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December 2008

Britain has long been admired for its commitment to the rule of law. It does not have a written constitution, and until a decade ago (when Europe's Human Rights Act was written into our own law) its citizens were not protected by an extensive and formal statement of their rights. Nevertheless, for centuries the British have been proud that their government cannot behave oppressively because, like everyone else, its ministers and civil servants are under the law. The law was supreme in the UK, not because it relied on a set of formal constitutional documents, but because judges were impartial and the judiciary could not be intimidated by the executive.

Surprisingly, little comment has so far been made about one aspect of Gordon Brown's premiership: the large number and the seriousness of the government's challenges to the rule of law that have occurred since he moved into Downing Street in June 2007. In particular, the financial crisis has given him and various state agencies the pretext to disregard basic principles. Whether the government has in fact broken the substance of the law will be determined by actions in the courts and judicial decisions over the next year or two. But, as the following three examples will show, a case can be made that Mr Brown has already overridden what might be termed "the spirit of the British constitution".

First, an obvious inconsistency is to be found in the official treatment of monopoly questions in August and early September 2007, when the Northern Rock crisis broke, and more recently, in Lloyds TSB's bid for HBOS.

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