Judge not, lest ye be judged

Jacob McLoughlin is a first-year history student at King’s. His interests include foreign and defence policy, particularly in light of the recent circumstances of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. Alongside this, he follows parliamentary politics and party-related developments.

 

Last Thursday, the High Court ruled that it was not within the government’s prerogative powers to begin the process of leaving the European Union without first consulting Parliament. The following day, a large contingent of the press – The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and The Daily Express the most prominent among them – launched an attack not on the judgement, but the right of the judges to make the judgement itself. Whilst I am not a lawyer, and so admittedly do not have extensive experience on constitutional law, I would like to think that such a background is not necessary to see why this development is problematic.

Perhaps I ought to clarify where I myself stand on the issue of Brexit. I am a Remainer; to nuance my view, I think that Parliament ought to debate the issue of Brexit, but that it should ultimately accept the verdict of the referendum. As referenda in the United Kingdom are technically advisory, Parliament does not strictly have to follow its verdict; however, I would argue that this course of action would be a mistake. A referendum indicates that Parliament is specifically inclined to listen to the people on a certain issue. A Parliamentary rejection of the referendum’s verdict would therefore imply that Parliament was not interested in the views of the people, undermining its authority and legitimacy.

It is this matter which the newspaper headlines emphasised. The Daily Mail opted for a front page with a set of pictures of the presiding judges above the headline “Enemies of the People”[1], whilst the Telegraph ran with the headline “The judges versus the people” above a slightly different set of pictures of these same judges.[2] This kind of headline creates a division between the judges and the rest of the citizenry, as if everyone but these three judges agree on the same view, that they alone are subverting the will of the people. A polarised ‘us versus them’ dynamic is presented, the prominence of which gives it a great amount of influence.

The divisions presented by these newspapers fit into a wider narrative, that of the ‘liberal elite’ versus the regular people of Britain.[3] Emerging before June’s referendum, this feeling seems very real to significant portions of the population; indeed it is arguably one of the reasons why so many people voted to leave the European Union. I will not condescend to suggest that these divisions do not exist: doing so would be both counter-productive and patronising. However, whilst divisions of this kind do exist, it is important not to widen them, which is exactly what these newspaper headlines do. Taking an exaggerated and borderline belligerent tone, they highlight and exacerbate this problematic aspect of British society.

More than this, these newspapers actively seek to persuade others of the veracity of this view. What Britain needs in the months and years following this divisive referendum is unity, not more conflict. The danger posed by such rhetoric must not be understated. The independence of the judiciary is a vital aspect of our liberal democracy, as is the freedom of the press. If one of these freedoms is used to the detriment of another, there follows a degradation of the values of our system. For the popular press to portray the judiciary as traitors simply to make a certain ideological point, there is a clear indication that there is something wrong with UK politics which transcends the ordinary trappings of a partisan press.

Any kind of solution to these problems will not be easy: press regulation can very easily fall into censorship. That being said, it is crucial not to be deterred by this. It is incumbent on all of us to ensure that, no matter our personal politics, the system in which we live is one of respect and unity, not one of conflict and division. That is why the issue of the High Court ruling and the national reaction to it is so important: it is at the very heart of the political paradigm of modern Britain. As a consequence, it is equally important that the independence and reputation of the judiciary are upheld. Whilst I am by no means arguing that Parliament should, in full Burkean fashion, vote against the referendum result – as tempting as the idea of Britain not actually leaving the EU may be – it is my firm conviction both that Parliamentary process should be followed and that the result of the referendum ought to be confirmed by this process. In this way, Parliamentary sovereignty is upheld, whilst the result of the referendum is legitimised.

[1] The Daily Mail, 4 November, 2016 p.1

[2] The Daily Telegraph, 4 November, 2016 p.1

[3] Whatever that loose term actually means

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