiciary are perceived as just giving human rights to rapists and murderers or meddling in politics where they have no business to be, then the rule of law which protects us all is undermined. There are clear signs now that this is happening and I have drawn attention to this in the book.
What can law-makers and the government do to help fix this deteriorating trust?
The first thing they can do is not to pretend there is a crisis in the rule of law and our Constitution. There is a general assumption within this present government that there is a real problem with democracy, rights and our Constitution. The Conservatives have promised to set up a commission to look into this. The reality is there is no crisis in our Constitution, although there are anomalies, nor is there anything wrong with judges using the European Convention of Human Rights when deciding cases. Judges absolutely recognise Parliament is supreme, which is something that those who passionately want to leave the EU often do not admit. There is no crisis about rights and democracy which needs fixing.
The second thing they can do is to recognise that in our unwritten Constitution there are ‘conventions’ which are necessary to hold the fabric of our fragile Constitution together. The Victorian scholar, A. V. Dicey called these the customs, practices and maxims of the Constitution. These provide the scenery on the political stage. Unfortunately, these ‘rules of the game’ as they are sometimes called, are now routinely broken. The independence of the civil service is being undermined, power is being drawn away from Parliament and the Cabinet into 10 Downing Street, and the integrity of professional diplomats is under threat. In all past political controversies the ‘rules of the game’ were respected and honoured. Not any more. I regret that.
What’s the most important thing you’d like people to take away from reading Populism on Trial?
There are actually two things. First, the absolute positive value of the rule of law. Too often we just assume we have a rule of law without actually thinking what it means and how important it is in holding tyranny and absolutism at bay. Second, I want people to believe that a sense of history is very important when getting to grips with modern problems. There is no better yesterday. When judges were too timid to hold the executive to account (as they were), or the police were above the law (as they often were), Britain was not a better place. I hope that readers will take from the book a realisation that we cannot capture a time gone by when tensions between law and politics did not exist. Tensions are healthy but undermining law is the route to despotism.
Inigo's book, Populism on Trial, is out on 20 August 2020: take a look here!
July 28, 2020 10:00
It’s time for Parliamentary recess, but one thing won’t change over the break: the discord being felt between many MPs that is currently on display so spectacularly during the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions.
Confused? Take advantage of the few months off to swot up on the ins and outs of Parliamentary life, from finding out what the Speaker’s role is all about to learning the knack of shining at the despatch box.
Punch & Judy Politics, by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton
This is a comprehensive guide to all things PMQs, written by political veterans Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton. Containing a handy history of the tradition, with all its quirks and foibles, the book also draws on the pairs’ own experiences prepping MPs for the big day and reporting on it. Full of strange anecdotes and unique insights, it’s the one you need to have to hand when watching Starmer face off against Johnson on a Wednesday lunchtime!
Find out more here.
John Bercow: Call to Order, by Sebastian Whale
The Speaker is somewhat of an enigmatic figure in the Commons: what does he actually do, and how can you become one? Find out the answer in Sebastian Whale’s detailed biography of the life of the last Speaker, John Bercow. Call to Order dives into Bercow’s early years, but also recounts the run-up to Bercow’s bid for the Speakership and his life in the Speaker’s chair- including the way he revolutionised Prime Minister’s Questions.
Find out more here.
Confessions of a Recovering MP, by Nick de Bois
Now you know what the Speaker’s role is, what’s it like to be sitting in the benches during the big day? Nick de Bois knows: for five years, he was the MP for Enfield North, and this book is the history of his time in Westminster Palace. From his first days in Parliament through to his days as a Special Adviser and Chief of Staff to Dominic Raab, this is definitely a peek behind the screen of being an MP, including the all-important PMQs…
Find out more here.
How to be an MP, by Paul Flynn
Fancy trying your hand at asking the questions yourself? Then you’ll need to be an MP. But where to start?
This handy guide by Paul Flynn has it all. From the all-important Backbenchers’ Commandments to guidance on how to socialise at work parties, it’s an indispensable look at how to do the job- and how to inveigle your way to a question slot on a Wednesday…
Find out more here.
July 20, 2020 10:00
Ahead of the publication of her book, Elitism: A Progressive Defence, author Eliane Glaser discusses what theatre's coronavirus crisis can teach us about how we see elitism...
The UK’s creative and media industries are on the brink of devastation. The government’s £1.5 billion arts bailout is unlikely to save many venues: a leading theatre company in Southampton has already closed. The Southbank Centre has warned it may have to cut two-thirds of its staff. The Guardian has announced the axing of 180 jobs; the loss of 520 posts in BBC News is surely just the start. Tech giants are gobbling up yet more of the book trade; the majority of small publishers in the UK fear for their future. Museums and galleries are losing half their revenue and are set to jettison more than half their workforce. The Creative Industries Federation predicts that the UK’s creative sector will be hit twice as hard as the wider economy.
As for higher education, the government has announced a rescue package for universities at risk of collapse, but with restrictive strings attached. There is a jobs freeze for academics, with no end in sight.
The coronavirus crisis has shown us how much we rely not only on those who save our lives but on those who make our lives worth living. Released from the demands of work and dutiful sociability, many have been reminded – through tantalising online performances, virtual exhibitions, radio broadcasts or finally opening those novels languishing on the bedside table – the joys and consolations of music, theatre, art, literature and contemplation.
Yet this glimpse of what is really important to us is in danger of being stuffed back into its box. Instead of a collective effort to save our national treasures, there is instead a right-wing backlash against so-called elitism. ‘It is time to get tough with the anti-business arts elite,’ writes Matthew Lynn in the Telegraph. Even those who produce and thrive on arts and ideas seem curiously tongue-tied in its defence. ‘Theatre culture in this country can often seem elitist,’ theatre producer Amber Massie-Blomfield hastened to acknowledge recently while making a case for the survival of pantomime.
We are led to believe that these are luxuries we can no longer afford, their losses inevitable sacrifices in straitened times. Yet even in the midst of the pandemic, over three quarters of the world’s richest families – who have an average fortune of £1.25 billion each – have reported an increase in their already vast fortunes. In the UK, the amount of wealth in private hands stands at a stunning £13 trillion. There is £4.3 billion in personalised number plates alone.
It’s easy to forget that culture and intellectualism were being undermined way before Covid-19: the Arts Council’s budget has been cut by 30 per cent since 2010, meaning reduced grants to the Royal Opera House, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. Almost £400 million has been cut from local authority arts budgets since the advent of austerity. British culture has been hit disproportionately hard: local government funding for culture in the UK is now almost the lowest in Europe. The proportion of its GDP that the UK spends on the arts is less than half that of France.
As I argue in Elitism: A Progressive Defence, the long-term decline of our arts, culture and higher education is being hastened and justified by a pervasive anti-elitism. Right-wing populists have diverted public anger away from the obscene profiteering of billionaires, banks and global corporations and turned it onto cultural and educational high standards. They have persuaded us that the real masters of the universe are ‘liberal elite’ commentators on dwindling salaries, MPs – themselves victims of mass trolling, death threats and even murder – and members of the cultural precariat. Vast disparities of wealth and power thus escape scrutiny, while everything that gives life value and meaning has to fight for its very existence. It’s time for liberals to throw off their nervousness about being branded elite and stand up for the things that enrich us, stretch us and lift us away from the immediate and the everyday. We must urgently reject the dangerous distortions of anti-elitism while we still have something to save.
Eliane's book, Elitism: A Progressive Defence is out on 18th August 2020: take a look here!
July 03, 2020 09:00
Ahead of the publication of his book The King of Nazi Paris, Christopher Othen offers us a look at one of Paris' most infamous destinations: the home of Henri Lafont's gang of collaborators and gangsters...
Paris is the city of light and love and literature. It has so much history that the ghosts are coming out the walls. The Eiffel Tower looms down side streets like a metal monster on the attack, the Musée d’Orsay glows with a fine selection of mid to late-nineteenth century art, and the locals show their love of culture by giving over prime real estate to bookshops and art galleries.
The city has a darker side. Take a stroll down rue Lauriston in the exclusive sixteenth arrondissement keeping the reservoir and the Polish Science Academy on your right. Stop at number 93. You'll find four storeys of high ceilings and huge salons, with a grey and beige stone facade. On the wall of the building is a plaque:
‘In homage to the resistants tortured on this site during the occupation 1940–1944 by Frenchmen, auxiliary agents of the Gestapo from the group known as “Bonny-Lafont”.’
Back during the Nazi occupation of Paris, 93 rue Lauriston was one of the most infamous addresses in the city. It was headquarters to the Carlingue, a gang of crooks, corrupt cops, and fallen celebrities led by the orchid-loving thief Henri Lafont. They worked for the Nazis and lived like kings – until the Allies arrived and a price had to be paid.
When the Nazis invaded France in July 1940 they looked for local collaborators. Many volunteered, including those from the underworld. Lafont was a petty criminal with a high voice who became the most powerful crook in Paris thanks to the Nazi occupation. A chance encounter with a Nazi spy in a prison camp led to a life of luxury running a ruthless mob of gangsters who looted the city for the Germans. All it took was a talent for treason, treachery and deceit.
Lafont teamed up with former policeman, turned criminal Pierre Bonny. The pair looted Jewish properties; bought low and sold high on the black market; scammed illegal gold deals; stole priceless art; ran protection rackets; intercepted parachute drops; infiltrated resistance groups; gunned down rivals; and sprung anyone from prison for the right price. They drafted in Chamberlin’s gangster friends from prison and the underworld. Soon they had an all-star team of France’s most-wanted crooks.
The gang wore the best clothes, ate at the best restaurants, and did whatever they wanted in occupied Paris. They lived on a poisoned honeycomb. Chamberlin and Bonny moved into 93 rue Lauriston where every Saturday they hosted parties at which collaborationists mixed with ambitious young actresses and well-mannered German officers, before everyone headed off to a nightclub in one of Chamberlin’s white Bentleys. Down in the cellar, the rest of the gang worked late torturing resistance prisoners.
By 1944 the gang had become so enmeshed in the German net that it had started running the Brigade Nord-Africain, a paramilitary outfit of Algerian and Moroccan nationalists. The brigade raped, robbed and murdered the locals under the cover of fighting the resistance. But when the Allies came Chamberlin and Bonny found themselves on trial for their lives.
‘For four years, I had all the most beautiful women, orchids, champagne, caviar by the bucketful,’ said Lafont as he faced the firing squad. ‘I lived the equivalent of ten lives.’
He regretted nothing. The French still spit on his memory and 93 rue Lauriston burns like a wound that will never heal in the streets of Paris.
Christopher Othen's exploration of the lives of Henri Lafont and Pierre Bonny, The King of Nazi Paris, is out on July 14. Take a look here!
June 12, 2020 16:00
Sarah Wootton and Lloyd Riley
Death and dying have become everyone’s business, so isn’t it time we had more of a say in what they look like?
The coronavirus pandemic has revealed new problems in the way we care for dying people. Decisions about who should receive life-sustaining treatment, communication around the circumstances in which CPR might not be in a person’s best interests and how people can plan for their future treatment are more prominent in the public consciousness than they have ever been.
Once we emerge from this crisis, we will have to find ways to build a better and fairer society and the public’s clear willingness to engage with these issues shows that reforming the rules which govern how our lives end should be near the top of legislators’ to-do lists. This should also focus our attention on the problems in end-of-life care that were present long before coronavirus; problems like the lack of an assisted dying law in the UK.
It is unfathomably cruel that we withdraw mechanisms of control from people at a time when they would have the most value. As dying people come to terms with dramatic changes in their lives and the grief and loss of knowing that time with their loved ones is rapidly running out, we actively deny them an option that would bring so much comfort and reassurance – the knowledge that while death cannot be avoided, the suffering that may accompany it can be.
Our book, Last Rights, sheds light on how this outdated, broken and unpopular status quo has been sustained for so long. It explores how fault lines in society are created by a small minority who hold back the tide of public will and cling on to old ways of thinking, which they believe others must subscribe to.
Dying people have not been listened to. They have been repeatedly ignored, shouted down and gaslighted.
Last Rights draws parallels between the people who spend their final months fighting for the option of assisted dying and those who campaigned for votes for women, equal marriage and other expansions of personal liberty, which once prompted such bitter cultural battles but have since been woven seamlessly into the fabric of society. How will history judge us if we insist dying people must continue to suffer in order to protect a blanket prohibition that nobody can coherently defend?
The case put forward to oppose change is hollow, based on disproven hypotheses and fear-based arguments that crumble under scrutiny. Why are we refusing to learn from the increasing number of compassionate and pragmatic nations around the world which have passed assisted dying legislation? How can we be content with a two-tier system of dying, where those who can afford it can buy the death they want at Dignitas, while others are left at home to take matters into their own hands behind closed doors? Who can justify why, in 2019, Mavis Eccleston was put on trial for murder for helping her terminally ill husband Dennis end his own life?
84 per cent of the British public demand change on assisted dying, but Westminster and Holyrood have shied away from a mature, thoughtful, open-minded consideration of how our laws could be fixed. These are laws which place unnecessary restrictions on our freedom, autonomy and control; laws which can rob us of the option of a peaceful death and our ability to protect our loved ones from having to witness us endure unimaginable pain and suffering in the final chapter of our lives.
The onus should no longer be on dying people and their families to explain why choice at the end of life is needed. It should be on politicians, via formal inquiry, to question how, in the twenty-first century, it can possibly be denied.
Sarah Wootton and Lloyd Riley's book, Last Rights: The Case for Assisted Dying, will be out on 23 June. Take a look here!