One thing that used to set Britain apart from many other countries was a reverence for the rule of law. While recognizing the right of peaceful protest, Britons took it for granted that they needed to respect the law, as the only thing that stood between civilization and anarchy.
Today, however, there seems to be a new mood in society: a willingness to pick and choose which laws should be obeyed and which should be flagrantly flouted. It is an incredibly dangerous turn for our country to take.
Last week in Peckham, South London – to take only the most recent example – a mob physically prevented immigration police from arresting a Nigerian man suspected of overstaying his visa.
Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the individual case, which would have been fully established while he was in custody, a crowd summoned by text by Left-wing activists deliberately prevented the Metropolitan Police from carrying out their duties. It was done in the name of ‘community solidarity’, which is agitprop-speak for ‘mob rule’.
There are plenty of examples around the world of what happens in democratic countries when the police are defied and prevented from carrying out their duties, such as in Portland, Oregon, which defunded its police force and was effectively lawless for several months in 2020-21 . Crime rose and deaths from drug abuse – mainly fentanyl – increased by 41 per cent in a single year.
The scene in Peckham, south east London, after a man arrested on suspicion of immigration offences was released after hundreds of protesters gathered in for hours to block a van he was in leaving
The streets of Portland became filled with homeless people; law-abiding people left; property prices collapsed, and the city entered a cycle of despair.
‘It is predictable, was predicted, and now, unfortunately, is coming to pass in front of our eyes,’ says David Murray of the highly respected Hudson Institute think-tank. ‘It is a tragedy and a self-inflicted wound.’
While we are not under threat of police defunding here in Britain – and, indeed, have a doughty fighter for law and order in our admirably tough Home Secretary Priti Patel – there is undoubtedly a problem when even members of juries, who used to revere law and order, continuously make exceptions, as in the case of the Colston Four in Bristol who were acquitted after vandalizing the statue of Edward Colston and throwing it into Bristol harbor. Or the members of Extinction Rebellion who vandalized buildings in the City of London but who likewise walked free.
It emerged last week that a plaque to Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes in Oxford had to be given Grade II listed status after Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries intervened to protect it.
But how long before a mob of vandals destroy that, with the police looking on powerlessly, as happened in Bristol, Peckham, and during the Black Lives Matter demonstration in June 2020, when they simply watched the statue of Winston Churchill being vandalized in Parliament Square ?
The assumption all too often is that it is better to witness the breaking of the law rather than intervening to stop it, in the hope the culprits will be arrested later.
Protesters throwing the statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbor during a Black Lives Matter protest rally in June 2020
Sage Willoughby, Jake Skuse, Milo Ponsford and Rhian Graham celebrate after receiving a not guilty verdict at Bristol Crown Court in January
For all that might make sense for public order reasons at the time, it sends a disastrous message when on the news and on social media we see the law being deliberately broken and the police seemingly doing nothing about it, which is made even worse when the culprits are freed by juries.
Away from the mobs and the coalition of Left-wing organizations that foment this law-breaking for political purposes, there are a large number of Britons who think it outrageous that it should be seen to be condoned. What is very visibly lost on these occasions is the authority – what used to be called the majesty – of the law, and that is ultimately more damaging than anything that happens to statues.
It is an important part of the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary doctrine that The People should be taught to despise or ignore their country’s laws. That is in part what is going on here, and it must not be allowed to stand.
The law must not be seen to be merely shrugging its shoulders over the case of the gentleman in Peckham; he needs to be treated the same as anyone else who is suspected of overstaying his visa, and not allowed a free pass simply because the immigration police do not want to exacerbate local agitators.
As the old but important line goes: the law must not only be done, it must be seen to be done.
The absurdity of the Extinction Rebellion activists gluing themselves to public highways, being arrested, charged and bailed, and then promptly gluing themselves to the same highway less than four hours later, is also something that has tested the patience of ordinary Britons. If agitators set out deliberately to break the law in this way, and the police have good reason to suspect they will do the same thing again on release, they ought to be kept in police stations for as long as legally possible.
The importance of seeing the law done extends internationally, too. Many Britons are outraged when they see no fewer than three of our British courts – the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court – being over-ridden by the European Court of Human Rights over the Rwanda flights.
Human rights are not under any kind of threat in this country, however much the Left would like you to believe they are.
We have an ancient system to protect them, such as habeas corpus stretching back to Magna Carta, and a host of legal precedents that go back centuries. These are far more respected and binding than anything human rights lawyers can invent.
Members of the staff board a plane believed to be first to transport migrants to Rwanda at MOD Boscombe Down base in Wiltshire earlier this week
While we are not under threat of police defunding here in Britain – and, indeed, have a doughty fighter for law and order in our admirably tough Home Secretary Priti Patel – there is undoubtedly a problem
British courts are moreover a far more legitimate arbiter of our laws than a bench of foreign jurists sitting in Strasbourg. It was wrong of Tony Blair’s government to give a non-British court precedence over our own, which is an anomaly that needs to be swiftly rectified.
Whether you support the Rwandan policy or not, Britain is a mature country that can control its own immigration policy, and must not be prevented from doing so by a foreign court.
In Britain today, there is a serious danger that people will take an à la carte attitude to laws, picking and choosing those they wish to obey and those they simply flout.
Of course, flouting the law is a Briton’s prerogative, so long as he does not mind suffering the consequences. But all too often there seems to be no consequences.
The ultimate result of all this will be a general lowering of respect for the concept of law and order in this country, which time and again throughout history has been disastrous for civil society.
- Andrew Roberts is a historian and biographer of Winston Churchill, Napoleon and King George III.