The rule of law?
Valentina Akimova looked at me in genuine surprise. ‘So you are saying that here in the UK judges make their own decisions in court? They are not told by the authorities whether the defendant is guilty or innocent?’ This was in 1996, at a time when it was hoped that post-communist Russia would become a flourishing democracy and considerable amounts of time, money and expertise were being invested by western countries to help make this happen.
Akimova was a Russian judge, the only female in a group from the top levels of the Russian judiciary who were on a study tour in the UK focusing on how the rule of law functioned in a democracy and how critical to this was the independence of the judiciary.
My business partner and I had developed the plan for the study tour with UK government funding. Akimova and her colleagues had just arrived for an intensive fortnight of activities, ranging from lectures by senior British judges to a visit to a magistrate’s court. I am not a lawyer, but the study tour marked the beginning of several high-profile government, EU, UN and private sector projects that I worked on which were all in some way predicated on the rule of law being upheld.
I answered the question as carefully as I could, trying not to patronise, make judgements or indeed any other assumptions. But deep down I felt a sense of security and perhaps relief that here in the UK the rule of law was a cornerstone of our democratic society.
America is mourning the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg; people like RBG stand head and shoulders over so many of us. An associate justice of the US Supreme Court, she was the first Jewish woman and the second woman to serve on the Court. She spent much of her career as an advocate for gender equality and women’s rights. I am not going to list her prodigious achievements – suffice it to say her sharp mind and careful strategy ensured that step by step, she was able to reduce gender discrimination in US society, transforming the lives of millions of women.
Much of what RBG achieved could be undone if Donald Trump’s nomination for her replacement is approved; the candidate sounds like someone I would hope never to meet. Back home I am watching the government use weasel words like ‘disapplying’ aspects of their Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, and freely admitting that it will be permissible, nay desirable in certain circumstances to break international law. I contrast a giant like RBG with the UK Attorney General Suella Braverman, who recently called a fellow female MP ‘emotional’ for challenging the government on this matter.
And I think back all those years to my smugness, to my feelings of superiority as I patiently explained to Akimova that judges here always made their own judgments, and in jury trials the decision was taken out of their hands as 12 random people were entrusted to decide on the defendant’s guilt or innocence.
If Parliament does pass the Internal Market bill and in effect pave the way for reneging on an internationally legally binding agreement the UK will have crossed a line. Where now our much vaunted rule of law?