On the Brexit court ruling, our government fuels the view that politicians act without principle

The Conservative MP and former Attorney General Dominic Grieve condemns the government’s response to the High Court judges’ Article 50 decision.

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The shameful abuse that was directed, both at the judges and the individual applicants who had been involved in the case on Article 50 in the High Court, should be a wake-up call to all in our country who believe in the Rule of Law and rational political debate.

Far from being perverse or capricious, the interpretation of our constitutional law applied by the judges to the case was reasonable and predictable. I have no criticism of the government for contesting the case and getting the law clarified or indeed appealing the decision to the Supreme Court if it wishes, but it cannot be surprised at the present outcome.

The principle enshrined in our constitution since the seventeenth century and indeed earlier, that the Royal Prerogative cannot be used by the executive to override statute law enacted by Parliament is of such a fundamental character that its disappearance here would pave the way for the possibility of executive tyranny.

Our membership of the EU is underpinned by statute law. Brexiters may dislike the fact that this ever happened, but this was sanctioned by the sovereign will of Parliament when it enacted the European Communities Act in 1972. It is for Parliament to undo it and even if the government had won the case it could not carry out its task without parliamentary support.

The strength of the anger expressed by some supporters of Brexit and whipped up by sections of the press is thus irrational save as an instrument for suppressing debate. Despite the misgivings of many MPs that Brexit will be damaging to our economic wellbeing and quality of life, very few are likely to oppose Article 50 being triggered when it is done lawfully. But Parliament is entitled to be told what the government’s negotiating intentions will, in broad terms, be before it gives its consent to an irreversible process that could see us out of the EU with no agreement at all, contrary to the government’s stated intention.

This episode illustrates the fact that the growing violence of language and paranoia that now seems to characterise so much of the discourse of supporters of Brexit has other roots. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that its prevalence is a reflection of the insecurity which is inherent when a referendum victory is in part based, to the knowledge of some of the victors, on a prospectus supported by deliberate untruths.

But equally troubling to me was the government’s response to this vitriol. Irrespective of its own view on the decision of the court, it was its positive duty to support the judiciary in its work and the right of the applicants to obtain legal redress in the Queen’s courts.

Yet one minister saw fit to criticise the applicants for bringing the claim at all, at a time when they were being subjected to death threats and the Lord Chancellor took 48 hours to issue the weakest of statements in support of judicial independence in the face of a wholly unjustified attack.

For a Conservative government that states it is rooted in traditions of respect for the Rule of Law and parliamentary democracy, this is not an acceptable position to adopt and is disappointing to many of us who give it our support. It reinforces the view that politicians act without principles and this is precisely what has already caused so much damage to the standing of our political institutions. 

Dominic Grieve is the Conservative MP for Beaconsfield. He was Attorney General from May 2010 - July 2014.