A plea for neutrality as judge slams papers

Quiet time: Justin Welby, Lord Neuberger and Prince Charles are all on ‘dangerous ground’.

Yesterday the president of the UK Supreme Court criticised politicians for not defending judges from attacks in the media. But some say he should keep quiet. How important is neutrality?

On November 3rd last year a headline divided Britain.

‘ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE’, screamed the front page of the Daily Mail, captioning three judges who ruled that Britain could not leave the EU without Parliament’s consent. Critics said the story smacked of a ‘witch-hunt’.

Yesterday Lord Neuberger, the president of the British Supreme Court, hit out at politicians for not doing enough to defend judges during the row. He said ‘I think some of what was said was undermining the rule of law’, adding that judges are the ‘ultimate guardians’ of that principle.

Neuberger’s comments come after a string of high-profile interventions from supposedly ‘neutral’ people. The most notable of these was the House of Commons Speaker John Bercow who announced that he would be unwilling to allow President Donald Trump to address Parliament.

On Tuesday Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke about a ‘nationalist, populist, or even fascist tradition of politics’ in relation to Brexit, Donald Trump and the success of populist outsiders in Europe. His comments outraged many who support Britain’s EU exit, who pointed out that the majority of practicing Christians in Britain voted to leave.

In this week’s Spectator, James Forsyth wrote: ‘One of the striking features of Britain’s unwritten constitution is how it relies on various people keeping their opinions to themselves.’ Forsyth asserts: ‘It is not their right to remain silent, but their responsibility.’

This is most evident in the role of the Royal Family. The Sun’s headline alleging that the Queen backed Brexit caused such an uproar precisely because we know so little about the Queen’s views.

Her heir is not as restrained: Prince Charles has made his views on climate change, the refugee crisis and Vladimir Putin very clear. All are controversial topics.

There are some who believe that, in some cases, clinging to neutrality is a lost cause. The former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie has called for an Americanised system where supreme court judges are appointed by the government.

Should we cherish neutrality?

Dividing opinion

‘Absolutely!’ say some. Institutions like the judiciary and the monarchy are there for all of us, regardless of our views. We have not voted for these people, and their power is only tolerable to us because it is generally agreed that they do not use their position to influence politics. These people should try to unify us, not divide us.

But others reply that it is unreasonable to expect people to keep all their opinions to themselves, and it is just as fanciful to suggest that their views could never influence their actions. People in important positions have a responsibility to push good causes.

You Decide

  1. Should judges swear a vow of political neutrality?
  2. Is it ever okay for unelected people to influence government policy?

Activities

  1. Picture the scenario: Prince Charles has become King, and is highly politically active. Write 500 words about what happens in his first 100 days as King.
  2. Research and compare the UK justice system with the US justice system. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

Some People Say...

“People are too obsessed with opinions.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why does all this matter?
It matters because judges, archbishops and monarchs all form part of the fabric of society. If, for example, a judge’s political views become well-known and well-publicised, there is a possibility that those who disagree with him politically start questioning the legitimacy of his decisions, meaning that public trust in the independent judiciary is weakened.
Have these people always remained neutral?
In her 65 years on the throne, Elizabeth II has successfully stayed above politics, but that was not the case for many of her predecessors. For example, her grandfather George V lobbied vigorously against Indian independence. But no monarch has ever explicitly endorsed a political party.

Word Watch

John Bercow
Since Bercow made his comments, there have been several calls for him to step down as Speaker.
Majority of practicing Christians
According to polling done by Lord Ashcroft, 58% of Britain’s Christians voted to leave.
Headline
On March 9th The Sun’s headline was ‘Queen backs Brexit’. The story quoted anonymous sources (believed by many to be Michael Gove) who witnessed an argument between the Queen and pro-EU former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in 2011. Clegg has said he could not remember any such incident and called the story ‘nonsense’.
Climate change
Prince Charles is an avowed environmentalist and has received several awards for his work. He has also campaigned against modern architecture on both environmental and aesthetic grounds.
Refugee crisis
In a broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, Charles said that anti-refugee sentiment had ‘deeply disturbing echoes of the dark days of the 1930s’.
Vladimir Putin
The Daily Mail reported that Charles had compared Putin to Hitler in a conversation with a Holocaust survivor.

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