Strong, bold headlines will be important in the six weeks now left in the run-up to the European elections on 22nd May. Immigration from low-wage East European countries and the heavy costs of UK membership of the EU have been key themes of the UKIP campaign. But it would be nice to think that ‘somehow, somehow’ a newspapeaper headline could summarize the betrayal of British traditions and institutions that is now under way. This betrayal extends to basic, indeed defining, features of our constitutional settlement and legal system.
Magna Carta will have its 800th anniversary next year. It established two vitally important institutions determining the relationship between the citizen and the state in the England of the Middle Ages and, eventually, in the English-speaking world of modern times. These were habeas corpus (the principle that the state cannot hold citizens without charge and due legal process) and trial by jury (the principle that in legal actions defendants’ guilt or innocence is to be determined by fellow citizens, and not by the state and its functionaries). Habeas corpus and trial by jury are linked to other remarkable arrangements that have made our nation, and the nations that have inherited our constitutional and legal traditions (including the USA), so special. These include
– the common law (under which the law grows by judge-made precedent, flexibly and pragmatically, without government intervention and often without appeal to statute of any kind),
– the separation of the powers and the independence of the judiciary from the executive, – equality before the law (where that equality applies to everyone, including the highest officers of the state),
– double jeopardy (defendant cannot be charged twice for the same offence) and the presumption of innocence, and
– an adversarial system of court procedure (in which two sides present a case and seek the court’s judgement) instead of an inquisitorial (in which an official prosecutor, an agent of the state, tries to establish guilt or innocence by questioning).
Of course the importance of these arrangements and understandings to the freedom of the individual in the English-speaking world is difficult to explain in a short sound-bite. Sadly, it is almost impossible to provide that explanation in a newspaper headline. However, in the next few weeks we must try to think up the best sound-bites and headlines to raise the alarm.
It cannot be emphasized too strongly that most European nations do not have the same legal and constitutional institutions and traditions as those found in the English-speaking world, and they also have sorry histories of instability, dictatorship and authoritarianism. Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech in Fulton, Missouri, in 1946 contained a celebrated passage on these themes. To quote, “We must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, Trial by Jury, and the English common law, find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.”
Incredibly, the present government is weakening the special freedom-loving arrangements and understandings, as part of its latest and ongoing appeasement of the EU. Indeed, its endorsement of the European Arrest Warrant will mean the end of habeas corpus. If you think I am exaggerating, I recommend you watch this short, but very persuasive video,
As I said, we need “somehow, somehow” – to devise a sound-bite or newspaper headline to summarize the betrayal of British traditions and institutions that is now under way, so that voters on 22nd May register their disgust at what the “ruling elite” is doing to their country. Habeas corpus, the common law, the adversarial system of court procedure and so on are difficult ideas, but they are essential to our way of life. They are precious, and we must keep and protect them.