Keeping to Principles

17 September 2020

Keeping to Principles

Or breaking the treaty.

By John Watson

Othello of course expressed it best:

“Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
’Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.”

The UK’s good name too is the concern of many eminent people.  Four ex-prime ministers, no less, voice their objection to the breach of international law which could be the result of the government’s UK Internal Markets Bill.  So too do ex-attorney general Geoffrey Cox, ex-Conservative leader Michael Howard, ex-Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer, distinguished barristers all, the Law Society and lots of others, many of them deserving the title of national treasures.  How rare it is to see so much agreement across the political spectrum.  How sad it is that so much firepower should be expended in talking complete tosh.

Let us take a question asked by Michael Howard as an example:

“How can we reproach Russia or China or Iran when their conduct falls below internationally accepted standards when we are showing such scant regard for our treaty obligations?”

The literal answer to that is “just as we always have”, but the real concern Howard is raising is that if we are seen to go back on parts of the Withdrawal Agreement our reproaches on, say, human rights, will be less effective than they are at the moment.  There is something wonderfully Eden-esque in the idea of China reading our objections to their treatment of the Uighars and being swayed in the very slightest by the fact that the UK is an honourable country which observes its treaties.  That simply isn’t how it works.  There are lots of reasons why oppressive regimes give in to international pressure: the threat of force, the existence of sanctions, economic advantage, the possibility that the pressure will give rise to domestic dissent amongst their citizens, and many others, but the fact that those making the objections are particularly nicely behaved is not one of them.  It will not make a jot of difference to our prospects of negotiating the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe whether we have double crossed the EU by legislating across the Withdrawal Agreement or not.  To pretend otherwise is idiotic.

So let’s try again, this time with the warning by Nancy Pelosi, Democrat Speaker of the US House of Representatives, that there is “absolutely no chance” of a trade deal with the UK if Britain violates an international treaty.  How realistic is that?  Imagine a victorious Biden considering whether or not to agree a trade deal.  What questions will he ask himself?  “Is it to the economic advantage of the US?”  Certainly.  “Are there other reasons for keeping the UK onside?  Diplomatic support?  Contributions to NATO?  Shared intelligence?”  Yes, those too.  What is hugely unlikely is that if his conclusion is that a treaty is in the interests of the US he will then say “but we can’t have a treaty with these people.  They ratted on the EU over Brexit.”

For a more realistic view, listen to the words of yet another ex Prime Minister, David Cameron, with his more nuanced comment that “breaking an international treaty should be the ‘final resort’ “.  Just so, no one thinks it is a good thing to do of itself but needs must when the devil drives and, if the threat implicit in the Bill pushed the EU into a trade agreement, few would cavil at the means used in retrospect.  Will it or won’t it?  Will it push the EU over the line or will it ruin the negotiations by upsetting the EU?  I haven’t the slightest idea but this is the test by which this manoeuvre will ultimately be judged.

It isn’t just the opponents of the Internal Markets Bill who allow themselves to get carried away over issues of principle.  The government have themselves made asses of themselves in their response to the recent action of Extinction Rebellion in cutting off newspaper distribution for a day.  Yes, it annoyed people.  Yes, it was hard on distributors.  Yes, action against the press  to protest against editorial policy is a very sensitive topic but “a shameful attack on our way of life, our economy and the livelihoods of the hard-working majority”?  Really, Ms Patel?  An attack on the “tenets of democracy”?  Really, Mr Johnson?  “Denying people the chance to read what they choose is wrong and does nothing to tackle climate change”?  You too, Sir Kier?

The truth is that these are perfectly decent people trying to draw attention to impending doom.  Sure, they have infringed the law but their protests are important.  They are not criminals in any real sense.  I hope the justices see it that way too.

The exercise of putting the fans of “principle” in the stocks would hardly be complete without a special mention for those who bang on in the media and elsewhere about the Covid restrictions being an infringement of their human rights.  I am not going to dignify their piffle by arguing that the vulnerable have human rights too, but I would make one point.  Human rights, like other principles, are not static and change to meet circumstances.  The human rights of lepers were doubtless infringed by making them carry bells.  Internment breached the rights of loyal citizens who happened to be of German extraction.  Freedom of speech does not allow you to shout racist slogans in the street.  In the end human rights and principles are just the rules and conventions which make society work called by rather a grand name.  We should not get carried away into treating them as if they had been engraved on tablets of stone and laid down by the Almighty.


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