The court of public opinion

Harriet Harman (picture Steve Punter)

“The prime minister has said it’s not acceptable and, therefore, it will not be accepted. And it might be enforceable in a court of law, this contract, but it’s not enforceable in the court of public opinion and that’s where the government steps in.”

Those words by Harriet Harman, leader of the House of Commons and deputy leader of the Labour party, on Sunday regarding Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension arrangements amount to a classic statement of the absolutists’ case. If the law does not suit the government, the law should simply be ignored. All our legal principles insist that you cannot change a contract retrospectively by amending the law now: what she is threatening is to overrule the law, not to observe it. They should have been more careful with what they agreed with Sir Fred at the time.

Now, it is possible that conversations with Sir Fred might persuade him to give up some of his pension, although he has given the strong impression that he will not, but even if he can be persuaded, that doesn’t necessarily make it right to ask. I was once persuaded to part with the contents of my wallet after a conversation with a mugger.

Federalism proposes that the government, like the rest of us, should be subject to the law. This should be true domestically but it should also be true in its relations with other governments. International agreements, once agreed, should not be reopened in the court of public opinion: there should be international courts for the purpose. The biggest and most important decisions should not be left to the whim of whoever happens to be in power at any particular time.

For it is the rule of law that guarantees property rights, human rights, and any other kind of right that you can think of. It is the rule of law that protects the weak against the strong. It is the rule of law that our way of life depends on, and the government should be very careful before stepping all over it.

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