These are unsettling times for those committed to democracy and the rule of law. A Government with a big parliamentary majority is pushing an agenda based on populist appeal rather than legal and constitutional norms, and while it is early days yet, is indicating when the opportunity arises that lawyers are part of the problems it perceives rather than of the solution.
That has been seen, for example, in the proposal to restrict retrospectively the early release of those in prison for terrorism offences. While there is a legal point to be tested, as to whether it is the sentence itself that is being altered, it was Parliament and not the legal profession that enacted the present law, whatever ministers might suggest to the contrary.
More broadly, in the last few months we have seen the fast-tracking of the highly complex EU Withdrawal Agreement Act, including its provisions to remove parliamentary scrutiny of the future trade talks and of the exercise of the “Henry VIII” powers to amend statute law by regulation. Ministers have also floated questions about the future of independent broadcasters, following disagreements with them during the election campaign; about exploring how to limit the scope of judicial review; and suggesting some political involvement in the appointment of judges, among matters that go to make up the checks and balances that underpin our democracy and our unwritten constitution.
Equally, if and when it is flagged up that there are questions of compatibility with the Human Rights Convention, the ready response is to propose to derogate from the Convention, though the power to do so is directed at situations of national emergency. How long before the Convention itself is called into question?
Even normally sympathetic newspapers objected when the Government, at a Westminster briefing, attempted to segregate journalists between those in and those out of favour. Perhaps they saw their own interests as potentially at stake; certainly they have not protested much else, any more than a public that is encouraged to believe that the Human Rights Act essentially protects criminals is likely to protest if it comes under attack. Therein lies the problem. Unless and until they feel an impact, people will tend to shrug their shoulders at, if not sympathise with, such moves by a Government they may view as getting things done. Against that background, the real threat to our democracy lies in the control of Parliament by an executive that believes it is immune to public criticism, on the back of an election that delivered that control on less than half the popular vote. It is not surprising that there are many who feel uneasy at our direction of travel.