Can a presidential pardon be revoked?

11th January 2021

As we enter the last ten days of this presidential term one of the matters being widely discussed is the extent and nature of presidential pardons generally, and the possibility of a ‘self-pardon’ in particular. 

This blog has already looked at the general issue – and on the self-pardon issue in particular, it seems to me to be a logical and legal absurdity.

But this post is about a related issue, which has not yet featured prominently in the debate about pardons: regardless of whether any power to pardon, can a pardon be revoked?

Would it be open to an incoming president to revoke the pardons of President Trump, including any (purported) self-pardon?

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From first principles, and from a United Kingdom perspective, such a revocation would seem possible.

The power to pardon is, in the United Kingdom, part of the royal prerogative.

And just as no parliament can bind another, it would appear no sovereign can do so either.

The crown can make – and unmake – any treaty whatsoever.

The crown can bestow honours, which in turn can be ‘cancelled and annulled’ by the crown.

And so if these exercises of the royal prerogative are analogous, then it would appear that the sovereign could rescind a pardon – for example if it were wrongly made.

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Turning to the United States, there are two examples of revoked presidential pardons.

In 1869, we are told by the Congressional Research Service, ‘after outgoing President Andrew Johnson issued but did not deliver a pardon, incoming President Ulysses S. Grant revoked the pardon, and a federal court upheld the revocation’.

The case report is here, where you will see that the judge stated in passing:

The law undoubtedly is, that when a pardon is complete, there is no power to revoke it, any more than there is power to revoke any other completed act.’

More recently, in 2008 President George W. Bush revoked a pardon he had himself granted, because of an outcry.

The New York Times then reported ‘when Mr. Bush granted Isaac Toussie, 37, a pardon earlier this week, the president and his advisers were unaware that the elder Mr. Toussie had recently donated $30,800 to Republicans. Mr. Bush took the extraordinary step of rescinding the pardon on Wednesday after reports about the political contributions.’

Again, the pardon had not been delivered.

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In both of these precedents the revocation was possible because it had not been completed – the procedural equivalent of dashing to the post room to intercept a letter before it is actually sent out.

Neither of these precedents therefore are directly on the point of whether a pardon, once completed, can be revoked.

The opinion of the judge in 1869 is not binding for, among other things, that was not the issue which the court was being asked to determine.

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So how would a modern court approach the issue?

In most circumstances, the effect of a pardon would be immediate: a person would be released from their sentence and so on.

And once that person has been relieved from their punishment, then any revocation would raise practical and other issues as to what would happen to the pardoned person.

One can see why it would be unfair that such a pardon was revoked, just as no person should not be punished twice for the same offence.

But what about a (blanket) pardon that is intended to pre-empt any possible prosecution?

Procedurally, the person who (purportedly) received the pardon would (presumably) raise the pardon as a bar to any proceedings.

The court would then (again presumably) examine the (purported) pardon (as in 1869), and if the pardon was valid then there would be would be a bar on the prosecution.

It would be – almost literally – a ‘get out of jail free’ card, which the person would raise in front of a judge.

(Of course, if it were known that a pardon had been given then a prosecution would normally not be brought in the first place – but, if it were brought, this is procedurally how a pardon would act as a bar on any prosecution.)

So, now imagine two fascinating possibilities.

First, imagine a court not accepting such a presented pardon at face value – and applying anxious scrutiny whether such a pardon (even if correct in form) had been within the powers of the president.

And second, imagine a court presented with two formal instruments – one purporting to grant a pardon, and another purporting to rescind it (like the cancellation and annulment of an honour, which reverses an otherwise completed act).

The first of these (delicious) legal puzzles would not be a revocation, of course, but an inquiry as to the legality of an instrument.

The second possibility, however, would require a court to review the possibility of a revocation of a pardon.

We would then see whether the 1869 dictum was a correct statement of the law.

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The straight answer to the question at the head of the post is, as always with interesting legal questions, ‘we do not know’.

An approach from first principles points (at least for me) in one direction, but the precedent of 1869 (although it is not binding) points firmly in the other direction.

But given the lack of binding authority, it cannot be assumed casually that if a pardon – or self-pardon – is granted by President Trump that it is absolutely beyond the reach of revocation.

We may still get more constitutional excitement from the Trump presidency.

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Another national lockdown – but what is needed more than laws and their enforcement is credibility, sound policy, and for voters to care that ministers now get it right

5th January 2021

Another lockdown in England and the other constituent nations of the United Kingdom.

Another dollop of regulations containing restrictions backed by criminal sanctions, and another dollop of governmental guidance and ministerial exhortations.

This is the third national lockdown in England, and the sound of the official starting whistle is now familiar.

Will it work?

And if not, why not?

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If the lockdown is to work, it will not be by law alone.

As this blog has previously averred, law is not magic, and regulations are not spells.

It does not matter how solemn the law-making ceremony is, and how solemnly the laws are then pronounced. 

To have effect any laws need to be clear, comprehensible, and accessible.

And this has been the fault now, for over a year, with the coronavirus regulations – they are difficult to find, at least in their up-to-date and consolidated form, and impossible for a non-lawyer to follow.

Indeed, it is rumoured that there is only one person – Adam Wagner, a barrister in London – who has read and understood all the legal instruments enacted over the last year in England.

(I happen to be an experienced former government lawyer, trained in drafting statutory instruments, and with a speciality in public law and an understanding of emergency legislation – and I gave up trying to keep on top of the ever-changing increasingly complicated lump of coronavirus legislation last Autumn.)

And if the laws are not clear, comprehensible, and accessible, then – regardless of any other factor – law-making is a futile exercise.

More than mere law is needed.

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The second thing that is needed is enforcement.

Criminal laws that are not enforced are official fictions.

They are nothing more than the sort of item you get on those lists you see from time to time, of ridiculous laws from yesteryear that are still nominally in force but ignored.

And for criminal laws to be enforced, there needs to be be resources and an understanding of the law by those entrusted to enforce the law.

There also needs to be a working criminal justice system.

And there is little evidence of there being resources in place for laws to be enforced either by by police or by the courts.

Without credible enforcement, it does not matter if you keep increasing the supposed penalties to incredible amounts – like some Dr Evil boasting of a ransom of one million dollars. 

 

But more than enforcement is needed.

With a challenge of the sheer scale of a pandemic, only a totalitarian state could perhaps rely on laws and enforcement alone

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For the lockdown to work in a modern non-totalitarian society, there needs to be consent.

In essence: laws and sanctions should only have any effect at the margins, because the mass of the people will do the ‘right thing’ anyway.

And this engages the normative issues of legitimacy, accountability, fairness, and credibility.

There cannot be one law for the many, and another for those who go on day trips to Barnard Castle.

There cannot be one law on a Monday, allowing children to go back to school after the Christmas vacation, and then suddenly another law on the Tuesday.

There cannot be a demand for schools to be closed, just days after the government was – literally – threatening a council with a High Court mandatory injunction so as to keep schools open.

There cannot be many things – that is if a government genuinely wants to be taken seriously in imposing a lockdown.

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But even laws and sanctions, resources and enforcement, and consent and credibility, are not enough if the underlying policy is not sound – or seen to be sound.

And this is also a challenge for this government.

The fundamental mistake with government policy on coronavirus, as with Brexit, is that it has approached something complex as if it were quick and easy, and ministers have kept preferring crowd-pleasing gestures to dealing with the problems that they put-off.

Most of the problems of Brexit policy, and many of the problems in coronavirus policy, were foreseeable and foreseen.

Ministers were told at the time.

But ministers shrugged, and made the mistakes anyway.

Unless there is sound policy in place, blowing the official whistle for another lockdown – with all the paraphernalia of laws and guidance, and ministerial broadcasts – will not work, and cannot work.

Ministers need to get policy right – and then other benefits will follow.

This is the rub – ministers keep shrugging and crowd-pleasing and getting policy wrong, because they know they can get away with it.

In other words: ministers know that a sufficient number of voters do not care enough whether politicians are candid and competent on coronavirus, as with other things.

And so until a sufficient number of voters do care that politicians are candid and competent, we are likely to keep on hearing the whistle sound of bad policy-making and implementation, and for as long as the pandemic persists.

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The last of the legal correspondents, and the true crisis in the public understanding of law

3rd January 2021

At the end of last year two legal correspondents retired.

Owen Bowcott at the Guardian:

And Clive Coleman at the BBC:

It is an end of an era.

Yes, there are still full-time legal correspondents in the United Kingdom: at the Times and at the Financial Times.

But in both those cases the journalism is behind a paywall – and that is not an accident, as funding full-time specialised correspondents in any area is an expensive business, and if you want good specialised journalism in this internet age you do have to pay for it.

With the retirements of Owen Bowcott and Clive Coleman there is now no longer (as far as I am aware, and I would be delighted to be corrected) any full-time specialised legal correspondent at any news provider whose reporting is available generally to the public.

The nearest we have is Joshua Rozenberg, who is not exclusively attached to any news organ, providing reportage and comment at a number of titles and now on his own blog.

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Does this matter?

This demise of the legal correspondents comes at the same time where an understanding of how law works is as – if not more – important than ever.

Without legal correspondents it will be left to generalist journalists to report on, say, high-profile legal cases and the legal aspects of government policy.

And this in turn will increase the influence of (so-called) litigation PR specialists (who effectively provide copy to the media favourable to their clients involved in legal cases) and ministerial special advisers leaking spin-ridden and distorted accounts of law-related policy.

This is not to say there are not good generalist journalists reporting on legal matters but to observe that there will be an imbalance between the time-poor reporter without a bank of expertise and the well-resourced or well-informed but highly motivated source.

Having a specialised legal correspondent at a news title who was not reliant on PR or governmental sources meant there was detachment and reliability in their reports from court and the frontline of legal activity.

And this has now gone.

Something has been lost, and it will not be regained.

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The demise of the legal correspondents, however, comes at a time where reliable legal information is more freely available than freely before.

In the United Kingdom, for example, legislation is set out at the legislation.gov site and jusdgments at the BAILII site.

The Supreme Court has an outstanding site that not only provides case reports but also summaries and other useful information, and the UK judiciary site provides not only newsworthy case reports but also the judges’ sentencing remarks in high-profile and controversial cases.

It has never been easier for the spirited citizen to gain information about the law and to understand its application in particular examples.

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But.

Few lay people will bother – as screens full of dry text are daunting and the law is (or at least looks) complicated.

A screen suddenly full of legal verbiage is as scary or bewildering to a lay person as a page suddenly full of source code.

Legal information may well be free to all – but unless you have relevant experience and know your way round legal instruments and other legal documents, such access is only of theoretical value.

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But what of legal bloggers and tweeters?

Surely they (we) can step in and fill the gap between the law and the public understanding of law?

Here there are two problems.

Many leading legal bloggers and tweeters are of two types.

First, there are the legal academics – and many are as brilliant in explaining substantive ‘black letter’ law to lay people as they are to their lucky students.

But the academic exposition of substantive law is only one aspect of the public understanding of law – few legal academics will report from the courtroom in trials where there is little of academic interest, nor will they be routinely invited to Whitehall press briefings, nor develop sources such as judges and practitioners just for providing news.

And, analysis and commentary – however outstanding – is not the same as reportage.

Much the same can be said of the second group of legal bloggers and tweeters – legal practitioners such as barristers (and a few solicitors).

The additional problem with this second group is that – even more than academics who often need to show ‘outreach’ – such legal communication is voluntary and often haphazard.

Blogging and tweeting barristers (and solicitors) are not paid for explaining the law to the public and – with controversial legal topics – not compensated for the hassle and abuse they will get.

There will be uneven coverage – a lawyer will tend to only write about matters as and when they feel they have something to say about something they know about – and so this can lead to some areas of law being over-represented and other areas of law being neglected.

Blogging and tweeting lawyers  – both academics and practitioners – are a boon to the public understanding of law – but they (we) are no substitute for specialised full-time legal correspondents dealing with law-related news stories as they emerge on any topic, with detachment and perspective.

For that you need, well, full-time specialised legal correspondents at news organisations – and they are coming to an end.

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But there is an even more disconcerting problem, at this time of hyper-partisanship, ‘post-truth fake news’, and populism.

In the United States there are still many specialised courts and legal correspondents – and they have been diligent in exposing and reporting on the various abuses of law and legal process by President Donald Trump and his allies.

Each presidential assault on constitutional and legal norms in the United States has been documented and explained.

And it has made very little difference.

Many people do not care.

As this blog averred on New Year’s Eve – there is no point in the observant Benjamin the Donkey in Animal Farm being more public-spirited, if the other farm animals would not have cared less.

And so, in the United kingdom, even if every news title had a squadron of legal correspondents detailing the many abuses and misuses of law from this supposedly ‘law and order’ government then – looking at the United States – there is no reason to believe it would make any difference.

This, therefore, is the crisis in the public understanding of law referred to in the title of this blogpost.

The crisis is not that we are at the end of specialised reporting of legal news.

The crisis in the public understanding of law is that most of the public do not want to understand law.

A significant portion of the public do not want to understand the law, or care about how the law is misused or abused.

And how do you promote the public understand of law when so few of the public care?

*****

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The four ways the government of the United Kingdom is abusing and misusing the law – and the reason the government is getting away with it

2nd January 2021

Those with political power tend to want more power, and those who want more power will tend to then abuse it.

This is not a new observation, and it is perhaps one which can be made of most if not all human societies.

The role of law and government is thereby not so often to enable such abuse of power, but to acknowledge the likelihood of abuse and to seek to limit or prevent it.

That is why those with power are often subject to conventions and rules, why there can be checks and balances, and why many political systems avoid giving absolute power to any one person.

That those with power want to use, misuse and abuse that power is not thereby a feature of the current government of the United Kingdom, but a universal (or near-universal) truth of all those who seek and have political power everywhere.

Those with political power will tend to try and get away with misusing or abusing it.

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The current government of the United Kingdom, however, is remarkable in just how open it is in its abuse and intended abuse of law, and in at least four ways.

And what is also striking is what has changed politically so as to enable them to be so open.

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First, the current government sought to give itself the power to break the law.

This was in respect of the Internal Markets bill, and the ability to break the law was stated as the intention by a cabinet minister in the house of commons.

This proposal led, in turn, to the resignations of the government’s most senior legal official and a law officer in the house of lords.

And then it was even supported by a majority of the house of commons.

The proposal has now been dropped – and some would say that it was only ever a negotiating tactic.

But even with this excuse, it was an abuse of legislation and legislation-making, requiring law-makers to become law-breakers, and signalling to the world that the government of the United Kingdom does not take its legal obligations seriously.

There was no good excuse for this exercise.

Yet the government sought to do it anyway.

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Second, the government of the United Kingdom is seeking to place itself, and its agents, beyond the reach of the law.

This can be seen in two bills before parliament: one effectively limiting the liability of service personnel for various criminal offences, including for torture and other war crimes, and the other expressly permitting secret service agents to break the law.

 

From one perspective, these two proposals simply give formal effect to the practical position.

It has always been difficult to prosecute members of the armed services for war crimes.

And domestic secret service agents have long relied on the ‘public interest’ test for criminal activity (for any criminal prosecution to take place there are two tests: whether there is sufficient evidence, and whether the prosecution is in the public interest, and guess who routinely gets the benefit of the latter).

And secret service agents abroad have long had legal immunity back in the United Kingdom, under the wonderfully numbered section 007 of the Intelligence Services Act 1994.

The primary significance of these two current proposals is that the de facto positions are being made de jure.

The government believes (rightly) that it can legislate to this effect and get away with it.

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The third way – when the government cannot legislate to break the law or to make it and its agents beyond the law – is for the government to legislate so as to give itself the widest possible legal powers.

Again, this is not new: governments of all parties have sought wide ‘Henry VIII clauses’ that enable them to bypass parliament – legislating, and amending and even repealing primary legislation by ministerial decree.

But what is new here is the scale of the use of such legislation – both the pandemic and Brexit have been used as pretexts of the government to use secondary legislation for wide ranging purposes – even to limit fundamental rights without any parliamentary sanction.

And as I have argued elsewhere, there is no absolute barrier under the constitution of the United Kingdom to an ‘enabling act’ allowing ministers to have complete freedom to legislate by decree.

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The fourth way is the flip-side of the government seeking more legal power.

The government is seeking ways to make it more difficult, if not impossible, for it to be challenged in the courts.

This can be done formally: by reducing the scope of judicial review or the reach of the laws of human rights and civil liberties, or by ‘ouster’ clauses, limiting the jurisdiction of the courts.

It can be done practically (and insidiously): by creating procedural impediments and by cutting or eliminating legal aid for such challenges.

It also can be achieved by the government either promoting or not challenging attacks on the judiciary and the role of courts in holding executive power to account.

If the government cannot break the law, or make itself immune to the law, or give itself wide legal powers – it certainly does not want citizens to be able to challenge it.

Of course, this impulse is also not new – and examples can be given of governments of all parties seeking to make it more difficult for legal challenges to be brought.

But again, what is different from before is the openness of these attempts.

There is no self-restraint.

The government is going to get away with as many of these barriers as it can.

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The big change is not that those with political power want to abuse it – and to stop those who can check and balance that abuse.

That is a problem no doubt as old as law and government itself.

What is remarkable is how the United Kingdom government is now so brazen about it.

The government just does not care about being seen doing this – and if there is any concern or even outcry – that is regarded as a political advantage.

The ‘libs’ are ‘owned’ and those with grins will clap and cheer.

In this current period of hyper-partisanship there is no legal or constitutional principle that is beyond being weaponised.

What perhaps restrained the United Kingdom government – and other governments – from being so candid in their abuses and misuses of power was once called ‘public opinion’.

People cared about such things – or at least those in government believed people cared.

But, as this blog averred on New Year’s Eve, what happens if a public-spirited donkey does tell the animals on the farm that power is being misused or abused – and the animals still do not care.

‘The animals crowded round the van. “Good-bye, Boxer!” they chorused, “good-bye!”‘

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And this brings us back to the key problem for liberalism – and for the principles of transparency and accountability – in this age of Brexit and Trump.

It is not enough to point out the lies and misinformation – or to show the misuses and abuses of law – if a sufficient number of people do not care that they are being lied to or misinformed and that the law is being misused or abused.

And there is nothing the media or commentators can do about this (though we should still be public-spirited donkeys anyway).

This requires a shift – not in media and communications – but of politics and of political leadership.

Only if enough citizens care about the government abusing or misusing the law will the government stop doing it, at least so openly.

And until then the United Kingdom’s indifference towards the rule of law and other constitutional norms will just be a register of the public’s general indifference about the government getting away with it.

*****

This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

If you value the free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary both at this blog and at my Twitter account please do support through the Paypal box above.

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The Bill implementing the Trade and Cooperation Agreement is an exercise in the Government taking power from Parliament

30th December 2020

Today Parliament will be expected to pass, in one single day, the legislation implementing the Trade and Cooperation Agreement into domestic law.

This situation is exceptional and unsatisfactory.

The bill is currently only available in draft form, on the government’s own website.

As you can see, this means that ‘DRAFT’ is inscribed on each page with large unfriendly letters.

And we are having to use this version, as (at the time of writing) the European Union (Future Relationship) Bill is not even available parliament’s  ‘Bills before Parliament’ site.

The draft bill is complex and deals with several specific technical issues, such as criminal records, security, non-food product safety, tax and haulage, as well as general implementation provisions.

Each of these specific technical issues would warrant a bill, taking months to go through the normal parliamentary process.

But instead they will be whizzed and banged through in a single day, with no real scrutiny, as the attention of parliamentarians will (understandably) be focused on the general implementation provisions, which are in Part 3 of the draft bill.

And part 3 needs this attention, as it contains some remarkable provisions.

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Clause 29 of the draft bill provides for a broad deeming provision.

(Note a ‘clause’ becomes a ‘section’ when a ‘Bill’ becomes enacted as an ‘Act’.)

The intended effect of this clause is that all the laws of the United Kingdom are to be read in accordance with, or modified to give effect to, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

And not just statutes – the definition of ‘domestic law’ covers all law – private law (for example, contracts and torts) as well as public law (for example, legislation on tax or criminal offences).

It is an ingenious provision – a wave of a legal wand to recast all domestic law in whatever form in accordance with the agreement.

But it also an extremely uncertain provision: its consequences on each and every provision of the laws of England and Wales, of Northern Ireland, of Scotland, and on those provisions that cover the whole of the United Kingdom, cannot be known.

And it takes all those legal consequences out of the hands of parliament.

This clause means that whatever is agreed directly between government ministers and Brussels modifies all domestic law automatically, without any parliamentary involvement. 

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And then we come to clause 31.

This provision will empower ministers (or the devolved authorities, where applicable) to make regulations with the same effect as if those regulations were themselves acts of parliament.

In other words: they can amend laws and repeal (or abolish) laws, with only nominal parliamentary involvement.

There are some exceptions (under clause 31(4)), but even with those exceptions, this is an extraordinarily wide power for the executive to legislate at will.

These clauses are called ‘Henry VIII’ clauses and they are as notorious among lawyers as that king is notorious in history.

Again, this means that parliament (and presumably the devolved assemblies, where applicable) will be bypassed, and what is agreed between Whitehall and Brussels will be imposed without any further parliamentary scrutiny.

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There is more.

Buried in paragraph 14(2) of schedule 5 of the draft bill (the legislative equivalent of being positioned in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’) is a provision that means that ministers do not even have to go through the motions of putting regulations through parliament first.

Parliament would then get to vote on the provisions afterwards.

This is similar to the regulations which the government has been routinely using during the pandemic where often there has actually been no genuine urgency, but the government has found it convenient to legislate by decree anyway.

Perhaps there is a case that with the 1st January 2021 deadline approaching for the end of the Brexit transition period, this urgent power to legislate by decree is necessary.

But before such a broad statutory power is granted to the government there should be anxious scrutiny of the legislature.

Not rushed through in a single parliamentary day.

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There are many more aspects of this draft bill which need careful examination before passing into law.

And, of course, this draft bill in turn implements a 1400-page agreement – and this is the only real chance that parliament will get to scrutinise that agreement before it takes effect.

You would not know from this draft bill that the supporters of Brexit campaigned on the basis of the United Kingdom parliament ‘taking back control’.

Nothing in this bill shows that the Westminster parliament has ‘taken back control’ from Brussels.

This draft bill instead shows that Whitehall – that is, ministers and their departments – has taken control of imposing on the United Kingdom what it agrees with Brussels.

And presumably that was not what Brexit was supposed to be about.

*****

This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

If you value the free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary both at this blog and at my Twitter account please do support through the Paypal box above.

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*****

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.

The coded criticisms of the Attorney-General from both the Lord Chief Justice and the Court of Appeal

17th December 2020

The office of Attorney-General is at the very crossroads of law and politics.

As a lawyer, the Attorney-General is the government’s chief legal adviser and, by convention, is the head of the Bar of England and Wales.

They superintend the Crown Prosecution Service, and they can (and do) initiate contempt of court proceedings against the media.

A further role is that they can act in proceedings where they represent the public interest and/or the government.

They also can decide to refer cases to the court of appeal where it appears a criminal court has been ‘unduly lenient’ in sentencing.

These are all important – crucial -tasks and so it follows that these roles must be taken seriously.

The Attorney-General is, however, also a politician – usually a member of parliament but sometimes a peer – and one who attends the cabinet.

It is a job therefore where the holder has to wear two hats – or horsehair wigs.

And it is not an easy task even for senior politicians and experienced lawyers.

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The current Attorney-General is neither a senior politician nor an experienced lawyer.

This, of course, is not their fault – although some in this position if they were offered the office would not take it.

The current holder of the office, however, is going out of their way to politicise and thereby to discredit the legal side of the office.

This blog has previously set out how the current Attorney-General should have resigned when they unapologetically tweeted in respect of a case of a political ally who was then subject to a live police investigation.

That really was not what the superintendent of the Crown Prosecution Service should be doing.

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There is now a further example of how the current Attorney-General is undermining their office.

Here there are three texts that are of interest.

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First, here is a Daily Express article from 7th November 2020: Attorney General to appear at Andrew Harper’s killers appeal hearing next week.

In the body of that article, under the byline of a political editor, was the following:

‘A friend of Ms Braverman’s told the Sunday Express:

‘“She was met with strong opposition from civil servants to pursue this case but she held firm and has done the right thing.

‘“She made it clear she wants to be there to underline how important this issue is to the ‘government and how seriously it takes this case.

“If the judges uphold the original sentences then she will have still done the right thing and it will be another example of wet, liberal judges being soft on criminals.”’

As is widely known, ‘friend’ is a code in political journalism for either the politician themselves or someone speaking on their behalf, such as a special adviser.

As far as I am aware, this quote has not been disavowed by the Attorney-General.

*

Second, here is a speech on sentencing by the Lord Chief Justice made on 9th December 2020.

Here are two paragraphs from this informative and accessible speech (asterisk and emphasis added):

‘Were the mythical alien to arrive on earth and, I grant you yet more improbably, take an interest in sentencing in England and Wales by reading the newspapers and dipping into the more noisy parts of on-line media, it would soon gain the impression that sentencing had got softer in recent years. It would read about “wet, liberal judges being soft on criminals” (*) and wonder why criminals convicted of serious offences were getting more lenient sentences than they used to. Then our alien visitor might seek some other sources of information, and if possessed of a brow it might become furrowed.

‘There is a difficulty with this narrative. It is a myth.’

The Lord Chief Justice then proceeds in his speech to demonstrate how sentencing has certainly not got softer.

But who was the judge quoting about “wet, liberal judges being soft on criminals” ?

The quotation is footnoted (where I have inserted the asterisk), and the footnote reads:

‘Sunday Express 8 November 2020, quoting a source.’

The Lord Chief Justice is here publicly dismissing – perhaps even deriding – the ‘friend’ of the Attorney-General who in turn is describing the Attorney-General’s motivation for intervening in a criminal sentencing case.

For the head of the judiciary to be doing this openly to the government’s chief legal adviser and holder of the ancient office of Attorney-General is an extraordinary public intervention.

*

And now we turn to the Court of Appeal judgment in respect of the sentencing of those who killed the police constable Andrew Harper.

The facts of the case are horrific.

Three were convicted of manslaughter, though a jury acquitted them of murder.

And so the three were sentences in accordance with the guidelines for manslaughter.

The Attorney-General, as the Daily Express article describes, exercised one of their powers and referred the sentences to the court of appeal on the basis of the sentences being ‘unduly lenient’.

The Attorney-General then – oddly for a barrister with no substantial criminal law background – appeared personally at the hearing.

There are three paragraphs of the judgment of interest in respect of the contribution and role of the Attorney-General.

Paragraph 57:

‘In her initial remarks, the Attorney General rehearsed some of the facts and said that the sentences have caused widespread public concern. She outlined four points, about which Mr Little QC then made submissions.’

Here the court are not even deigning to describe the Attorney-General’s contribution as submissions – a ‘submission’ is something one submits to the court for consideration – but merely as remarks.

(The Supreme Court adopted a similar remarks/submission distinction when a former Attorney-General appeared (out of his depth) at the first Miller case: ‘Following opening remarks made by HM Attorney General, Mr Eadie QC in his submissions on behalf of the Secretary of State, did not challenge much if any of the factual basis of these assertions…’ – paragraph 57 here.)

We now turn to the submission that were made, if not personally by the Attorney-General, but by another barrister on their behalf.

Paragraph 83 (emphasis added):

As to the length of the custodial terms, we note a striking feature of the submissions. When applications are made by the Attorney General for leave to refer to this court sentences which are said to be unduly lenient, it is frequently on the basis that the judge fell into error by failing to follow a relevant guideline. In this case, however, the argument advanced by the Attorney is that the sentence of Long, and therefore the sentences on Bowers and Cole, were unduly lenient because the judge erred in failing to depart from the relevant guideline.

Just as political journalists have their codes, so too do judges.

And to describe as position as ‘striking’ is to say that it is barking – and the rest of the paragraph explains why.

In essence: unduly lenient sentences are those which depart from the guidelines and not those made in accordance with them.

This is then followed by paragraph 84 (again emphasis added):

‘That is, to say the least, an unusual submission. It involves the proposition that in the circumstances of this case, a sentence within the guideline offence range was not within the range properly open to the judge, who was instead required to pass a sentence outside that range. We think it regrettable that, in advancing that submission, the structure and ambit of the guideline were not addressed. Nor was any sufficient explanation given why it is contended that the judge was not merely entitled to depart from the guideline but positively required to do so.’

Here ‘unusual’ means, in effect, beyond barking – and again the rest of the paragraph sets out why.

These are obvious points and would have been plain to government lawyers.

But as ‘friend’ of the Attorney General said, ‘[s]he was met with strong opposition from civil servants to pursue this case’.

And paragraphs 83 and 84 set out why.

*

Taking these three texts together we can see that the judiciary are alert to the motivations of the Attorney-General and are resistant to the attempts to politicise the office, and that the judiciary will be unafraid to reject ‘striking’ and ‘unusual’ submissions made on behalf of the Attorney-General.

The judges are not stupid or unworldly – they know exactly the import of coded criticisms in public speeches and judgments.

The Attorney-General may be sending signals, but so are the judges.

*

But this Attorney-General will not care.

The political job is done – and one can imagine the claps and cheers of the ‘friend’ quoted in the Daily Express article. 

She took on the ‘wet, liberal judges being soft on criminals’.

But this political job has been done at a cost.

Although a politician, the Attorney-General is entrusted with highly important decisions in respect of not only referring ‘unduly lenient’ sentences, but also in respect of many other legal matters, from contempt of court to the operation of the crown prosecution service.

But the conduct of the current Attorney-General is such that their credibility as a decision-maker capable of making such decisions on the appropriate basis is open to doubt.

This quick win for a political ambitious Attorney General is at the cost of the standing of their office.

The Attorney-General is weaponising her legal responsibilities for political purposes.

This is a remarkable, striking and unusual predicament.

And given that the Attorney-General is not only doing this recklessly but with apparent enthusiasm means that there is no reason for anyone watching it happen in real time to be unduly lenient.

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The shoddy legal direction of Gavin Williamson to Greenwich Council

15th December 2020

Amidst the flurry of government regulations closing down various things during the current pandemic comes this very different legal instrument from Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education.

Instead of ordering a thing to close, the Secretary of State is ordering things to stay open.

It is an extraordinary letter, and it is worth examining carefully.

(As a preliminary point, however, please note I am not an education law specialist and so there may be sector-specific legal aspects of this of which I am unaware – the examination in this post is on general legal principles and based on my experience as a former government lawyer and as a public lawyer generally.)

*

First, let us look at the power on which the Secretary of State relies upon.

It would seem there is no general legal power for the Secretary of State to order that any school remain open (or close), and so the letter relies on a specific provision in the Coronavirus Act 2020.

(If there were such a general legal power to issue such a direction, then presumably the Secretary of State would rely upon that power instead of the Coronavirus Act 2020.)

The relevant section of the Act is section 38.

The relevant part of that section is section 38(1)(a) which provides for a power to enable the Secretary of State to give directions requiring the ‘provision, or continuing provision, of education, training and childcare’.

That provision in turn refers to a paragraph in a schedule to the Act.

(This is not a ‘paragraph’ as such – it is a wordy provision which goes on for three pages, like something from a W. G. Sebald book.)

The paragraph sets out in detail the requirements for a ‘temporary continuity direction’ under section 38 – like a checklist.

For example, the Secretary of State must have regard to medical advice (paragraph 1(3)(a) and the direction must be necessary and proportionate (paragraph 1(3)(b).

The direction can require the recipient to take ‘reasonable steps in general terms’ (paragraph 1(4)(a)) and require a relevant institution to stay open or to re-open (paragraph 1(4)(b).

There is also a catch-all power that the Secretary of State may make any other connected provisions which he or she ‘considers appropriate’ (paragraph 1(4)(i)).

*

What is the duty of the recipient of such a direction?

The Act provides that it is ‘the duty of a responsible body or relevant institution to which a temporary continuity direction…to comply with the direction’.

How is this duty to be enforced?

If the recipient does not comply with a direction, the government can make an application to the courts for an injunction.

(Both the above are in paragraph 1(6) of the schedule.)

This would, of course, be an unusual injunction – most injunctions prohibit a person from doing a thing, while this will be a rarer ‘mandatory’ injunction requiring a person to do a thing.

A failure to comply with an injunction is, at law, a serious matter and can be a contempt of court, with (presumably) sanctions such as imprisonment and unlimited fines.

A breach of a mandatory injunction may also result in a court directing that the required act be completed by another person at the expense of the disobedient party (CPR 70.2A).

*

This looks like a wide and arbitrary power for the Secretary of State to give directions, with serious sanctions for a breach of a direction.

But if you look carefully there are explicit statutory requirements for the Secretary of State to be reasonable and to use this power only where necessary and proportionate.

These requirements are also imposed by the general law.

These will be quite high hurdles for the Secretary of State to jump.

*

Going back to the letter, you will see that in paragraph 2 of the letter the Secretary of State asserts that he ‘considers [the direction] to be reasonable’ – but there is almost no reasoning other than a general reference to a general interest (‘of securing that schools…allow pupils to attend school full time’ ) and a general reference to the Secretary of State’s guidance (but with no specific guidance quoted).

There is also no local data.

Any court would expect to see far more reasoning than this before enforcing such a direction with a mandatory order.

For example, can the education of the pupils not be done remotely?

Has proper regard been made to local conditions?

Is it proportionate and necessary to mandate a school to remain open with only days left in the school term?

Is it fair and equitable (a test of most injunctions) to insist a state school remain open when many private schools remain closed?

These are not ‘gotcha’ questions, but points which one knows a court will ask before granting an injunction – and so should be anticipated and covered in a letter threatening an injunction.

But there is nothing in this letter to meet these obvious and foreseeable questions that would need to be answered in court.

*

This direction then, even if it is the right thing for the Secretary of State to order, is not a well-drafted piece of legal work.

If i were still a government lawyer I would have been embarrassed to have prepared this for a minister.

It is not enough to assert that a thing is reasonable, necessary or proportionate – these statutory requirements for a direction also need to be shown.

*

The recipient of this letter – Greenwich Council – has already published an initial response.

Their initial response is as detailed as the Secretary of State’s letter is not.

“Yesterday we asked all schools in the Royal Borough of Greenwich to move to online learning for most pupils, but keep premises open for the children of key workers, vulnerable children and those with special educational needs. 

‘Other boroughs have asked schools to take similar measures, and the Mayor of London has also called for all secondary schools to close, with an extra week off in January to enable testing.  

‘Our request was based on information from Public Health England and supported by the Council’s Public Health team. In the Royal Borough of Greenwich, we currently have the highest rates of COVID-19 since March, with numbers doubling every four days. Our seven-day infection rate for the borough is now 59% higher than at the same point last week. 

‘Infection rates are particularly high amongst young people, with 817 children of school age testing positive for COVID-19. 4,262 children and 362 staff are self-isolating – that’s an increase of 640 people since Friday. In many cases, other members of the child’s household have also tested positive, impacting entire families. 

‘Schools across the borough have now organised online learning from tomorrow, whilst others are opening their premises to all pupils. This evening we received a legal direction from the Government to withdraw our request to schools. We are in the process of seeking legal advice and will respond to the Government in the morning.  

‘We have alerted schools, and will speak to them tomorrow. But given we received this notification just before 5pm, it was impossible to ask schools to change any of the arrangements they have in place for Tuesday.’

The person(s) who drafted that response have done a good job: they are showing how the closure is reasonable, necessary and proportionate.

The response is based on local data and shows that reasonable alternative arrangements have been made.

The response also shows the council is in a better position to asses the situation than the Secretary of State.

*

On the basis of information in the Greenwich Council response, the government would be hard-pressed to obtain an injunction in support of their direction.

None of the above is to say that the government’s ultimate position is weak – a better prepared direction, based on local data, and with proper and detailed reasoning, may have been – or still be – possible.

But such a direction letter was not sent, and this shoddy one was sent instead.

The Secretary of State may issue a better direction – or government lawyers may turn up to court with a better application for an injunction.

The government is even threatening to go to court ‘without notice’ so that the council may be subjected to an injunction without any say in court, which would be inappropriate given the council have set out already that it believes it is acting reasonably.

*

Ministerial directions are powerful legal instruments, but they should always be used with care.

When I was young I often had reports sent from school averring that I could do better.

But here we have what purports to be a formal government direction sent to keep schools open where one could say of the Secretary of State that they could do better.

*

POSTSCRIPT

Sadly – at least for the legal commentary (at least) the council has decided not to contest the direction in court.

The council, of course, is entitled to take such a decision.

But its decision to comply with the direction does not take away anything from the critique above.

*****

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European Union law and the United Kingdom – an obituary

14th December 2020

Over at Prospect magazine my column for the Christmas/New Year special edition was an obituary – for European Union law in the United Kingdom.

Please go over there to have a read – and I just want to develop and add some points here.

*

European Union law is radically different from the common law of England and Wales (I am not qualified to speak of the laws of Scotland and Northern Ireland, though similar points may be valid).

By ‘radical’ I mean (literally) that it went to the root of things.

The effect of European Union law was not only to benefit particular policy areas (for example, employment and the environment and so on) – though there is no doubt that whole ranges of policy are better off for the influence of European Union law.

The impact of European Union was also to how one thought about law – and about policy and politics.

*

First, the law of the European Union is often ‘purposive’ – in which to understand any legal instrument (a directive or a regulation or a legally binding decision) one often has to go through pages of recitals, other materials, and even back to the ultimate bases of the the provision in the European Union treaties.

This, of course, can be an interesting – sometimes exciting – intellectual exercise but it really does not serve the purpose of legal certainty.

And often it was difficult to say with confidence what the ultimate tribunals of European Union law (the court of first instance and the court of justice) would say the law would be in any given situation.

And unlike courts in common law jurisdictions, the judgments of European Union law judges are often not reasoned but are instead declarative, even assertive.

As a general rule of thumb: a European Union legal instrument is as helpful and detailed as European Union court judgment is not.

*

Second, the public law of the European Union has a conceptual unity that the public law of England and Wales does not – or at least did not before the United Kingdom’s membership of the union and its predecessor European communities.

(Public law is the term for the law that regulates public bodies and those exercising public functions and provides for what rights can be enforced against them.)

In England and Wales we, in many respects, did not even have anything one could even call ‘public law’ until the 1960s.

There was instead a mix of actions and proceedings one could take against the crown, against statutory corporations, against courts, and against those holding various public offices.

European Union public law instead provided for a general approach to emanations of the state – and of the rights one could enforce against them.

The European Union legal concept of ‘proportionality’ (that is that a public body should only interfere with the rights of others to the extent necessary to serve a legitimate purpose) was also a welcome change to the brutal and permissive approach of our administrative law – which can be fairly described as allowing public bodies to get away with what they can, unless it is irrational.

*

Third, the European Union and its predecessor organisations are creatures of law as much as of policy and politics.

And although one should never underestimate the push and shove of policy and politics, when dealing with the European Union one always should have regard to law.

This was a recurring mistake for United Kingdom politicians.

For example, before the 2016 referendum there was an attempt by then prime minister David Cameron to force through a ‘deal’.

But as this blog has previously explained, the Cameron team wrongly thought it would just be a matter of bombast and confrontation – that the United Kingdom just needed to want something and to demand it loudly.

There were, however, real limits to what the European Union could agree to, at least without treaty changes.

And the same problem happened again and again during the exit negotiations and now the negotiations for the future relationship.

The European Union takes process and legal texts seriously, and the United Kingdom under Theresa May and Boris Johnson did not.

*

You will note that this post – and the Prospect column – are not unmixed celebrations of European Union law.

Instead, I have attempted a critical appraisal (though one set out simply and I hope accessibly).

And this is partly because my own ultimate view on Brexit is ambivalent.

In the early 1990s I believed that it would have been better for the United Kingdom to have left the European Union at the time of Maastricht treaty.

It seemed to me then that the trajectory of the European Union towards wider competencies (foreign policy and justice and home affairs) and currency union would not end well in respect of the United Kingdom.

(And it did not.)

But by around 2000 I thought any extraction of the United Kingdom from the European Union would not be worth the time and effort to deal with decades of entwined law and policy.

(And it has not been.)

*

The break of the law of the jurisdictions of the United Kingdom from the law of the European Union is going to be messy.

It is not going to be a neat clean break.

And the laws of the United Kingdom are not – thankfully – going to revert back to 1973.

The direct effect and application of European Union law in the United Kingdom may be over – and that is why an obituary is appropriate.

 Its influence, however, will continue for decades.

The United Kingdom may have ‘taken back control’ of its laws – but Brexit will certainly not free domestic law from the impact of the law of the European Union.

*****

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Hyper-partisanship and constitutionalism

13th December 2020

Consider three political situations.

The first is where constitutional issues play no real part in day-to-day politics.

Here issues about the economy, law and order, health, social welfare, the environment, defence and so on dominate both party politics and media coverage.

The second is where a discrete constitutional issue becomes part of the political debate.

For example in the United Kingdom, this could be devolution, or House of Lords reform, or proportional representation.

That issue will tend to be addressed though normal party politics, and such issues do come and go from time to time.

And there is a third category, where constitutional issues are themselves gamed for party issues.

This is what is happening in the United States currently, and to a lesser extent in the United Kingdom.

In the United States, for example, there is the extraordinary attempt by Republicans in Congress and many states to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election.

In the United Kingdom, for example, the government is politically exploiting attacks on the courts, on lawyers and on the very ability of judiciary to hold the executive to account.

I have many times said that it is a bad thing for constitutional law to be exciting.

If contesting the rules of the game themselves becomes the focus then the game itself is subverted.

What can be fairly called ‘hyper-partisanship’ – which goes far beyond the normal knockabout of party politics – is a dangerous thing for constitutions and constitutionalism.

In any modern political system an immense amount depends on legitimacy and being governed by consent.

A jackboot-totalitarian state can only go so far by sheer force of coercion and intimidation – and, in any case, many totalitarian states use propaganda, symbolism and vilification of the ‘other’ to manufacture legitimacy and consent.

Remove that shared sense of legitimacy of institutions by having a permanent revolution and constitutional culture war and then the state will find it more difficult to govern.

Why should anyone accept the decisions of a court, or of a legislature, or even of an electorate, when the legitimacy of each is a partisan issue?

There is certainly a need for constitutional reforms from time to time, but this should be on the basis of making various institutions and practices more legitimate not less.

Constitutional law and constitutional issues are far too exciting, and this is a bad thing.

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Sovereignty and ‘Sovereignty!’

11th December 2020

One feature of contemporary politics in both the United Kingdom and United States is the way descriptive words and phrases have become slogans with a very different meaning.

This blog has already described the unhappy juxtaposition between ‘Law and Order!’ and law and order – and we now have a populist president in the United States using his power to pardon so as to place people above and beyond the law, while the populist government of the United Kingdom sought recently to expressly legislate that it could break the law.

And a similar distinction can be made about sovereignty and ‘Sovereignty!’.

In the United Kingdom it would seem that one explanation of the ongoing failure for a trade agreement to be finalised with the European Union is because of this ‘s’ word.

Here, as examples, are some recent tweets from the United Kingdom’s head negotiator.

*

So what does this ‘s’ word mean?

From a legal perspective, sovereignty is really about two things.

*

First, sovereignty is about the ultimate source of political power in any given polity.

In the United Kingdom, as its name suggests, the ultimate source of political power is the crown.

Some would say is not correct to even speak of the ‘sovereignty of parliament’ – the power of parliament to make or unmake any law always depends on a bill receiving royal assent.

Only with the crown’s approval does a law then have super-duper magical power.

Resolutions and motions of either or both houses of parliament may bind parliament but they do not have the same effect outside as legislation.

That is why I and others tend to write of ‘supremacy’ of parliament, not sovereignty.

The crown also is the source of political power elsewhere in the United Kingdom constitution.

It is the source of power – somewhat obviously – in respect of the so-called ‘royal prerogative’ – where the executive gets to do things which have legal effect without any legislative basis.

It is the source of power with ‘royal charters’, instruments which can have legal effects similar to legislation.

And the crown is the ultimate source of power for the judiciary, at least for the high court of England and Wales.

(This means that in constitutional terms, the two Miller cases on prime ministerial power can be characterised as being about the crown in the courts adjudicating on the powers of the crown as exercised by ministers so as to circumvent the crown in parliament.)

This form of sovereignty is quite unaffected by anything Boris Johnson and David Frost may or may not agree to with the European Union.

Just as parliament was always able to repeal the European Communities Act 1972, parliament will be able to make or unmake any law which flows from the post-Brexit relationship agreement, and that will be respected by the courts.

So this cannot be the meaning of sovereignty that Johnson and Frost have in mind.

Nothing in any post-Brexit trade agreement is relevant to this meaning of sovereignty at all.

*

The second legal meaning of sovereignty is not so much about the source of power but about legal capacity.

A sovereign thing can do and not do as it wishes.

And one thing a sovereign thing can do is to enter agreements with other sovereign things.

This is where Johnson and Frost appear to misunderstand the ‘s’ word.

For them, ‘Sovereignty!’ means that the United Kingdom cannot and should not enter into and be bound by any international agreements.

But one test of sovereignty is that a thing is capable of entering into international agreements – the cart is not before the horse.

In general terms, being able to accept obligations is the very point of sovereignty: that a nation state can enter into a treaty means that it is a sovereign state.

(For more on the fascinating history of sovereignty and treaties, see here.)

This is why, for example, Canada, Australia and New Zealand insisted on being separate signatories to the surrender instrument of Japan, and to not allow the United Kingdom to sign on behalf of the then empire.

*

Sovereignty thereby does not mean that the United Kingdom cannot and should not enter into international agreements.

Sovereignty means that the United Kingdom can do so.

And any international agreement means accepting obligations that restrict autonomy, for that is the nature of an obligation.

Under the North Atlantic treaty, for example, the United Kingdom has an obligation to go to war even if it not attacked itself

Article 5 of that treaty provides:

“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

Some would say that Article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty is a greater interference with the ‘s’ word of the United Kingdom than anything which has come from the European Union.

And it is difficult to reconcile many statements of government-supporting politicians on sovereignty in respect of the European Union with their continued support for the United Kingdom being part of NATO.

Similar points can also be made for the United Kingdom’s obligations under the United Nations charter and indeed under any other international treaties.

Trade-offs on autonomy are a feature and not a bug of being a sovereign state.

An analogy is with being able to marry: when a person reaches their majority they can enter into a marriage contract should they so wish, but being in their majority does not compel them to either marry or not marry, and if they marry they can always divorce.

The Johnson-Frost approach to the ‘s’ word is confused.

They seem to think sovereignty means that the United Kingdom cannot and should not enter into international agreements, whereas sovereignty actually means that the United Kingdom can do so should it want to do so.

*

An indication of the United Kingdom government’s incorrect understanding of sovereignty was set out in a white paper earlier in the Brexit process:

“The sovereignty of Parliament is a fundamental principle of the UK constitution. Whilst Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that.”

This is about “feelings” – not law or policy.

Brexit as therapy – so as to make the United Kingdom “feel” it is a sovereign state.

And this is the fundamental misconception of those who assert ‘Sovereignty!’ just to make themselves feel better.

Sovereignty exists anyway.

Sovereignty does not care about your feelings.

**

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