Publication: Langport Leveller
We have in recent months seen Extinction Rebellion undertaking acts that on occasion breach the law to make the point about climate change. More recently we have seen Government propose a Bill that would see the UK potentially breach International Law as part of its negotiation with the EU.
In the course of negotiating a good outcome, whether for the planet or for the country, is it right to break the law and if so what should the boundaries be?
Our most basic laws are acts of translation –attempting to ensure our moral instincts find reflection in innumerable clauses, sub-clauses and amendments. And as the immediacy offered by social media causes the news cycle to spin with ever-increasing speed, the deliberative process of law-making can often seem almost provocatively slow.
A couple of weeks ago, we saw the latest thicket of Extinction Rebellion protests, with newspaper production halted, the already over-stretched emergency services mobilised and countless journeys disrupted. Of course, the possession of fervent beliefs and conviction – particularly about a topic so crucial as climate change – is not only admirable, but a prerequisite for a properly functioning democracy. However, the road to our 2050 Net Zero goal is precipitous – and will prove impossible to navigate if not paved with mass public consent.
My worry is that these tactics imperil the solidarity that will be vital if we are to green our economy, continue our progress in cutting emissions and embed environmental imperatives within the fabric of all government policy-making. Impeding people’s everyday lives – especially at a time when we all face huge challenges in attempting to carve out moments of normality – will deepen public apathy towards the measures we need to mitigate the risks posed by climate change.
And the symbolic irony of the free press being silenced by protesters arguing for more informed policy-making shouldn’t be lost on anyone. The law must be applied universally – to everyone regardless of background, religion, ideology or political convictions. Even amidst this pandemic, peaceful, legal protest is possible. Given that the UK has, objectively, the best record in respect of cutting emissions in the G20, was the first major economy to enshrine a Net Zero target in international law, is on target to meet the targets set in its third Carbon Budge and has doubled climate finance for developing countries, there’s room for optimism as well as anxiety.
But I’m aware of a further irony that some have pointed out – of a government criticising law-breaking on the part of XR while passing the Internal Markets Bill through Parliament. The question that engrossed Parliament and the headline writers last week was whether or not the Bill broke international law. To be clear, the Bill did not, itself break international law – but equipped Ministers with the power to ignore the provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement if the EU were to introduce restrictions that threatened the constitutional and fiscal coherence of the UK. And even in an era of political discourse in which recourse to incendiary analogies has become an almost automatic process, some of those we’ve heard in the last couple of weeks or so have stretched credulity.
A potential breach of international law is a matter to be treated with the utmost seriousness. But to suggest – as some have - that the provisions of this Bill relegate us to some sort of moral equivalence with Russia or China is absurd. These are countries that are actively engaged in lethal oppression of political opponents and religious minorities. By contrast, Clause 45 equips democratically elected Ministers to take hypothetical measures protect the internal market of the UK in case of need.
As in the difference between peaceful protest and criminal disruption, degree and proportion matter – perhaps now more than ever.