Remember when the only social isolation we needed to worry about was having a crappy blue passport that doesn’t allow you to live or work in other European countries? Ah those were the days. But Brexit hasn’t gone away. In news you may have missed – what with the toilet paper apocalypse and the supermarket running out of lettuce because eejits are panic buying vegetables with a shelf life of a couple of days – the British government has announced that it’s not going to delay Brexit despite the talks on the trade deal between the UK and the EU being cancelled due to the health crisis. Because sunlit uplands, 50p coins, and Big Ben bongs. By the way, I’ve never found any of those 50p Brexit coins in my change. It seems that they’re exactly like the benefits of Brexit. We were told that there was going to be loads of them, but no one has ever seen any.
Brexit is going to go ahead come what may because a small number of extremely wealthy and influential individuals are going to make a lot of money out of it, at the expense of the rest of us. But those extremely wealthy and influential individuals not only have the ear of the British government, they have it in their pocket. Shares in Brexit unicorn farms are still holding up despite the volatility of the markets.
British democracy was never very robust to begin with. It was always more show than substance, as much a pageant as the state opening of parliament, baubles and pseudo-mediaeval rituals covering up a sclerotic state without a written constitution where the powerful can write the rules to suit themselves in a parliament without any real checks and balances on the power of the Prime Minister. Democracy in the UK, more than in any other European democracy, rested upon the common sense and decency of politicians and their willingness to abide by a set of precedents and customs which were never codified or made the law. Without any real safeguards in place, British democracy was always more at risk than most of being perverted by big money and unscrupulous politicians who don’t hesitate to lie and deceive.
During a time of extraordinary crisis such as this, it’s reasonable that extraordinary measures are taken for the public good. No one can seriously object to steps which have a real effect on saving lives, preventing infections, and stopping the spread of a dangerous disease. These steps will have an immediate and significant impact upon our civil liberties. However given the fact that we have a British government led by chancers and charlatans who cannot be trusted, it’s equally reasonable to feel more than a little disquiet about the restrictions on civil liberties contained in the British Government’s new Coronavirus Bill. This bill, which is expected to pass into law by the end of this month, has the greatest impact on our civil liberties at any time since WW2.
The emergency Coronavirus Bill will be presented to the House of Commons on Thursdays. The powers contained within the new bill are wide ranging. They allow for the closure of ports and airports, giving the police to detain and isolate persons they believe to be infected, and giving the government the power to restrict or prohibit public gatherings. There will be new powers over funerals and registering deaths, as well as changes to the operations of courts. There will also be changes to mental health act provisions. You can read a summary of what the new bill proposes here : https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-bill-what-it-will-do/what-the-coronavirus-bill-will-do
It’s important to note that while a particular emergency may be unforeseen, the fact that emergencies will arise is not. There is already significant emergency legislation in force to deal with emergency situations, such as the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. It is therefore not necessarily the case that a new emergency requires the passing of a new law which will have a huge effect on civil rights and liberties. Laws passed as a knee jerk reaction to an immediate set of circumstances are invariably bad laws. The Civil Contingencies Act gives the government the legal authority to introduce emergency measures to combat an emergency situation. These measures are typically restricted to 30 days duration, unless Parliament votes to extend the period.
Incredibly, Boris Johnson is seeking greater emergency powers than were available to the British government during WW2. The emergency powers available to the British government during WW2 had to be renewed annually by Parliament. What the new coronavirus bill will do is to allow ministers to exercise emergency powers for up to two years instead of the 30 days permitted by the Civil Contingencies Act. Furthermore there is no longer any need for these powers to be scrutinised by parliament and for parliament to vote to renew them. It is to be left to the discretion of ministers to decide when the powers are no longer needed. Ministers could, should they see fit, keep the additional powers for the entire two year period even though the coronavirus crisis may have long passed. Do you trust Priti Patel to give up extra power?
Given the widespread lack of trust in Boris Johnson and his government, it is all the more important that these special measures must be kept under constant review and scrutiny by our MPs and by panels of experts. They cannot be entrenched in such a way as to leave them to the discretion of British government ministers to revoke at some unspecified time in the future, or to keep in force long after the coronavirus crisis has passed. We are dealing with a government which has already shown its willingness sidestep parliamentary scrutiny, as Johnson did when he unlawfully prorogued Parliament in an attempt to force through his Brexit plans.
This Act will allow the executive to seize even more power for itself. We have seen with terrorism legislation that British governments are quite willing to cite emergencies as an excuse to strengthen the powers of the Prime Minister and to reduce the power of parliament and the ability of MPs to hold the executive to account. Once they have seized the power, they are highly reluctant to give it up again. We cannot allow Boris Johnson to use the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to grab and to keep power. At the very minimum, this bill should be amended so that the extra powers given to ministers and other agencies will expire as soon as the public health authorities announce that the coronavirus epidemic has been successfully dealt with.
The greatest challenge of the coronavirus crisis is not just to deal with the emergency, it’s also to ensure that how we deal with it now does not destroy our rights and liberties once we are on the other side of it. British democracy was always a fragile creature. We can’t afford to allow an unprincipled and untrustworthy Boris Johnson to shatter it. To state the obvious yet again, this crisis merely highlights the need for a written constitution and the strict separation of powers between the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. It highlights the need for Scotland to have governments that the people of Scotland can hold to account. There’s only one way that can happen.
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My new book has just been published by Vagabond Voices. Containing the best articles from The National from 2016 to date. Weighing in at over 350 pages, this is the biggest and best anthology of Wee Gingerisms yet. This collection of pieces covers the increasingly demented Brexit years, and the continuing presence and strength of Scotland’s independence movement.
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