I had not thought much, until recently, about how meaningful it is to live under the rule of law, although this is a pillar of our democracy. Even in the world today it is unusual to live under the rule of law. All countries, barring failed states, have laws, but many legal systems exist to cement the status of a ruling class, ethnic group or political party, not to protect the interests of the nation as a whole. In China, for example, the common law is inefficiently and inequitably applied to ordinary people, but not the ruling elites. That is why until recently corruption was rife among the upper echelons of the Communist Party. Now under Xi the corrupt are being jailed, but also critics of the government. This is not the rule of law; this is the exercise of arbitrary power to consolidate political position. Such has been and remains the experience of most of mankind throughout history.
Under the rule of law, no person, class or party is above the law. In the UK we are not ruled by the monarch, the Church of England, Parliament, the military, the judiciary, the Tory or Labour parties, the rich or the aristocracy. We, and all the above, live under the rule of law. The proof of this is the very cynicism with which we regard all forms of power, as we are fed a daily diet of the misdeeds of the rich, powerful, influential and famous. For, gloriously, we have a genuinely free press; and I mean a free press constituted under the law, not the mob rule of social media; as we have seen in countless countries, where the ‘citizen press’ has been hailed as the harbinger of greater openness, no sooner does it expose the naked corruption of the ruling elites than it is ruthlessly suppressed. Only where the rule of law, and with it the freedom of the press, does not apply is there unbridled and uncritical admiration of the great and the good, as it is constituted essentially of fear and ignorance.
These thoughts were sharpened recently by comments made by some radical Muslims that participation in democracy is un-Islamic and the only law that should be obeyed is the law of Islam. They are only the most recent and egregious of a long list of democracy-deniers that has included fascists, communists, Trotskyites, anarchists, and an assortment of religious extremists who believe that they, and only they, have insight into a truth that is so self-evident that this places them beyond the considerations of abiding by the law, and frees them to act in ways to achieve their political goals only limited by the extent of their imaginations. For, make no mistake, these people only want one thing: to accrue political power over others. Let me repeat that, for it is something that is frequently overlooked in the rhetoric of religious doctrine or political philosophy: the intention of those who denigrate democracy and the rule of law is to exercise absolute power over their fellow citizens by violent means.
This should remind us why the rule of law is so important and needs to be vigorously proclaimed. Firstly, it protects our fundamental freedoms and rights to safety and security, not only to protection from criminal activity but also unwarranted intrusions of the state: our freedom to conduct business, to associate, to express our views, to make contracts that are binding, to enjoy ourselves through leisure pursuits, to have our marriages and family life recognised. Secondly, it imposes limits on what we can legitimately do, which keeps us within the norms of socially acceptable behaviour and within that to tolerate the many differences amongst us, be they differences of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, political creed, sexuality, lifestyle or simply character. The rule of law is the manifestation of the will of a people to live in a free and tolerant society.
The law also sets out a minimum standard of life and responsibilities as a citizen of the society. No one, and no religion or political creed has the right to challenge this, because the law is fundamentally the settled will of the people, manifested through their representatives, about the type of society they wish to live in. For example, I might feel uncomfortable about the idea of gay marriage because of personal inclination, religious conviction or because I feel it fundamentally alters the meanings we have traditionally attached to the concept of marriage in our culture; however, through the constitutional process, this is now recognised in law. Increasingly, discriminatory practices based on personal preferences are illegal and it cannot be denied that this makes our society fairer. Democracy, after all, is not the dictatorship of the majority. But while personal conviction can never justify breaking the law, there is nothing to prevent us living beyond the minimum requirements of the law, whether that be acts of piety, charity, love, compassion, forgiveness, volunteerism, enterprise, invention or inspiration. The law requires none of these, nor does it forbid any.
There are, of course, laws that are bad and need to be challenged and there is a fine distinction between the need to uphold the rule of law and challenging unjust laws, and this frequently involves a considerable degree of self-sacrifice, whether voluntarily chosen or imposed. An oft-cited example is Martin Luther King who broke the segregation laws of Alabama in the 1960s and went to prison as a result. Rather than expressing resentment King accepted that it was right that he was jailed, because he had broken the law, even though it was an unjust law. The moral philosopher Lawrence Kohlberg held this up as an example of the highest order of ethical perception. In a modest way we have seen an example of this in recent days of the quiet dignity of a released inmate of Guantanamo, Shaker Aamer, seeking no revenge, but only to reintegrate into British life and campaign on behalf of the remaining inmates, despite 14 years of imprisonment and torture in a place where the rule of law and natural justice was suspended, a situation with which the British state possibly connived.