Priti Patel and Boris Johnson’s scorn for ‘lefty lawyers’ is a threat to British democracy.
This week both the British Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and the Prime Minister Boris Jonson called into question the integrity of lawyers on the political Left. Patel made her comments last Sunday, in the context of the discussion on immigration. She suggested that lawyers and politicians on the Left are ‘defending the indefensible’ by standing up for asylum seekers. She accused these ‘lefty lawyers’ of employing ‘grand theories about human rights’ to support their own agenda. Johnson’s comments came in the wake of Patel’s, and seemed intended to back her up. He likewise accused ‘lefty human rights lawyers, and other do-gooders’ of trying to ‘hamstring’ criminal justice.
Let’s unpick some of this rhetoric. When Patel calls the idea of human rights a ‘grand theory’ she undermines its validity by suggesting 1) that it is a theory, which can therefore be questioned, and 2) that it is somehow pretentious, unrealistic, or implausible. In fact, human rights are enshrined in British law under the Human Rights Act of 1998. Of course, laws are man-made and must be scrutinised if they are to be applied fairly. But when two of the most powerful politicians in the country are openly mocking people in the legal profession, calling them names, and undermining their motivations for upholding the law in the first place, we have a serious problem.
Patel went so far as to suggest that the lawyers seek personal gain in defending the rights of asylum seekers in the UK, saying they know ‘how to play and profit from the broken system.’ Here again, her implication that the system is ‘broken’ suggests that our country’s laws are invalid, because the system itself is faulty. What Patel’s statement really means is that the laws don’t matter, and that the left-wing lawyers who hold to them are actually behaving immorally. Johnson’s similar accusation that the Left is trying to ‘hamstring’ justice suggests an image of physical violence.
Of course, some of this is undoubtedly intended to make ‘lefty lawyers’ a catchphrase for the next election campaign against Keir Starmer, who has spent decades working as a human rights lawyer. In this regard, it hits as low as Trump’s ‘nasty woman’ comment, reserved for women on his political opposition. It has a similar ring to it, and works in the same way, by presenting something neutral (that is, women and lawyers) as inherently undesirable.
When democratically elected representatives undermine the value of law, they are undermining the principles which put them in power, and which also protect their own safety. Lawmakers should not be allowed to choose which laws to uphold and which to bend or break. Although, as is proved on a weekly basis, Johnson’s government and advisory team are unusually ready to twist or break the law whenever it suits their agenda.
Looking to the United States, it is curious that ‘Law and Order’ is a catchphrase of Trump’s election campaign, yet his own behaviour frequently pushes or flouts the rules of his country. What that phrase means in his context is that law will be enforced when it suits him and his supporters, but not otherwise.
Ultimately, these politicians’ way of twisting the meaning and value of the law raises the question of who the law is for. In a democratic state, laws exist to prevent the use of violence by anyone except the state. The state alone may use violence, and may do so only in order to protect its citizens, in accordance with the law that elected that state’s leaders. When a state’s leaders seem inclined to flout the rule of law, we need to worry because that means that we can no longer trust them to protect all citizens from violence. Indeed, they may begin to use violence in ways that conflict with the laws of the state, or even against their own citizens.
For an example of this, we can look to Nazi Germany. Hitler was adamant that his party would only seize power by legal means (reinforced through violent terror campaigns), yet he was open about his plans to tear up the rule book as soon as he was in power. When called as witness to a Leipzig court in September 1930, three years before his take-over, Hitler threatened one day to murder the current lawmakers with his famous ‘heads will roll’ comment:
“Just as soon as German Fascists by legal means have captured political power in Germany they will tear asunder the Versailles Treaty, if necessary by means looked upon by the world as illegal. National Socialists do not regard the international agreements as law, but as something forced upon us. […]. If we are victorious then we certainly shall establish a new State tribunal whose duty it will be to deal with the criminals of November, 1918. Then heads will certainly roll in the sand.” [my emphasis]
Patel accuses our current lawyers of immorally ‘playing the system’ for their own profit, she is verging on Hitlerain rhetoric. He called his contemporary law-makers ‘criminals’, and Patel is in effect saying the same thing of lawyers who stand up for the human rights of asylum seekers. Johnson’s willingness to break international law in leaving the EU only further strengthens the comparison with Nazi rhetoric, and, indeed, with their international policy.
If we are to avoid the kind of slide into lawlessness that makes Nazism possible, we must uphold the value of law for its own sake, and protect democratic processes at all levels of society. We must make these Hitlerian comparisons not for the sake of spectacle, but because they cannot be ignored. Not if we believe that laws should be there to protect us all.