When faced with at least two of the four horsemen of the apocalypse – climate change and Covid – and a third, Brexit, already saddled, it is little short of madness to lead a fourth nag – blind stupidity – out of the stable to make up the quartet.
But this is what is unfolding as what is, by some distance, the worst government of modern times grapples with positively the most threatening combination of problems in our peacetime history. This week we are witnessing yet another dispiriting episode, this time over the Internal Market Bill that, on the government’s own admission, actually breaks international law.
This is a time when we need and expect of government clear thinking, cool assessments, effective management, an attachment to the precautionary principle, and the sagacity and moral authority to unify a country. Instead we have muddled thinking, febrile actions, incompetence, and an alarming willingness to undermine the rule of law that also pulls the rug from under the government’s dwindling reserves of moral authority.
It is no wonder that wiser counsels across the political divide, aghast at the prospect, have come together to demand a change of course: three Prime Ministers – Major, Blair and May – and a former party leader, Michel Howard, a former minister, Norman Lamont – both of unmistakable Brexiter pedigree – and a former Conservative Attorney General, the booming Geoffrey Cox. It is also no secret where Gordon Brown stands on this issue.
But – crucially important though the negotiation of a sensible Brexit is for all of us, especially here in Wales – let’s look beyond the immediate issue to see where these threads intertwine.
On the climate front large parts of California and Australia have been ablaze, as has a huge acreage in Siberia. In Antartica, sheets of ice the size of continents are beginning to break and shrink. Here at home we experience record temperatures while the incidence of flooding is increasing in frequency and severity. In the meantime innumerable species have become or are becoming extinct.
Faced with this global crisis our Home Secretary, Priti Patel, with a breathtaking lack of perspective, is considering classifying the Extinction Rebellion movement as an “organized crime group”, setting aside a long established right to protest that is so essential to any meaningful democracy.
She seems intent on confirming that this is a government that does not tolerate dissent or listens to other views. Having rid itself of some of its own dissenting MPs before last December’s election, it has now prompted a cull of Permanent Secretaries – six at the last roll call, plus the Government’s Head of Legal Services.
Some will have qualms about the ER protest because it prevented the publication of some newspapers, but in ER’s defence it has to be said that many of those newspapers have not exactly exerted themselves to bring home the urgency and magnitude of the climate issue to their readers despite the scale of their influence.
The residents of California and Australia, not to mention communities here in Wales, will almost certainly take a more sympathetic view, as they see homes flooded or reduced to ashes, and contemplate the tardiness of governments across the world to address this planetary threat.
The effects of climate change offer up spectacular footage for our screens. The same cannot be said of Covid-19. Instead the disease spreads insidiously, unannounced until symptoms surface. What we do see on our screens is the suffering of the bereaved and the isolated, interposed between daily announcements of endlessly changing regulations for our daily existence.
While the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales have never diverted from sober and measured language, UK ministers, taking a cue from the Prime Minister, have resorted to unwarranted hyperbole – ‘world-beating’, ‘game changing’ etc. – that has no relationship with the reality of the struggling systems that are so obvious to citizens.
In like manner Boris Johnson’s government has also struggled with the reality of the four-nation governance of the UK that has been in place since 1999. Twenty years of devolution should have been sufficient to create and embed both the habit of consultation and the mutual respect that would then ensue. But the UK government’s conception of the British internal market that will obtain post-Brexit seems to be one in which London will impose rules and mandate many expenditures in hitherto devolved areas, albeit that many other functions will be transferred from Brussels to Edinburgh and Cardiff.
It is this lack of imagination about the desirability of a quasi-federal system of government that has driven a Conservative Senedd Member, David Melding, to resign the party whip. Boris Johnson purports to be acting in the interests of the union, but everyone else – including the Welsh and Scottish Governments, America’s House of Congress, the Irish Government, John Major and Tony Blair – is telling him that precisely the reverse is the case.
Consultation and respect towards the devolved administrations has not been much in evidence in London’s management of either Covid or Brexit. Such disrespect has often been counter-productive, especially for a government that purports to support the union so passionately. Whatever else it may be, this is not a listening government; and if it cannot listen to its own devolved governments how can we be certain that it is listening to the messages from the European Union. It hears only what suits its purposes.
The Prime Minister’s cavalier style, evident both in this post and in previous posts, has been part of his appeal. But it is not a style suited to the times or to the number and severity of the problems the country faces. The problem is compounded by the influence of a coterie of roundheads in Downing Street with an authoritarian bent and a penchant for disruption or, as they might phrase it, “creative disruption”.
It is currently leading the government and the country astray in a way that, although capable of winning the approbation of a Trump or Putin, may now be rumbled, finally, by some on his own side.
Any recognisable Conservative Party of the past would have had an instinctive regard for the rule of law. It is inconceivable that previous governments would have had a Minister stand at the dispatch box to announce that the government intended to break the law “in a very specific and limited way.” Yes, governments have gone beyond the law, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes when the law itself was not clear. Neither excuse pertains this week. Instead the proponents of ‘global Britain’ are shredding one of the planks of our global reputation.
The government seeks to fudge the issue by suggestions that domestic law may on occasion trump international law. If he were alive today, the late Lord Justice Bingham, one of our most eminent judges, would have been quick to put him right. In his book The Rule of Law he said this: “…the rule of law in the international order is, to a considerable extent at least, the domestic rule of law write large……The rule of the jungle is no more tolerable in a big jungle.”
So we see in all these areas of policy common threads: an intolerance of dissent, an inability to listen, the total absence of the much vaunted British or, to be generous, English instinct for compromise and fair play, and a shaky attachment to the rule of law that this country claims to have invented. It does not bode well.