The annual High Sheriff’s Rule of Law service was in Malmesbury Abbey last Sunday. This magnificent service has in previous years been held in Salisbury Cathedral, so it was a great privilege to be able to welcome the other High Sheriffs, Judges, Barristers, QCs, mayors and a myriad of other magnificently clad dignitaries to Malmesbury for the first time ever. Our High Sheriff, Nicky Alberry, lives near Calne, and I guess it must have been her idea. She’s had a great year as High Sheriff and this splendid service was its pinnacle.
The message from the service- symbolised by the robes, the chains of office, the maces, even the excellent new vicar and choir in their respective robes and badges of office, is that decent, well-run, civilised society depends on our collective acceptance of the Rule of Law. It was Malmesbury man, Thomas Hobbes, who famously opined that if it was not for these things, life would indeed be ‘Nasty, brutish and short.’ We collectively sign up to rules and laws, and norms of behaviour which we would not otherwise necessarily accept for the better avoidance of anarchy. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies gives us a similar message.
Its been hard to keep up with the Brexit process this week, so fast is its rate of change. Even in the process of writing and despatching this Column, it is quite likely that things will once again have changed. I opposed Mrs May’s deal on two occasions, then decided that the only way we would get any kind of Brexit was by deeply reluctantly supporting it. Then I had even that opportunity cut from under my feet by Mr Speaker Bercow’s ruling, based on a 1604 precedent not used for 100 years or more, that the third vote could not happen. Mrs May has now been granted a short extension to Article 50, but only if she secures support in the House of Commons for her deal. I will give her that, but this seems to me to be an open invitation to my more die-hard colleagues to withhold their support, and as they would see it, by that means secure a No Deal Brexit next Friday. (I personally suspect that, in line with the House’s motion last week, the Government will seek to prevent that, in which case we will simultaneously have No Deal, but also a prevention of No Deal occurring.)
Parliament could learn something from the Rue of Law service in Malmesbury. Whichever side of the argument you may happen to be on, what is sure is that the whole thing is a muddle and has been handled terribly badly- by the PM, who is on her last legs, by the Speaker, by Parliament as a whole. This is not how you should run a Parliament nor a Government.
Chaos, nihilism and anarchy prevail when the rule of law, procedures, normal rules of behaviour break down. Without in any way endorsing the PM’s rather self-regarding blaming of Parliament for what has occurred, I nonetheless do think that every branch of Government and Parliament must be to a degree blameworthy for the events of the last few weeks. An urgent post-Brexit priority must be the re-establishment of respect and good order in the machinery of The State.