The reluctance of the Home Office to deny publicly that it is reconsidering the restoration of the death penalty – an example of government-media relations

15th January 2021

On 25th December 2020, of all days, the following was tweeted:

There are three immediate things to observe about this tweet.

First, the content.

This is a sensational claim but it is one which, for some people, would seem plausible.

The home secretary is a past supporter of the death penalty and the home secretary is also known as being willing to use home office policy on ‘law and order’ in a politicised way.

And elsewhere the United States has resumed federal executions in the run-up to a presidential election, and the similarly populist government of Turkey has signalled that it would want to reintroduce capital punishment.

Second, the provenance.

The account is anonymous but it does have a reasonably sized following, including followers from many areas of law and the media.

The account does not link to a site for the organisation named, and nor does a Google search indicate that the organisation has any existence beyond that twitter account.

We therefore do not know who the “us” is in the tweet and how much credibility their claim should have.

As such the claim cannot and should not be accepted without corroboration.

(This is not to diss the named organisation and what they campaign for, but is just a normal exercise in fact-checking.)

Third, the circulation of thee tweet.

As of today, the tweet has had an extraordinarily wide circulation.

It has had around 1,800 retweets and 1,900 quote-tweets – often from accounts that have accepted the claim in the tweet to be true or at least plausible.

This means a considerable number of people will now believe that the claim is correct or at least has some substance to it: that the home secretary has asked civil servants at the home office to scope a policy paper on the restoration of the death penalty.

(I do not have access to the tweet’s analytics, but in my experience, such a widely circulated tweet would have been seen by over one hundred thousand and possibly up to a million other twitter users – for that is the multiplying effect of thousands of retweets and quote-tweets.)

At this stage, now click on and read this magnificent post by Matthew Scott on the legal and practical difficulties of such a restoration of the death penalty, including the range of international legal instruments that prohibit such a restoration by the United Kingdom.

In essence: the United Kingdom could, in principle, restore the death penalty – it is a sovereign nation – but it would be in breach of many international agreements if it did so.

*

So either the claim is true – which would be important for us to know – or it is untrue – and, in view of the extraordinarily wide circulation of the tweet, it would be also important for the false claim to be publicly corrected.

(In saying that the claim may be untrue, this again is not to diss the account that tweeted – they may be only as good as their source, and it is possible they heard this from a‘little bird’ in good faith.)

I happen to be in the process of preparing and writing a few things at different titles (and here on this blog) that touch on populism and the use (and misuse and abuse) of law.

I had seen the tweet several times in quote tweets, and so my first step was to find out whether there was any other relevant information in the public domain.

 

There was none.

And so it seemed that the claim should be put to the home office to ascertain whether it was true.

My email query was:

“There is a widely circulated assertion that the Home Secretary has asked Civil Service to scope a policy paper on the restoration of the death penalty – source: https://twitter.com/BameFor/status/1342495556732649478 

Can I please have a Home Office statement on this? Normally, and view of UK’s international obligations, one would expect a straight denial, without equivocation.”

*

At this stage, I expected to just get an email containing either a bland denial that the claim was untrue or perhaps an equally bland if evasive statement about not commenting on tweets.

What happened instead was a telephone call where I was told that the claim was ‘rubbish’.

Now ‘rubbish’ is one of those press officer words – like ‘nonsense’ and ‘ridiculous’ – that is used instead of a straight denial such as ‘incorrect’.

And any telephone call from a press office is rarely about providing information (that is what emails are for), it is about the press office trying to obtain information about what is to be published and then attempting to shape what is published – and not published.

It was quickly plain that the home office did not want anything published on this at all, notwithstanding the wide circulation of the original tweet.

So I asked for a statement in writing (I never take quotes over the telephone, especially not from government press offices).

The press office’s response to this request was to question its journalistic value (although one would think that a journalist is in a better place than a press office than to make that assessment).

Given the significance and the circulation of the original claim, it seemed to me that there should be a home office statement on the record.

Indeed, you would expect that the home office would be proud and open in stating that the United Kingdom was complying with its international obligations.

*

Later yesterday afternoon a statement was emailed:

“This is a completely untrue and unsubstantiated claim from an unverified Twitter account. We are surprised that despite telling [you] this, [you] are still insisting on reporting it.”

The references ‘[you]’ in the statement is to the title they assumed would publish the statement.

The statement is worth unpacking.

The explicit reference to ‘despite telling [you] this’ placed beyond doubt that the telephone conversation was not ‘background’ – the public statement only makes sense if the previous conversation was also on the record.

The ‘completely’ and ‘unsubstantiated’ are both examples of over-emphasis – if the claim is untrue, then that is all that needs to be said.

(Like a politician who says ‘absolutely clear’ instead of ‘clear’, such additional words indicate potential evasion and misdirection.)

The denial is limited to the content and detail of the tweet – there is no general statement such as ‘the home office will not be restoring capital punishment’ and still less ‘the home office is proud to respect and comply with the international obligations of the United Kingdom’

Instead of such statements, there is an explicit attack on the credibility of the source and an implicit attack on the journalistic point of even putting this claim to the home office.

The ‘insisting’ is a perfect touch – and yes, one should insist that the home office should publicly state its position on restoring capital punishment when there is widely circulated claim that such restoration is being considered.

The home office wanted the statement to either be unusable or, if published, to discredit the news title publishing the story.

(I am happy to publish the public statement here, with the appropriate context set out.)

All this, instead of a simple statement that the claim was untrue and a statement that the home office is not seeking to reintroduce capital punishment and the United kingdom will comply with its international obligations.

*

There is nothing special about what happened here – this is what happens every day between government press offices and anyone in the media seeking to obtain information which the government does not want to publish.

The only difference is that I am in a position to set out the exchange on this blog.

It is a good thing that, despite their initial reluctance, the home office was able to publicly confirm that a widely circulated claim that restoration of the death penalty was “completely untrue and unsubstantiated”.

It is disappointing that the home office sought to do this with a quote intended to deter the use of the quote and thereby prevent any coverage of that denial.

And it is disappointing, but not surprising, that despite the public interest in such a widely circulated claim being openly denied, the home office insisted on going about it in this way instead.

*****

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The significance of the second impeachment of President Donald Trump is not that so many were in favour but how many were against

14th January 2021

Yesterday the president of the United States was impeached.

That is a sentence that should be neither typed nor read very often, as an impeachment is – and should be – an extraordinary thing.

The power of impeachment exists in a constitution when ordinary political processes are unable to address a particular problem.

This is only the fourth impeachment in the history of the United States, though the second time it has happened to President Donald Trump.

Any impeachment is extraordinary and rare – but what, if any, significance did yesterday’s vote of the house of representatives have?

Did the vote signify either the start or the finish of some thing?

Or was it more an illustration of something already in existence and not likely to go away soon?

Or does it not have any real significance or even illustrative value – and so was just another extraordinary political event to join the clutter of other extraordinary political events of the last four or five years?

*

An impeachment vote, of course, is only one step in the constitutional process of removing a president.

There still needs to be a trial before the senate, and the senate will then either convict or acquit.

A conviction would, of course, be significant.

It would be the first conviction of a president, the previous three impeachments each having ended with an acquittal.

And if the conviction happened before the end of this presidential term then it would also be the first removal of a siting president.

Such an outcome would have a profound significance, being the first and only example in the history of the United States of the constitution being exerted so as to expel the holder of the presidential office.

A conviction by the senate would be the first time the deeper magic of the constitution has been used to crack the stone table of the presidency.

But.

For such an outcome there are two further conditions: (1) the senate has to vote to convict and (2) that vote has to happen in the next six days.

Both of these conditions are capable of being fulfilled, but both currently seem unlikely.

Of course, a senate that recently was able to confirm the appointment of a supreme court judge at speed should be able to deal just as urgently with an impeachment trial.

The indications, however, are that the senate will not commence any trial until 19th January 2021, and that would mean any trial would go beyond the inauguration of the new president, Joseph Biden.

And, unless the senate is back in session sooner than the 19th January 2021, the significance of yesterday’s vote will not be that it lead to the removal of a sitting president.

The stone table of the presidency will remain uncracked. 

*

But what of a conviction after Trump leaves office?

That could still happen even though his term of office would be unaffected.

Such a conviction would (or could) result in Trump’s disqualification from holding and enjoying ‘any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States’.

And this would have the practical consequence of preventing Trump from being elected ever again as president.

(Though similar outcome could be achieved perhaps by a formal holding of some kind – legislative or judicial – that Trump had engaged in insurrection and was thereby barred under section 3 of the fourteenth amendment.)

Such a conviction would be significant – as it would show that constitutionalism still prevailed over the abuse of presidential power.

It would signify that what Trump did (and did not) do on 6th January 2021 was constitutionally unacceptable, and that there should be serious consequences of that constitutionally unacceptable conduct.

But even this profound outcome still depends on a conviction after a senate trial.

*

For both the possibilities set out above, the significance of the impeachment vote is that it has started a process that may, or may not, have a profound outcome.

But what was the significance, if any, of the impeachment vote in and of itself?

What was certainly notable about the vote was that it demonstrated both Democratic unity and Republican division.

Most of the speeches of those on favour of impeachment, and the statements of the ten Republican representatives who voted in favour, matched the gravity of what happened on 6th January 2021.

And that the vote was bipartisan – so bipartisan that Republican support reached double-figures – showed that the president’s misconduct was so serious that it transcended normal partisanship.

This signifies that Trump’s unconstitutional behaviour no longer has the solid support of the Republican party bloc.

But.

At least as significant, if not far more so, was that so many Republican congressmen and congresswomen were steadfast in opposing impeachment, despite the events of last week.

The impression one formed watching the speeches of Republican representatives was that there was nothing – nothing at all – that Trump could do that would be so wrong that it would lead to his impeachment.

That whatever Trump did or not do would always be beyond the reach of constitutional mechanisms.

That when Trump and constitutionalism conflicted, then Trump would prevail.

A number of Republicans expressly dismissed the impeachment as merely an exercise of Democrat partisanship.   

And by doing so, they flipped from partisanship within a constitutional framework to the hyper-partisanship which disregards and denies the primacy of constitutional norms.

This means that rather than the vote signifying either the beginning of a process or the end of a presidency (or of a political career) it was more of a stark illustration of an ongoing problem.

The problem of hyper-partisanship, which is as much a threat to constitutionalism as the storming of the Capitol. 

This hyper-partisanship is, in turn, in the service of populist authoritarian nationalism – the very politics that is perhaps most in need of being constrained by constitutional norms.

And so the ultimate significance of yesterday’s vote to impeach the president may therefore be not so much that there was bipartisan support, but that there were so many in opposition and on what basis.

*****

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Why constitutionalism should be stronger than Trumpism, other populism, and even majoritarianism

13th January 2021

President Donald Trump has never won a national vote.

In 2016 he had about three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, and in 2020 he had about seven million fewer votes than Joseph Biden.

What he was able to do in 2016, however, was to win a vote sufficient so as to obtain the majority of the electoral college – and, but for the geographic distribution of the votes in 2020, it is feasible he could have won the electoral college in 2020.

Trump, therefore, is not in this way a majoritarian – his democratic legitimacy does not rest on having obtained a majority of the democratic vote.

His democratic legitimacy rests instead on a device – the electoral college – that is provided for under the constitution of the United States.

And what the constitution of the United States giveth, the constitution can taketh away.

*

The removal of an elected head of government should never be done lightly or easily.

But in any constitutional system there will always be the means by which they can be removed, other than at an election.

Ideally, of course, if the complaint about a government is essentially about its politics or policies, then it should always be a matter for an election.

That is what elections are for.

But there are circumstances other than a dispute about politics or policy merits where the removal of a government, or of a head of government, is appropriate between elections.

And in the United States, the constitution expressly provides two mechanisms for the displacement of a sitting president.

One is the the twenty-fifth amendment where, for whatever reason, the sitting president is incapable of exercising their role.

The other is the impeachment and then conviction of a president for high crimes and misdemeanours.

And theses two mechanisms are, in the case of President Trump and any other president, just as ‘constitutional’ than the electoral college that enabled Trump to become president in the first place.

*

The house of representatives seems certain, at the time of writing, to vote to impeach President Trump in respect of the violent attack on Congress on 6th January 2021.

President Trump is now thereby destined be the quiz answer to the question: which president was impeached twice?

He will also be the president who was the subject of attempts to use both methods of removal – the twenty-fifth amendment and impeachment, – which also must be some sort of record.

As at the typing of this blogpost, it cannot be predicted whether the senate will vote to convict President Trump.

(Of course, whatever happens, the outcome of that vote will then seem as having been inevitable all along.)

But in one limited way, it does not matter whether there is a conviction – the very fact there will be an impeachment is a reminder that, regardless of Trump’s ability to mobilise millions to vote or to incite hundreds (if not thousands) into political violence, there is something stronger than his populism.

*

The priority for constitutionalism should be true even if there was not such a thing as an electoral college and if President Trump had actually won a majority of the popular vote.

For just as constitutionalism should be stronger than populism, it also should be stronger than majoritarianism.

Being able to obtain a vote of [x] + 1 does not, and should not, confer immunity from removal from office whatever the winning candidate or party seeks to do between elections.

Such a majority vote would confer political legitimacy – but that is what it is: political.

Such political legitimacy does not translate to absolute protection against the consequences of wrongs that go further than political or policy disputes.

*

Given the events of 6th January 2021, and the role of President Trump in those events, it is difficult to see why he should not be impeached and convicted.

This is the sort of situation that the power of impeachment is there for.

And there are signals (if nothing more) that a sufficient number of Republican senators may be in favour of conviction.

But even if such a vote for conviction does not come to pass, constitutionalism has not gone away.

The senate may or may not vote to convict.

The fact there is such a vote means that constitutionalism – still – is stronger than Trump and his nationalist authoritarian populism.

The challenge is now to keep it this way – for although constitutionalism has not gone away, neither will Trumpism.

*****

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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?

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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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Impeachment exists for a reason – the arguments for and against the second impeachment of Donald Trump

9th January 2021

‘Impeachment’ and ‘indictment’ are sister words, sharing the suffix ‘-ment’, and they describe two ways by which a person can be tried and then either convicted or acquitted.

One practical difference (at least in modern times) between the two is that impeachment is usually a political process, while a trial on indictment is a matter of criminal law.

And one effect of this distinction is that if a sitting president of the United States is immune from prosecution in the criminal courts, there is always the alternative route of impeachment.

*

There are only eleven days before this presidential term ends, by automatic operation of law, on 20th January 2021.

The electoral college vote has been certified by congress and so there is no constitutional impediment (as far as this English lawyer is aware) to Joseph Biden becoming president on that day.

The question is whether Donald Trump should continue to be president in the meantime, given what he did and what happened on 6th January 2021.

As eleven days is such a short period, there is merit in the view that we should just wait it out – especially as he no longer has access to his Twitter platform (and the implications of such a ban was discussed on this blog yesterday) and the speaker of the house of representatives has has assurances on the president’s access to the nuclear codes.

And there is something also to be said that it would still be wrong, even now, to in effect override the result of the 2016 election – there was a democratic process and Trump as president was the result at the end of it.

*

But.

Impeachment exists in the United States constitution for a reason.

And if a president inciting a mob to invade Congress so as to disrupt the certification of the electoral college vote (in what this blog avers was an attempted coup) does not fulfil the requirement of a high crime and misdemeanour, then it is difficult to imagine what else would do so.

Even with only eleven days to go, such an extraordinary event should not go unmarked and shrugged-off.

Impeachment and conviction can also disqualify Trump from holding office again.

(And so, in respect of the presidency, such disqualification would place Trump in the same position as if he had not been born in the United States.)

On this basis there is a strong – if not compelling – case that Trump should be impeached and convicted – both in terms of what has happened and of the future.

*

Yet.

You do not sustainably solve a problem caused by hyper-partisanship with more partisanship.

And so any impeachment and conviction should ideally be on a genuinely non-partisan basis – and not just the Democratic bloc with a few Republicans.

Here the United States constitution is helpful – as a conviction by the senate has to be with the ‘concurrence of two thirds of the members present’.

Therefore there would have to be a substantial number of Republican senators in favour – but even if there were sixteen or so such Republican senators, it would still savour of partisanship, unless the Republican congressional leadership were also in favour of conviction.

This is not to say that there should not be an impeachment and conviction if enough Republican senators are in favour – sometimes you just have to do the right thing anyway – but a warning that such an exercise will not be the once-and-for-all end of the problem of Trump and Trumpism.

But, then again, there may not be any solution to that problem.

*

There is another way that could be employed to displace Trump.

The twenty-fifth amendment provides an elaborate mechanism by which the vice president and members of the cabinet can declare that the president is unable to discharge the powers and duties of the office.

In these circumstances the vice president will become the acting president.

This approach has the attraction of being inherently non-partisan – as those making the decision are Republican politicians – and also the attraction of pragmatism – as it deftly yanks Trump away from exercising the powers of the president.

The problem, however, is that it is not – at least not directly – a mark against the encouragement of the attempted coup, and nor does it disqualify him from future office.

(Or Trump could – like Nixon – just resign in an attempt to pre-empt any of the above – but it is hard to imagine Trump bringing himself to sign that piece of paper.)

*

Of course, whatever does happen will then look as if it were inevitable all along.

But whether or not Trump is impeached and convicted, there will still be two truths.

First, impeachment is there for a reason.

And second, what the president did on 6th January is such a reason.

*****

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Trump’s social media ban in perspective – the unpalatable difficulties of regulating political and media activity in the internet age

8th January 2021

Once upon a time, and not so long ago, mass political parties and national media organisations were themselves novelties.

Both were responses to the emergence of popular democracy and widespread literacy in the late 1800s.

Political parties and media organisations (for example, ‘Fleet Street’) were ways by which the relationships were mediated between the elite and the governed.

The means of political organisation and of publication – and, later, of broadcasting –  were in the hands of the few.

Indeed, until the 1990s, it was difficult (if not impossible) for any person to publish or broadcast to the world, without going through the ‘gatekeepers’ of a national newspaper, or a publishing house, or a national broadcaster.

Similarly, it would be difficult (if not impossible) for any person or group of people to obtain significant political influence – at least in the United Kingdom as a whole – without going through a national political party.

So – although both politics and the media on a national level had opened up to the population as whole – the ultimate means of political and media control were still quite centralised.

Top-bottom, command-and-control.

*

And when power is concentrated it is easier to regulate.

So, just as modern political parties and media organisations emerged at the end of the 1800s, so did the regulation both of political parties and of the media.

Back in October 2019 I set out at Prospect why the electoral law of the United Kingdom that was developed in different circumstances was no longer fit for purpose.

Similar points can be made about media law: for example, there is no real point tightly regulating certain news titles or national broadcasters when the same content can be circulated – often even more widely – on social media platforms by those outside such creaking regulatory regimes.

*

If traditional political parties and media organisations did not already exist as hangovers from the time before modern technology and communications, they probably would not now be invented, at least in a recognisable form.

And that therefore must follow for how political and media activities are regulated.

Just as traditional political parties and media organisations were once novel responses to new social and economic conditions, we need to think afresh about the nature of political and media power and about the extent, if at all, it can be regulated.

For now anyone with an internet connection and access to certain platforms can publish and broadcast to the world, or can seek and obtain significant political influence or power.

*

To ‘regulate’ a thing is to make it possible that the thing would have a different outcome, but for the regulation.

If a regulation can have no effect, then the thing supposedly being regulated carries on regardless, and the regulation is a polite fiction. 

Futility is the enemy of sound regulation.

*

And now we come to President Donald Trump and his recent temporary ban from Twitter and his indefinite ban from Facebook.

Neither Twitter nor Facebook are traditional media organisations – indeed both were formed within the lifetime of anyone reading this post.

But they are not only media organisations – they have also taken on some of the functions of traditional political parties – as the practical means of political organisation, mobilisation and sharing of information.

This is not to say that the social media platforms are beyond the law – they are (in theory) subject to terms and conditions, laws on equality and non-discrimination, laws on data protection and intellectual property, and so on.

It may be that these general laws are not enforced, or perhaps not enforceable – but there are laws which apply.

The issue is that those laws are general laws and not specific legal regimes covering media and political activity.

And so what we have are platforms of immense media and political power – and without any specific media and political regulation.

They are, in effect, private organisations – and (subject to general laws) are entitled to suspend and terminate, or to enable, the accounts of any politician.

They can even suspend the social media account of (arguably) the most powerful politician in the world.

And they have done so.

*

For many, the way to deal with the political and media power of social media platforms is easy.

Regulate!

Something must be done, and so something will be done, and that something that will be done will be to ‘Regulate!’

But asserting that a thing should be regulated is not the same as it being capable of regulation.

One may want the tides of the sea or the weather to be different, but it does not follow that they can be made any different.

So it may be that although social media platforms – huge private corporations – have immense political and media power, it does not follow that they can be easily regulated, or regulated in any meaningful way at all.

And even if regulation was possible, it is almost certain that it cannot be on the same basis of the top-down, command-and-control regulation of political and media activity that we have inherited from previous times.

For example, social media platforms have millions of publishers and broadcasters, not just a handful.

There are no elaborate steps before publication and broadcast as with a Fleet Street title or established book publisher.

They are no limits on how much political propaganda can be published and to whom it can be circulated.

If any of this can be ‘regulated’ then it almost certainty will not be by tweaking old pre-internet regulatory models – and this is because the things being regulated are of a fundamentally different nature.

And – and this will be very hard to accept for those who believe every real-world problem has a neat legal solution – it may be that social media activity can no more be regulated meaningfully than conversations in the street or in the town square.

That the age of specific regulations for media and political activity are over, and all we are now left with are general laws.

Many will not be comfortable with this – and will insist that ‘something must be done’.

Yet futility is the enemy of sound regulation.

*

Perhaps something should have been done in respect of President Donald Trump’s unpleasant, dishonest, reckless and dangerous use of his social media account before this week.

And what has now been done is too little, too late.

Others would say that silencing an elected politician’s means of communication should not be at the fiat of a private social media platform.

Views will differ.

But the wider questions are:

If a thing is to be done about the use and abuse of a social media platform by those with political and media power, who should have the power to do this?

And on what basis should they make that decision? 

And to whom (if anyone) should that decision-maker be accountable?

And if the social media platforms themselves are left to regulate what political and media activity can take place and what content we can read and watch, who (if anyone) can regulate them?

*

‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?‘ – who watches the watchmen? – is one of the oldest and most difficult questions in the history of organised societies, and it is a question that sometimes has no answer.

And now our generation gets to ask and to try and answer this question.

*

POSTSCRIPT

Later on the day of this post, Trump’s Twitter account was permanently suspended.

 

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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?

*

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.

*

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

*

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.

*

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 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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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!”‘

*

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.

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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.

*

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. 

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

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‘Cancelling Christmas’ days after deriding the possibility shows how the prime minister is caught in the trap of populism

20th December 2020

Just days ago, at the last Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), this exchange took place.

Click and watch it.

At this point, the prime minister knew that there was a real risk that, to use the phrase, ‘Christmas would have to be cancelled’ – at least for London and the south east.

A responsible prime minister would have used the moment of PMQs – where there is a platform both before elected representatives and before the media and public – to prepare people for this sad possibility.

(Indeed, it may be that on Wednesday he knew that it was far more than a possibility.)

But what did this prime minister do instead?

He derided the leader of the opposition and he dismissed the risk.

We once had a prime minister – who was not without other faults – who candidly warned the public of sweat and tears.

We now have a prime minister who goes for claps and cheers.

Indeed, ‘populism’ can be illustrated, if not defined, by this prime minister sneering that others want to ‘cancel Christmas’ for claps and cheers – days before then having to cancel Christmas.

The constant putting-off of difficult decisions, and the promotion of easy answers.

(On this, this column by Rafael Behr is magnificent.)

Now some government-supporting politicians are spinning that this is a prime minister unafraid of difficult decisions.

This is untrue.

The difficult decision was not the one forced yesterday – there was by then no real choice – but at PMQs, where there was a choice to be made.

Does the prime minister tell members of parliament and the watching media and and public to brace themselves that something bad may happen – and to thereby give everyone time to plan accordingly – or does he go for the glib jibe?

Watch the footage again, and see what he decides to do.

It is difficult – genuinely – to imagine a more incompetent prime minister.

Yes, other government-supporting politicians – from the home secretary to the leader of the house of commons – would be just as dreadful.

But they would only be as bad in different ways.

For as, scientists tell us, one cannot go below absolute zero, one cannot go beneath a level of absolute incompetence.

No prime minister would have relished facing up to ‘cancelling Christmas’ for millions of people.

But our prime minister is caught in the trap of populism.

And politicians that can only play to the crowd invariably end up letting the crowd down.

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