Budapest (or should that be Beijing?)-on-Thames

by Chris Bertram on September 9, 2020

These are unpleasant times to be British, if you also happen to be of cosmopolitan disposition, if you value good governance, and if you think that government ought to be restrained by the law. Boris Johnson’s government has announce its intention to break international law “in limited and specific ways” as the UK’s negotiations with the EU over a future trade deal founder and we slide towards no-deal and international isolation. Henry explores some of the background to this in the “Northern Ireland backstop” over at The Monkey Cage. Johnson proposes to tear up parts of an international treaty, which he hailed as a good deal as recently as January and which was the basis on which he campaigned in the last general election. It was put into UK law by this Parliament, only a few months back, on a tight timetable with restricted opportunity for scrutiny. Various Tory politicians, including Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May, are unhappy with the prospect of breaking international law, arguing that nobody will have reason to trust the word of the British government ever again. The government’s senior legal civil servant has resigned over the issue and its implications for the rule of law. Critics point out that it weakens the UK’s ability to complain when other states, such as China, break their international agreements at will. (I assume that assurances will be given and any rebel Tories will back off, as they have done repeatedly over the past four years.) Johnson’s more extreme supporters, in places like Spiked,1 are already engaging in the familiar rhetoric of treachery to defame anyone who is critical of the UK’s “negotiating position”. Presumably Johnson is banking on Trump’s re-election, a further trashing of international norms and a friendly US government, because without that complete isolation beckons.

Meanwhile, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, a member of the Cabinet that is happy to disobey the law, has characterized climate protestors as “criminals” and suggested that Extinction Rebellion could be classified as an organized crime group. She’s also been active around a confected “refugee crisis” concerning a few people who have crossed the Channel in dinghies (most of whom, it turns out are bona fide refugees) and the government is making noises about changing the law to make it easier to deport people, raising the possibility in the minds of observers that the UK could walk away from its obligations under the Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights. It is almost as an afterthought that I mention that because of the Johnson government’s mismanagement, the UK has one of the highest death rates in the world and a strategy for fighting the disease that seems to consist mainly of announcing “world beating” measures that fail to materialize. Meanwhile, because of COVID-19, rights to political protest have been severely curtailed,2 and organizers of gatherings face financial penalties of £10,000 each. If COVID doesn’t go away soon, then restrictions on our ability to resist the policies of the Johnson government will be in place when no-deal Brexit comes in January and the economic hit from COVID is compounded by food shortages and further mass job losses. Will the UK even survive all this? Pro-EU Scotland will want to secede as soon as it can, which might mean a hard border at Berwick-on-Tweed and a united Ireland would be one solution to the problems caused by the Conservative and Unionist Party’s Brexit outcome. I’d say “Hungary here we come”, but at least Hungary, as an EU member, continues to enjoy access to European markets.

  1. Spiked is the website of the network of the former Revolutionary Communist Party, some of whose members are intertwined with Johnson’s administration. Johnson has recently decided to elevate one of its senior cadres, Claire Fox, in earlier times an enthusiast for IRA bombings, to the House of Lords.↩

  2. It almost seems superfluous to recall, amid this litany of perfidy, that in the case of Johnson’s adviser or controller, the Rasputinesque Dominic Cummings, the legal restrictions on movement because of COVID didn’t apply. Another instance of one law for them ….↩