If yesterday isn’t a turning point, we don’t know what will be.
We don’t want to over-dramatise, but yesterday saw the effective end of both the rule of law and democracy in the United Kingdom. Faced with a court verdict it didn’t like, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition simply rewrote history to change the law retrospectively so that it won, penalising thousands of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the country as it did so, and Labour rolled over meekly and couldn’t summon up so much as an impotent protest vote.
“The precedent is a terrifying threat to civil liberty, and because the UK has no codified constitution, it’s entirely within Parliament’s prerogative. If government can simply rule on actions ‘ex post facto’ (after the event) then nothing is sacred. You could be walking your dog in Doncaster, completely legally, on Monday, and on Tuesday find that your perambulation was illegal and carries a life sentence.
True, criminal cases would be subject to the European Convention on Human Rights, but thanks to Parliamentary sovereignty, the government can ignore such trifles. The entire concept of ‘Rule of Law’ is undermined as soon as the government starts to cover its back like this.”
A big story, no? The BBC News website, at the time of our originally writing this post (1.45am, around seven hours after the vote) didn’t even consider it worthy of a passing mention. Waking up this morning, we scoured the newspapers fruitlessly for word of it, to the point where we started to think we’d dreamed the whole thing.
Most bizarrely of all, even the Civitas piece had been mysteriously pulled, replaced with something far less contentious.
The Guardian? Nothing. The Independent? Nothing. Total silence. A complete news blackout worthy of Soviet Russia or North Korea, for a government retrospectively rewriting the law to eradicate the verdict of a judge. You’d think someone would consider that mildly interesting. But perhaps after the events of last week, the journalists of our free press are simply too scared to report anything any more, lest they find themselves hauled up before a secret court.
And democracy? Well, that was pretty much shot in the UK already, but yesterday nailed down the coffin lid. If Labour wasn’t going to even stand up and be counted over this, what WILL it stand up for? What’s the point of its existence? The tweet below was typical of dozens in our timeline:
We could have filled this feature with them without scratching the surface. The gutless, useless abstention of over 80% of Labour MPs (including 83% of Scottish Labour ones) followed within hours of the party’s Holyrood MSPs doing the same thing in the Iraq debate – refusing to even vote against the motion condemning the war, so that the only people left actually defending a Labour war were the Tories – and in the middle of a pitiful charade of pretend opposition to the Bedroom Tax.
(The Iraq debate at Holyrood, which the opposition parties tried to prevent taking place, was a hideous spectacle – impassioned, thoughtful speeches from both the SNP and Lib Dems on one side and the Tories on the other, with Labour in the middle offering up a series of pathetic, whining complaints about how awful the SNP are, and how unfair it was to point out that maybe it would be nice in future for Scotland not perhaps to get involved in illegal wars with illegal aims* in which hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians end up dead and the country is left in chaos and ruins.)
*See 20th March 2003 entry here.
Shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne made a grim, craven defence of the whipped non-vote in the Commons, claiming abstention was necessary in order to extract a couple of minor concessions from the UK Government and score some meaningless political points while one of the most basic tenets of British civilisation was pulled down and burned to ashes, for which even the friendly audience of LabourList.org tore Byrne to shreds.
It remains to be seen if he gets his “concessions”. We can’t for the life of us think why the coalition would bother, since it can pass the vote comfortably whether Labour abstains or opposes it. The only reason we can imagine is that David Cameron wants to be able to say that the bill passed without opposition, ensuring that the British public is left in no doubt whatsoever that there is nobody it can vote for to escape he and his cabinet of millionaires’ savage ideological attack on any last vestiges of compassion and humanity in UK society.
“The lesson that I hope we will draw is that the Opposition will go into the election with a clear mandate to move from a means-tested welfare system, in which people think that they have a right to benefits, to one in which people gain entrance to welfare because they have paid contributions.” – Frank Field (Labour), 19 March 2013 (column 895)
If Liam Byrne is prepared to rob the British electorate of even the last, faintest glimmer of hope for the sake of such a dismal prize (for we can be certain that any concessions he does extract will be toothless, and that the Tories will just retrospectively repeal them anyway), we can only throw up our hands and howl at the sky in wordless, incoherent rage and despair at the inadequacy of language to convey our contempt for his worthless soul. We pray that his torment is eternal.
“Both [Iain Duncan Smith] and I believe sanctions are vital to give back-to-work programmes their bite.” – Liam Byrne, 11 March 2013 (col. 18)
All in all, then, a pretty bad day for the Union and its apologists. But there’s still a way out for Scotland. This week we should find out the date of the independence referendum. Scotland voted Yes for devolution in 1979 (but was cheated by Labour and the Tories), and Yes again in 1997, a choice which has now provided the option for a third and conclusive Yes to self-determination, responsibility, decency and dignity.
If its people instead choose No, they will reap the final extinguishing of hope which looks set to befall their cousins south of the border. Because bereft of any meaningful democracy and bereft of the protection of the law, the UK now stands for nothing. And if you vote for nothing, you get what you deserve, and deserve what you get.