We all have to follow the law. Right? A basic statement often parroted to us as children but one which has begun to appear not so simple. This year, the British public has been hit with varied and repeated instances of the Government producing confused and vague policy, as well as blasé rule-breaking from those in authority. Whilst these may seem necessary to those who currently occupy Westminster, it’s beginning to become obvious just how dangerous this attitude can be, potentially rocking the democratic core of the UK, the principles which Boris’ Brexiteer campaign was founded upon.
During the peak of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK, Dominic Cummings made the infamous trip up-north, seemingly breaking the very advice the Government advisor himself was producing. Not only that, but he was indeed praised by the Prime Minister himself for acting as ‘any good father would’. Of course, this ignores the fact that he was breaking the rules. The outrage that this evoked in myself was undoubtedly mirrored across the country (blatantly, in the media). But outrage left apathy in its place. As Love Islander Amber Rose Gill tweeted ‘After I saw that man drive all the way up the country to check his eyesight with a hot box of corona & the gov defended him I knew I wasn’t listening to a damn thing after that’. Plain and simply put, if Dominic can break the rules, why can’t I?
This bud of sentiment goes to show the true importance of the idea that no-one is above the law. Whilst it’s easy to appeal to ideas of fairness in this respect, the real importance of such a rule is its implications. If Cummings is above the rules, then there mustn’t be rules worth following. The government’s insistence on individual responsibility and discretion in the midst of the pandemic hasn’t aided in squashing that bud. Press conferences by various ministers were dominated by conditional caveats; ‘Go to work, if you can’, ‘travel abroad at your own risk’, ‘stay at a 2m distance when possible’. The instructions given by the Government were undeniably vague, which of course, led the public to fill in the blanks. Even if, unlike Amber Gill, you wished to follow the rules, how would you even ascertain exactly what to do? The government pushed the public into their own judgment, on not only whether to follow the rules, but to decide what exactly the rules were.
The government’s inability to facilitate abiding by the law did not end there. Sky in late August noted 11 times where Boris changed his mind on a policy already released to the public. Now to that list, including the infamous A-level and school meals scandal, we can add the Parliament bar being exempt from the 10pm closure rule. The message is clear to the public; don’t take us too seriously, because we might change our mind.
If that shameless breaking of the rule of law wasn’t enough, the ‘rule of six’ legislation was published only minutes before coming into force. In theoretical terms, every person obliged to follow the law in the UK, should have been able to read all 10 pages of the dense statutory instrument in 30 minutes. Of course, neither you nor I spend our spare time reading every law which may come our way, but the bare principle of only publishing a law half an hour before its effect further perpetuates the government’s inability to allow us to follow their own rules.
The summer months following lock-down were dominated by scrambling for people to blame. We were told to Eat out to Help Out in August, to be told to limit interaction in September. The people trying to follow the instructions of the Government, and assist the economy, have been blamed. So to add to Dominic’s rule-breaking, and lacklustre government advice, the public was also effectively told by the government that following their advice was wrong, and consequently caused the rise in cases. It would seem that the government’s complete disregard for their own responsibility and the law couldn’t get worse.
In September, the Prime Minister introduced a Bill which had the public wondering whether the government was going to legislate breaking international law. I predict this to be the straw that breaks the back of the British democracy. Never in history has a Prime Minister acted so flagrantly in regards to his international legal obligations. Whilst this may seem like the price to pay to ‘get Brexit done’, the government must realise that they are also playing with our democracy. Johnson is sending the message that the law is not to be taken seriously. And if that is the case, why follow it? Or indeed, why waste time voting people in to create it? The Tories have had a few rounds of gambling on the constitution, but this time they are risking the very foundation of democracy; the rule of law.
Now the government is clutching at the straws of their own authority; shutting the pubs at 10pm, allowing us only to meet in groups of six, and limiting weddings to 15, when simply, they may have already lost us. When pandemics are dependent on mutual and collective action, the law being the most useful apparatus in orchestrating such, it is dangerous beyond usual implications that we don’t feel obliged to follow the law. Beyond this, pandemics demand international cooperation, and the very thing the Conservative government appears to not take seriously. Through the government breaking their own rules, vagueness and flip-flopping, the Johnson government has dug the grave for their own authority, just when they need it most. Johnson, having bounded around the slogan ‘take back control’, is losing control himself.
Whilst we are promised that Boris Johnson, coronavirus and Dominic Cummings are not forever, their impact upon the British conscience may be much deeper and long-lasting than the 30 minute-trip to Barnard Castle, or the rule-of-three slogans tirelessly churned out by the Government. The dangerous perception that we aren’t obligated to follow the law, of course, does not bode well for the UK’s response to the ‘second wave’, but even beyond that, gives a bleak impression for the future of Britain as the oldest democracy in the World. But since the Tory leadership campaign was dominated by admissions of recreational drug use, perhaps an attitude of disregard for the law is a fitting legacy for this government.