Header

2010 saw the rise of the Liberal Democrats. The run up to the General Election saw Nick Clegg become very popular: as a result, the Liberal Democrats were rewarded with a surge in voters, and Parliamentary seats. Three party politics had arrived in Westminster.

During the last few years, Lib Dem support has dwindled. Mr Clegg and the Lib Dems lost credibility during that time, particularly in the furore over university top up fees. All of a sudden, from being a credible third political party, the middle way, and the voice of the liberal 21st century, the Lib Dems over the last Parliament once again returned to their status as a small political party, and very much a junior member of the Coalition. That in itself is a shame, what with the great promise that Mr Clegg and his reinvigorated party showed.

However, the Lib Dems did leave a powerful legacy on the landscape of British politics. Three party politics, and coalition rule, is here to stay in the British Isles. Although the Lib Dems themselves are trailing at the polls, other smaller parties have come to prominence over recent months.  Although the Lib Dems have 57 seats currently, UKIP (with 4 MEP’s and 2 MP’s) has had a more vocal election campaign than the embattled Lib Dems. Admittedly, though, most of the UKIP publicity has arisen due to gaffes or the antics of its candidates, as opposed to proper politics.

As regards the traditional major parties, 2015 sees Labour and the Conservatives having effectively lost their dominance and control of the House of Commons. Although the polls, pundits and commentators may disagree in some areas, one matter upon which all sources agree upon is that the result of the May elections will see (once again) a hung Parliament, with neither Labour nor Conservatives able to secure the seats necessary to form a government.

Amidst the spectre of one of the two major parties coming cap in hand to the leaders of Plaid Cymru (Plaid; 1 MEP, and 3MP’s out of 40 Welsh seats in Westminster) or the Scottish National Party (SNP; six Westminster  seats currently), the Green Party,  or even UKIP, are the squabbles between the respective leaders. In scenes reminiscent of the playground, the various party leaders are refusing to do deals with each other following the election results, or are calling upon other party leaders to work with them to lock out one or other of the two major parties from Downing Street. In a complex series of statements, agreements and disagreements that makes the European alliances prior to World War I look easy, the only consensus between the various parties is in tackling or criticising Nigel Farage and UKIP. However, it is highly likely that whatever Parliament, hung or otherwise, is seen on May 8th, all of the various small parties will be only too eager to negotiate with the party (or parties) who will end up with the most Parliamentary seats, in efforts to secure support and power.

What was started in 2010 is set to continue; coalition politics, in one way or form, are here to stay. In the US, it is either the Republicans or Democrats who end up victorious in any of their plethora of elections. Their northern neighbours, by contrast, as regards their politics have followed the Canadian trend of being half English and half American. Three parties dominate the Canadian political landscape; their differences mean that coalition governments are very rare. However, Ottawa has a system of majority /minority government, where the majority party still has no clear Parliamentary majority, but is still in power. In the UK, that would be a hung Parliament, and efforts would be made to rectify the situation, as happened in 2010. However, in Canada, such a situation is (relatively) normal; the current Conservative government led by the unpopular Stephen Harper has been in minority/majority status since 2006, despite various elections.

In such situations, coalitions are rare. That is also the case for democracies like France, and formerly the UK. With the political upheavals since 2010, the UK is likely copy our Irish neighbours in accidentally adopting a Coalition government of sorts. That is also in line with countries like Japan and Israel.

Despite the practical issues with any coalition, such as the efforts needed to successfully pass legislation, or getting parliamentary consensus, or two differing political ideologies having to compromise on their ideals to achieve government decisions and policies, there are benefits to such a situation. Many academics and theorists consider that most democracies should adopt a coalition, and that a coalition is the most effective form of democracy. That is essentially because the voice of the people has clearly spoken- even if it is unsatisfactory in forming a government. No parliamentary majority, or the need for two or more political parties (or Belgium, where up to six parties gave formed a government) to combine, shows a great level of voter engagement to create such a political mess. The need to form a coalition shows, amongst others, that the people are not merely voting for the larger political parties, but are considering and choosing smaller regional parties (Plaid Cymru) or other political interests (Green Party) to represent them instead. As such, many theorists agree that a coalition is the purest form of democracy

Admittedly this flies on the face of the democracy championed by ancient Athens, in which every man had a say on every public matter, and matters were resolved by a simple majority vote or opinion. Over the millennia, democracy has clearly evolved away from that ideal, towards the ideal of proportional representation instead, as manifested by a coalition or majority/minority rule, so often seen in many democracies today.

With that evolution of democracy in mind, along with the clamour of the regions for more power, and 64 million people in the British Isles fed up with the current political system and leadership, British democracy itself will probably see great change over the next five years.

The first change being that it is unlikey, given public opinion and the polling data, that David Cameron will be driven to Buckingham Palace on the morning of May 8th to ask permission to form a government. The occupant of that car is currently unknown- but it is the choice of all of the people of the United Kingdom. Let us hope that collectively we choose wisely.

New Year- Old Traditions.

January 12th, 2015 | Posted by admin in Legal reflections - (0 Comments)

As the world warmly and enthusiastically welcomed in 2015, and the start of a new year, with new hopes and challenges, some had a more dramatic start to 2015 than others: namely, over in Russia, opposition blogger and Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny. Mr Navalny and his brother Oleg Navalny had previously been found guilty in for embezzling and misappropriating nearly $500,000 of state owned timber a few years earlier- in what Mr Navalny and his supporters claim were fabricated charges. A long-time critic of President Putin and the Russian government, Mr Navalny has in previous years been the architect of anti-Kremlin street protests, and has long campaigned (quite vocally) against government corruption. The beginning of January saw the Navalny brothers being sentenced for the corruption charges. Both were fined heavily, with Alexey Navalny being given a three and half years suspended sentence- and Oleg Navalny been given a three and half years jail term.

Some supporters gathered shortly after, to protest against the severity of the politically motivated sentences (with many also considering that the severity of Oleg Navalny’s sentence was merely a ploy to get to Alexey Navalny). They were joined by a surprise visitor; Alexey Navalny himself. After being returned home, Mr Navalny had promptly and very openly returned to central Moscow to protest against his own sentence. He was equally promptly arrested, and returned home under house arrest. Many fear that the protest in Manezhnaya Square is in itself illegal, as the organisers did not have the time to apply for permission to hold the rally- necessary under Russian law. Once again, President Putin and the Kremlin are seemingly (and very overtly) seeking to crush all form of opposition.

In contrast to Russia, political parties and politicians in the United Kingdom welcome opposition. A vocal opposition is as important as the government of the day. Protesters, opposition group leaders, pressure groups, and similar are very much part of the British political landscape- and are welcomed. Indeed, in an open democracy, such opposition is absolutely necessary. All points of view need to have a voice; critics of the government need to be heard, and their message (even if distasteful) needs to be put out- in an open democracy.

To that end, the complicated and often archaic system and traditions that make up the British legal system safeguard and protect that voice of protest, that opposing point of view. Quite often those in power do not heed that voice of protest, or often turn a blind eye to the will of the people (such as the opposition to the Iraq war); however, that voice of protest is expressed. That voice of protest is not repressed, and those who oppose the government are not arrested on trumped up charges, and sentenced after show trials (such as in the former USSR, or modern China).

The law protects that voice of opposition. The rule of law also serves to protect and uphold certain freedoms- such as the freedom of speech, and expression, and a free and independent press. As tragic as the recent shootings in France at the offices of Charlie Hebdo were, that attack just shows how important that freedom of expression is. Similarly to the voice of opposition, the law serves to protect and uphold such freedoms and rights.

That voice of opposition, the opinions voiced so vocally, often comes, surprisingly and most vocally, from the judges themselves. Over in Russia, many activists have been arrested, and tried. In most cases, their trials have been not fully open or impartial. Quite often, there is some suspicion that the Russian judges might have been influenced by more than the mere facts of the case and the code of Russian law. In the UK, by contrast, the judiciary has always been fiercely independent of Parliament.

For many centuries, the British judiciary has fought to preserve their independence, and their right to call the government to account- and indeed to criticise the government, or to expose and deal with failings of the government. Students of constitutional law will be able to reel off many cases where judges have called Parliament to account, and brought Parliament within the rule of law. Lord Diplock and other exponents of judicial review, Lady Hale’s often subtle criticisms, the much loved Lord Denning, and very recently Sir James Munby’s wrath at the state of the Family Division are but some examples of this fine legal tradition.

The judges often end up examining the actions of government, and calling ministers and MP’s to account. Quite often, the judges have to bring Parliament back into the rule of law, an advise government that their actions- or proposed Acts of Parliament- are illegal. Senior judges have the unenviable task of ensuring that legislation, regulations and Ministerial policies are within the law, either UK law, EU law, or international law (such as UN resolutions and conventions).

Under the Russian constitution and legal code, it is similar for the Russian judiciary. However, it is evident that the Russian judiciary might not be as impartial and independent as they should be; either that, or their application of the law in some cases (such as regarding opponents to the Kremlin) is overly harsh. As regards calling the Kremlin and the Duma (Russian parliament) to account- once again, it seems as if there might be limitations on that particular responsibility, given recent events.

Alternatively, perhaps the Duma and the Kremlin are simply not listening to the judges informing them as regards the rule of law. After all, it is not as if the British government is a paragon of virtue in that regard either. Quite often, the considered legal opinion of senior British judges has similarly fallen on deaf ears in Westminster (once again, the Iraq war serves as a good example).

Be it 1215, or 2015, be it Moscow or London- democratic governments, although held to account by the judiciary and the rule of law, often seem to have proud tradition of acting contrary to the very laws and rules that they themselves create and enact.

In politics and international relations, some matters can be long and on-going, and can rumble on for years. Former Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell MP was initially quizzed over the plebgate scandal in 2012; the matter was still going through the courts in 2014. Sometimes, over time the matter can fade out of public and political sight; what of Julian Assange, Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and Edward Snowden? Their revelations were explosive, creating tensions in international relations, and attracted criticism for the governments exposed. However- where are they now? Their names and deeds have largely faded out of public perception- but their legacy has not.

As regards their legacy, 2014 saw the three agencies of British Intelligence under public and governmental scrutiny as never before, as a result of the allegations of 2013. Indeed, the Chiefs of MI5, SIS and GCHQ were grilled relentlessly (and publicly) before the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee in November. The spymasters defended themselves robustly, stating clearly that their actions helped protect and safeguard the UK and democracy. A closed court, however, cleared and vindicated the intelligence agencies over the matters deriving from the whistleblowers of previous years in early December. As such, the matter of intrusive intelligence gathering and electronic interceptions can hopefully be laid to rest, and the intelligence services allowed to retreat again into the shadows where they operate so successfully.

That was before, allegations and court cases over British involvement in, or knowledge of, torture was brought up- and a US Senate report exposed CIA torture. The report also pointed to a degree of British involvement in the torture or apprehension of terror suspects. As such, 2015 will once again see the three British Intelligence agencies on the defensive, and before the spotlight they hate, and before the government oversight which is so vital. Given that 2015 sees and election in the UK, and the beginning of the US Presidential election cycle, doubtless many political hopefuls will be seeking to wring political capital out of the scandal.

However, some matters in politics and international relations have a nasty habit of not going away. Rather, some matters can escalate. Alternatively, as the matter develops, the initial matter can fade, as new twists emerge, or new elements become significant. As such, diplomats and commentators can still be dealing with the same matter several years later.

The writer well remembers writing about an uprising in Ukraine in December 2013. The people of Ukraine were peacefully protesting to their leaders about a decision whether a trade agreement should be signed with the EU, at the risk of angering their former Russian overlords and masters. As Christmas 2013 passed, instead of fading away, the matter became more serious. The embattled President was forced to step down and flee. 2014 saw matters develop to such an extent that Russia was able to annex the Crimea region of Ukraine. Although this attracted great international condemnation, and a chorus of indignation from commentators, diplomats and the UN, no decisive action was taken against Moscow for that act. This was in keeping with a similar lack of action in recent years against leaders such as President al Assad in Syria, and Kim Jong- un in North Korea.

As Russia looked ever westwards, with fighting flaring up in various eastern European regions next to Russia, and military over flights and increased naval activity across Europe and indeed Canada and the Arctic, the West, and the UN, resorted to diplomacy and sanctions. Although President Putin received the cold shoulder and was vilified (politely) at the G20 in Brisbane in November, little firm action was taken. However, it became apparent that some troubles in Russia’s economy are now emerging as 2014 draws to an end. Some put that down to sanctions finally having an effect; others are less sure that sanctions would actually do much to affect the seventh largest global economy, worth an estimated $2.113 trillion in 2013.

What was an internal uprising in December 2013 is now a matter of global security concern in December 2014. What will 2015 bring as regards Ukraine, Crimea, and the surrounding region? What twists and turns will be seen on the international stage?

Despite many educated guesses, it is hard to tell. Other international matters (such as IS in Syria and Iraq) will also need to be tackled head on in 2015, as those matters also escalate further, with no sign of ceasing. Lessons from previous aggressors, and lessons learnt from fighting similar extremists and insurgents need to be applied, not forgotten, if IS is to be successfully dealt with.

2014 was also a significant matter for internal British politics. After the historic independence referendum in Scotland, it is quite clear that great governmental and constitutional reform and change will be coming to the British Isles over the life of the next parliament (regardless of whatever party or parties is in power). Along with a reduction in public spending set to make the precious spending cuts look like a drop in the ocean, local government will become more powerful.

However, those matters of internal UK politics are also for 2015. Before the politicians and civil servants start planning and discussing such matters, let alone implementing the necessary changes, 2014 still has a few more weeks left to run.

During that time, the writer would like to wish everyone every joy and happiness over the Christmas season, and all peace and prosperity for 2015- whatever the New Year might bring.