Not so long ago we had Islamists spouting vile rhetoric inspiring the young to slaughter innocents. The Choudhury’s and Abu Qatada’s of this world were quick to say they weren’t responsible. They carefully positioned themselves – just – on the right side of the line dividing hateful words and incitement to violence. Those doing the attacks came to their own views and, anyway, were only reacting to the bad stuff they had seen done to their “brothers”.
Decent people (including politicians) were not impressed by such casuistry and publicly condemned those who spread hatred. They understood that, while speech should indeed be free, that freedom did not mean that people were free from being condemned for what they said; others were also free to express their revulsion. They also understood that this was not a time to be silent. Silence might be viewed as agreement (at worst) or turning a blind eye or as giving a nod and a wink to such behaviour or not realising the importance of sending out a clear signal about what is and is not acceptable in a decent society.
Then we had far right rhetoric about liberals and leftists being collaborators, betraying Britain, white people etc. It was thought of as confined to small, insignificant groupuscules, less threatening than noisy, active Islamists. But in 2016 a man inspired by such thinking stabbed an MP to death in broad daylight, shouting about putting “Britain first”, a cry echoed at his trial when he refused to plead saying instead: “My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” Everyone united in revulsion, the only exception being a group named “Britain First” which sought to use the same same types of arguments as Islamists. The security services have since turned their attention to the risks of far right terrorism, reorganising themselves in order better to monitor and catch it. There remain concerns about the best strategy for countering it.
In May 2020 the Home Secretary announces yet another blitz on migrants crossing the Channel in boats, presumably to forestall any more films of Farage (to whom the Tory party has outsourced its political conscience) pointing at what he calls an “invasion”. In August she announces (again) that she will introduce new asylum laws which will “send the left into meltdown”.
From July onwards, first Farage then Britain First (yes, them again) turn their attention to asylum seekers staying in hotels. Britain First starts harassing them; other far right groups block Dover and target buildings earmarked for asylum seekers in Folkestone and Wales. There is silence from the Home Secretary. She is busy condemning Extinction Rebellion for blockading newspaper offices. Neo-Nazi teen group, the British Hand, threatens attacks on asylum seekers. Still, the Home Secretary is silent.
In September before a Parliamentary Select Committee, Britain’s head of counterterrorism police, wonders why the young might be attracted to far right extremism and violence. Why indeed?
On 3 September the Home Secretary complains about “activist lawyers” frustrating the removal of migrants. (Perhaps she would prefer lawyers to model themselves on Cabinet Ministers instead and be lazy and inactive?) On 7 September an immigration law firm is attacked by a man with a large knife (described by the police as “designed to cause serious harm”). An employee is wounded. The attacker has since been charged. Following this attack, the Law Society wrote to the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor asking that unjustified and inflammatory attacks on lawyers doing their job by the Home Secretary should stop. She says nothing publicly in response.
Finally, this month Ms Patel breaks her silence in her speech to the Tory party conference. In the asylum section she attacks “the do-gooders, the lefty lawyers”. For those attacked for doing their job, those lawyers who, in the words of the President of the Law Society, “apply and uphold the laws set down by Parliament” and who “have a right to do so on behalf of their clients without intimidation” she has not a word.
The same day the Mail on Sunday writes an article attacking an immigration law firm. The article is full of errors; the firm issues a statement correcting them and reveals that junior lawyers have been receiving abuse since the article’s publication.
This month we also had the PM using his conference speech, usually meant to be his address to his party and the nation and, one would have thought, of particular importance this year, to attack lawyers for doing their job, his precise words being: “stopping the whole criminal justice system [not just asylum, note] from being hamstrung by what the Home Secretary would doubtless and rightly call the lefty human rights lawyers and other do-gooders.”
Quite what this means is left wholly unclear. Perhaps defendants should be denied any legal representation at all. Or maybe abolish trials. That would certainly stop any hamstringing of the criminal justice system. It would also stop any justice, mind you, but one can’t have everything. Of government cuts to the criminal justice budget and closure of courts resulting in trials now being fixed 3 or 4 years after the events in issue (the sort of hamstringing someone genuinely interested in improving the system might be worried about) there was no mention.
The Head of the Bar Council has written to the PM about his speech. Three days ago the Law Society raised concerns about firms receiving increased “levels of abuse, threats and hostility”, needing security precautions and reminded the government that inflammatory language has consequences. Perhaps it should also have reminded the Home Secretary that she is responsible for law and order.
The Home Office sends out an utterly misleading statement conflating EU nationals deported for having committed criminal offences with asylum seekers thereby trying to mislead the public into thinking that asylum seekers = convicted criminals. When challenged, the Home Office justifies this by saying that both groups were on the same plane. (Using this analogy, presumably anyone living in London when Choudhury was doing his Islamist incitement is also an Islamist.)
Meanwhile there is tumbleweed from the offices of the Lord Chancellor and Attorney-General, both legally obliged to stand up for lawyers and the rule of law.
What might we learn from this?
(1) The sections in last December’s Tory party manifesto about the rule of law can, presumably, be torn up and used for lavatory paper should we run out – again – this year.
(2) Being a “do-gooder” is a bad thing.
(3) People can be “key workers” one minute (lawyers were classified as such in March) and the scapegoated enemy within the next.
There will be those who will pooh-pooh this as hysteria. But Ministerial words have resulted in attacks on lawyers before: see the Stevens Inquiry’s findings about Home Office Minister Douglas Hogg’s accusations about NI lawyer, Patrick Finucane, murdered by Loyalists shortly afterwards in February 1989. Others will rush to defend the government on the basis that the people voted for changes to Britain’s immigration and asylum system. The distinction between ends and means will be of little or no concern to such people, “how” one achieves the desired goal being irrelevant so long as the goal is reached. The undesirability of attacking those currently doing their job lawfully within the rules and their clients will be of even less concern, even if this leads to abuse and, possibly, worse.
But if the very worst happens, we can be sure that the level of hypocritical sympathy will be off any measurable scale.
The state of Britain today.