The rule of law should be put at the center of new efforts to define Britishness and Britain’s place in the world of the 21st century, a think-tank says today.
The Social Market Foundation said that Britain’s trusted legal system and tradition of fair play can help bind together the nations of the UK and reinforce the country’s international clout.
But the cross-party think-tank also warns that crumbling courts and outdated laws risk undermining Britain’s image as a country dedicated to the rule of law. Experts at a roundtable convened by the SMF indicated that a clearer and stronger common understanding of the rule of law might be able to play a role in boosting the UK’s institutional cohesion.
The SMF report entitled “Identity and Influence” comes amid the ongoing heated debate over the future of the Union and Britain’s standing around the world in the turbulent 21st Century.
It argues that a greater focus on legal institutions and the ideas that underpin them would not just help to unify England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but would also enhance the UK’s “soft power”, enhancing the country’s diplomacy and international trade.
To maximise the benefits arising from the rule of law, the report makes several recommendations:
- School citizenship lessons should be overhauled to put more emphasis on British legal traditions, ensuring that future generations understand the value of an independent and trusted system of laws and courts.
- A national debate about a clear and common understanding of “the rule of law” should begin, drawing on the work of legal scholars such as AV Dicey, leading to the development of a set of high-level principles that are embodied in the multiple legal systems of the UK and that all nations of the UK can coalesce around.
- The civil and criminal court systems in England and Wales should be repaired and modernised.
The report draws on new polling about national identity and the findings of an expert roundtable with leading figures in the law and academia. It was sponsored by Mishcon de Reya. The SMF retained editorial independence.
Richard Hyde, SMF senior researcher, said:
“The rule of law is vital to Britain and Britishness. The shared understanding that an independent legal system upholding the rules is a foundation stone of our democratic society and our open economy. It’s also a huge international asset, boosting the country’s reputation and soft power.
“The rule of law should play an important role in attempts to bind together the various parts of the United Kingdom, and to help define Britain’s place in the world of the 21st Century.
“However, the parlous state of our legal institutions, especially the crumbling courts, is a serious risk to the rule of law playing that binding role at home and to Britain’s reputation as a country dedicated to the rule of law abroad. Restoring those courts and making the legal system work better for the people in it isn’t just about fixing a struggling public service. It’s about supporting Britishness and Britain’s international standing.”
Katy Colton, Managing Associate and Head of the Politics and Law Group at Mishcon de Reya, said:
“The Rule of Law is central to our sense of Britishness, our sense of selves, national cohesion and how the world views us. Yet, the inherent value to the UK of our legal institutions and our adherence to the Rule of Law is rarely discussed.
At a time of economic and political upheaval, potential decline of our legal institutions, and threats to our international standing, this is an important and timely report whose recommendations will be of far-reaching benefit.”
Polling from Opinium, highlighted in the report, shows that national identity is divided and complex in the UK. 21% described themselves as “More British” than any other identity. 46% said they were equally British and English/Scottish/Welsh/Irish. And 37% said their English/Scottish/Welsh/Irish identity comes before their Britishness.
In Scotland, 57% said they are “more Scottish than British”. 26% put the two identities as equals. And 19% feel “more British”. For Wales, it is 40% “more Welsh”, 32% equal and 28% “more British”.
Around two-thirds (67%) of British citizens say they are “proud” to be British. This is broadly similar to the proportion of British citizens that reported that their Brutishness had primacy over their Englishness, Welshness, Scottishness or Irishness, or considered themselves to be equally British and English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish.
In polling specifically commissioned for this report (also conducted by Opinium), 83% of British citizens agreed that the rule of law is “essential” for a democratic society, while 74% agreed that it is “essential” for a successful economy. Britons also want the rule of law to be seen as central to their country’s international standing, with 67% saying that that they do care that the UK is a country seen as a place that adheres to the rule of law.
“The rule of law has important part to play in defining and reinforcing Britishness, an especially important task for a country facing questions about its role in the world and internal challenges in the form of Scottish nationalism.
“The rule of law is important to Britain’s international standing. The UK’s public institutions and therefore the country are trusted around the world. However, this trust could be under threat”
“There is a risk that problems such as the poor state of the civil and criminal courts in England and Wales is eroding the value of the rule of law. If perceptions in other countries catch up with this domestic reality, the UK’s soft power will fall.”
“A broad set of tenets along the following lines, providing the outlines of a UK-wide mutual understanding of the rule of law, could be the answer to the challenge of defining the rule of law in a country with multiple legal systems and legal traditions:
- Access – all citizens should be able to access the legal systems and utilise the laws, where appropriate, of the nations of the UK.
- Clarity – the division of responsibilities between politics and policymaking in the UK on the one hand and the legal systems of Britain on the other, should be clear.
- Equality – every citizen should be treated equally by the law and legal systems of the UK.
- Fidelity – the corpuses of law and the legal systems of the UK should remain faithful and continue to reflect their core principles and traditions.
- Security – the legal systems of the UK should deliver security (i.e. personal safety, property protection and defences against exercises of arbitrary power) for all citizens.
- The SMF report, Identity and influence, will be published at https://www.smf.co.uk/publications/identity-and-influence/.
- The report is part of a series supported by Mischon de Reya looking at the state of the law in modern Britain. Other reports have considered the law and the economy and court reform and technology
- The report was sponsored by Mishcon de Reya. The SMF retains complete editorial independence of its publications.
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