Who are the enemies of the people?

The violent reaction of the media and some political figures to the High Court ruling on Brexit seems to have taken the UK into the territory of institutional hatred - and yet leading politicians have been slow to condemn it.  This matters a great deal, and Transparency International's Robert Barrington explains why.

Robert Barrington
8 November 2016
Picture by Tim Ireland AP/Press Association Images

Some of the front pages of Britain's newspapers after the High Court determined that MPs must have a say on triggering Article 50. Picture by Tim Ireland AP/Press Association ImagesBrexit has aroused strong passions. There are two opposing sides with apparently little common ground who seem inclined to put resolution of this issue above all else. This is very dangerous territory. It means that people are willing to put aside important values in order to achieve their primary objective at any cost, to resort to language that stirs up hatred, and to vilify perceived opponents even if this undermines other important pillars of our democracy and society.

In this case, two areas of freedom and democracy seem pitted against each other - and experience across the world has shown that both are critical in the fight against corruption. There is the freedom of the press. We may be repelled by hate-inducing headlines from the tabloids: but far better to endure them under a free press than to have the kind of tyranny we see today in Russia or Turkey.  And then there is the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. These are fundamental democratic values, which should be defended robustly, even when the media don't like the rulings judges give.

Why is this of concern to Transparency International? It is simple. We are constantly on the watch for a decline in standards which opens the door for corruption to thrive. It is worthwhile remembering what countries become when they have weak institutions - and that those institutions are often undermined by individuals who have an enormous self-interest in the outcome.  Strong political figures gradually gather more power, subverting democracy while at the same time citing 'the people' as their authority; shadowy figures behind them provide funds as they anticipate benefitting from the new set-up; and there is a gradual suppression of contrary voices, including the opposition, the media and civil society. Usually, economic decline follows which is disguised  by cooking the books and turning on groups as 'the enemy' who are cowed into silence and unable to defend themselves due to repressive new laws, a corrupt legal system or because popular militias, stirred up by the politicians and state media, are unleashed on them.  Ironically, since the cry of the demagogue is that the old establishment is corrupt, a new establishment rapidly supplants it - which is very genuinely and deeply corrupt. This should not just concern Transparency International. It should concern every citizen of the UK.

Once corruption takes root, it is very hard to get rid of.  As we saw with the misleading - and at times mendacious - claim and counter-claim during the referendum campaign, UK society has no independent referee for when our democracy or fundamental values are threatened. Here are four aspects of the "Enemies of the People' story that should sound the alarm:

1. British institutions were supposed to be elevated by Brexit, not denigrated. Brexit was sold to the nation in part on the basis that it would be bringing back sovereignty to our Parliament, and giving power back to our own judges and not a bunch of foreign judges who don't understand the British way of life.  It is inevitable that our Parliament and Judges will make decisions in future that one side or other disagrees with.  That is why we have a long-established process set up with checks and balances.  If, in the anger this stirs up, the authority of those institutions is consistently undermined, then we will have failed in the very thing that Brexit was hoping to achieve.

2. Some of the values we have long taken for granted - like the importance of an independent judiciary - may now be under threat.  In the single-minded pursuit of a single objective, it will be easy to throw away things we value, and only realise later how important they were to our society and economy. The rule of law is one such thing. We should protect it at all costs.

3. The force of anger, so strongly expressed by one side of the argument, could lead to some very poor decisions. The cheerleaders for Brexit seem faster to get angry when they face a setback, and quick to follow the path that anger leads towards: hatred, vilifying opponents, a departure from rational problem-solving. Those originally in favour of remaining have had much lower-key responses, which has created the political and media space for the language of hatred and the denigration of things that everyone, on both sides, ultimately relies on.

4. What happened to British values? There was much talk of this during the campaign, and they were typically cited as tolerance, calm authority in the face of adversity, strong institutions and looking outwards not inwards.  They were seen as important not only for their own sake, but as reasons why we would be successful in the future - for example, a stable society based on the rule of law being two conditions for economic success and attracting inward investment. If those values are indeed as important as was claimed, now should be the time to reinforce them not to throw them away.  Whichever type of Brexit happens, the UK needs it to be economically successful.

What should be the response to that call?  Here are two suggestions:

1. Political leadership. One might have expected senior politicians to condemn, instantly, the attack on the rule of law. By contrast, we had the astonishing spectacle of a government cabinet minister joining in the attack and later, a surprisingly half-hearted response from the Lord Chancellor. That is not good enough. The message needs to come from the very top, from the Prime Minister, about the values that are fundamental to our national identity and future success. Of course, all politicians are wary of getting on the wrong side of the Daily Mail: but just as the newspapers have their job to do, so do politicians.  And standing up for basic values is one of them.

2. Acknowledge the dangers and set out a strategy for dealing with them. The government should be in no doubt that our democratic institutions are under assault and should act quickly to protect them. There is some good news here.  In the next few weeks, the Government will be publishing the UK's first-ever anti-corruption strategy. It should contain strong commitments, and a high-level plan, for making sure that the UK is resilient to corruption risks at home and maintains the authority and credibility to speak out about corruption on the world stage.

Brexit need not be a failure for the UK. Brexit need not open the door to corruption. But if attacks on key institutions are allowed to go un-checked by those in power, the future could be a lot worse for the people of Britain.  We have already had the Governor of the Bank of England cast as one enemy of the people.  Now our senior judges.  Who next, and withwhat consequences?  This sad episode should act as a warning.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData