Following a year when all of us in Westminster have felt the anxiety of terrorism in our midst as part of central London life it has been less than uplifting to witness some major changes in our laws which will have a long-term, detrimental effect on our cherished liberties.
The rule of law in this nation is a peculiarly British concept. Our society is based on a notion that we all abide by the same rules. This applies whatever your wealth or standing. No individual or institution, especially the government, is above the law. This applied most spectacularly 350 years ago to the monarch with the execution of Charles I in 1649. This was an early step on the path to a modern parliamentary democracy.
The rule of law is a concept especially attractive to those who come and settle from abroad. It often stands in stark contrast to what many people from far afield have become accustomed to.
Our legal process is confrontational and determined to give the defendant a fair trial whereas most European jurisdictions, for instance, are designed to reveal the truth and therefore concern themselves with the interests of the State, rather than those of the individual.
Briton has a secular society. Sovereignty resides in the Queen, and as a constitutional monarch, with parliament. The British way is not to appeal to any higher spiritual jurisdiction. Our laws are made exclusively by the Houses of Commons and Lords and interpreted by an independent judiciary. For historical reasons we have an established Church, but no-one should mistake this as anything approximating to a theocracy. Indeed, pluralism and religious tolerance has been part of the British constitutional settlement since the glorious revolution of 1688. The deal is this: the law will not treat anyone differently on the basis of their belonging to a particular faith, religion, sect or ethnic group. That spirit of tolerance must, however, be a two-way street in the interests of good community relations.
Our rights as individuals are a product of the history of the United Kingdom and its institutions. Arguably the most important safeguard of personal freedom is the right to own private property and the confidence that this will be upheld by the State.
The freedom to buy and sell without fear of confiscation, to transfer ownership and to have contracts on property enforced is key to wealth creation. These rights – and their peculiarly British recognition – go back to well before the time of Magna Carta.
Ours is a nation which gives especial importance to the rights of the individual to regulate his or her own conduct without recourse to coercion. Other typical facets of Britishness includes a sense of humour (directed most woundingly against those in authority), stubbornness, a passion for freedom and justice and stoicism at times of crisis. We thrive in emergencies and have a readiness to get on with the job when necessary.
In spite of decades of being made to feel ashamed of our colonial past, we are an instinctively proud people with a strong sense of national self-esteem. Our successors, whether our children or immigrants who come to these shores from far afield, are able to relate to a stable political culture that goes back many centuries. But that culture brings with it a unique set of rights and obligations underpinned by the notion that we all abide by the same rules.
This is a wonderful legacy and a tremendous foundation for all our children and grandchildren. The terrorists will win more handsomely than they could ever hope for if they manage to undermine our long held freedoms and our unique legal culture.