There was much hand wringing in March as MPs lined up to pronounce that they were being compelled to support actions that “no government would want to take”, and that there seemed “no other option” but to rush out severe restrictions in the face of the pandemic.
They may have been right. But the thing about emergencies is that they tend to be stretchy. They expand and contract to fit the policy required.
Talk of a life-threatening emergency was conspicuously absent when the chancellor was serving diners at Wagamamas, for example.
Emergencies also have a habit of stretching on in time. Nearly 20 years after 9/11, governments around the world still hold onto their vast surveillance and detention powers that were rolled out in response to that specific attack.
Now, we face the prospects of the “biosecurity” state.
It is unarguable that in March we were facing a real emergency that required rapid action. But coronavirus has since become carte blanche which has trumped all else — even parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. It should worry us all that ministers are happy to announce and pass these profound new laws with barely a murmur from parliament.
This week, for example, the decision to plunge the capital and other parts of the country into Tier 3 means that well over 10m people have been effectively barred from seeing their loved ones. And after investing in their own life support, yet more businesses have been destroyed and jobs lost — all at the stroke of a minister’s pen.
It is a strange feature that this democratic collapse has happened under a Prime Minister whose election campaign sold him as the defender of parliamentary sovereignty. On 31 January of this year, he cheered for Britain’s “recaptured sovereignty”. But it was recaptured by someone who is more motivated by the seduction of power than the responsibility that comes with it.
Johnson promised to recapture sovereignty for parliament, on behalf of the people — not for ministers and bureaucrats. Yet the Prime Minister barely flinches as he stands as the most authoritarian leader in modern British history. On his watch, ministers have used the urgency procedure to avoid scrutiny and deny debate about profoundly draconian restrictions on citizens’ lives.
It takes more than nostalgic speeches and renegade hair ruffles to be a liberal leader in a modern, global world. It requires vision, courage and values — features more commonly glimpsed on the back benches in parliament than at either despatch box.
Who would have thought that this year would see Tory backbenchers trying to recapture sovereignty from their own leader?
It goes without saying that every area of the country deserves to have these decisions treated with gravity and careful consideration. Parts of the north of England have seen entirely new sets of Covid restrictions every few weeks, often imposed with little or no warning.
This presents a problem not just for individuals, but for the rule of law. How many people have really been able to keep track of what is and isn’t allowed? Are local courts, police forces and MPs up to date on the intricacies of endlessly amended laws? Evidence suggests that many aren’t, and that people remain confused and frustrated.
Where is sovereignty now, in post-Covid, post-Brexit Britain? It is anywhere but our emaciated parliament, once the heart of adversarial politics and the theatre of democratic scrutiny — now a poorly attended dress rehearsal for a cancelled performance. And sovereignty is anywhere but with the people, who are barely trusted to make decisions about whether to visit their grandparents or embrace their children.
In these final weeks of 2020, there is no doubt the country needs to recapture sovereignty. And if ministers really believe their case for oscillating lockdowns is watertight, they should be happy to defend each and every one in the cut and thrust of the Commons.
by Madeleine Stone our Legal and Policy Officer.