An under-recognized English political philosopher said, in 1776, in his work entitled Common Sense: "In America the Law is King. For, as in absolute Governments, the king is law, so in free countries, the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other." Thus spake Thomas Paine, echoing the words of John Locke in 1690.
There ought to be no other... but looking back over the past 10 years, there plainly has been - Emperor Blair. As Lord Hailsham predicted in 1978, we have been heading steadily towards a form of "elective dictatorship". As always, power corrupts, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. Those who wield such power barely recognize the state they are in. Invoking the poignant tales of Hans Christian Andersen, we now have an emperor with no clothes, with trust stripped away, who is impervious to the incredulous gaze of even the youngest elector.
The route to this parlous situation has been brought about the Blair Government's - Gordon Brown included - disregard for the substance and instruments comprising the rule of law, both internationally and nationally. This is somewhat surprising given the number of lawyers within government, especially Mr Blair himself, and given their remarkable predilection and appetite for legislation.
The zenith of this thinking was achieved during the Prime Minister's party conference speech in 2004 in which he flaunted the "Respect Agenda" using these words: "Respect is about more than crime. It is about the loss of a value that is a necessary part of any strong community; proper behavior; good conduct; the unselfish notion that the other person matters." While millions of pounds appear to have been devoted to this agenda, it is certainly not one that has been put into practice by the Government. This has been well noted by a series of judgments handed down by the House of Lords, as well as the population at large. The result has been not just an evaporation of trust in this Government and politicians generally, but also a catastrophic erosion of the authority of international agencies that might otherwise have been able to bring about effective relief and peace.
When Thomas Paine wrote the words quoted, he also had a vision, even then, of the need for supra-national organs of law to curb excesses of power exercised by nations and to enforce accountability. Since then, there has been much toil, effort and blood spilt, in order to forge international standards that set a universal agenda and code. It has been manifest through a number of treaties and organizations including the League of Nations; the Kellogg-Briand Pact; the Nuremberg Trials; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the establishment of the UN; the European Convention on Human Rights and its recent incorporation into UK domestic law; the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, both established in The Hague. They have one purpose, to circumvent the policy of realpolitik in which "might is right" and gunboats settle arguments. There is little point in the years of hard work erecting this panoply, if it can be ignored.
This has been accomplished in a number of ways. There was the failure to abide by the regime established under the UN Charter and, in particular, the failure to obtain a second resolution from the UN before invading Iraq. Since that time, there has been British collusion with the totally unlawful regime at Guantanamo Bay, only publicly denounced by Blair in July 2006; collusion with rendition flights; a preparedness to countenance the possibility that evidence that might be the product of torture could be used in the hearings of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission and the approval given to unlimited detention of foreign suspects without trial, or charge, in Belmarsh Prison.
The phrase "an abuse of power" was expressly used in 2006 by Mr Justice Sullivan in relation to the way in which three successive home secretaries had treated a number of Afghan asylum-seekers escaping the rigors of the Taliban: He said: "There was a complete failure to comply with the relevant provisions of the civil procedure rules at every level of the proceedings and to comply with the duty of a public authority to co-operate and make candid disclosure." Equally strident language was employed by their Lordships in the Belmarsh case in 2004 when comparisons were made with France before the revolution, with Stalinist Russia and with Nazi Germany. Little wonder thereafter that there have been vicious attacks on the judiciary by various politicians.
Blair's capricious approach to obligations arising under the rule of law has recently been brought home by events in Iran, North Korea, Zimbabwe and Sudan. In Iran and North Korea it did not go unnoticed that instead of complying with our obligations under the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaties, Mr Blair has committed the UK to a new Trident replacement costing at least £30bn. When seamen are captured by the Iranians and Mr Blair turns to the UN for help, the Iranian president is not impressed. Equally, President Mugabe can tell Mr Blair to go hang, despite the illegality of much that he is doing internally. Sudan is unwilling to prevent the genocide that has reached catastrophic proportions and, once again, both Europe and the US are reluctant to become involved after the debacle of Iraq.
On top of this has been the termination by the Government of a corruption investigation into BAE contracts with Saudi Arabia. Not only was the corruption inquiry stopped on a spurious basis, said to be linked to the risk of terrorism, but the Government then covertly tried to remove the head of the world's main anti-bribery watchdog, the Organization for International Co-operation and Development, which is on the point of investigating the decision of the UK government under its international obligations.
In short, the world is fast returning to the law of the jungle, thanks to an example, in the end, set by Bush and followed by Blair.
Michael Mansfield QC is a human rights lawyer.
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited