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If they can break the law, why can't we?

Establishment bad behaviour weakens rule of law

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Sadly, this incident drew to a close when a passer-by intervened and explained to the policeman just who he was talking to. The net effect of such incidents, and the fact that well-known and reputable columnists from both sides of the political spectrum will now write unfavourably about their encounters with the law, whilst providing sufficient detail to turn large swathes of the population into bar-room lawyers, is likely to be corrosive. It still takes a certain amount of chutzpah to stand up to a police officer in a public place. However, if our postbag is anything to go by, there is a growing segment of the public who feel both cross enough and empowered enough to do so – to argue back when some official states baldly that "it’s the law".

This effect has been multiplied – perhaps it should not have been – by the current furore over parliamentary expenses. The over-riding mood is one of public anger laced with a spirit of vengefulness. To a degree, this is misplaced. Part of the problem that this row illustrates is a British unwillingness to grapple directly with issues of pay. In many industries, headline wages have historically been suppressed in return for "understandings" about what workers may be allowed instead. Over the years, these arrangements – known as "Spanish Practices" – have been eliminated, hanging on only in some of the upper reaches of the establishment.

Claims that most workers would be sacked at once for bending the rules in the way that MPs appear to have are likely misplaced, and if the public reflected more quietly on the issues, it is probable they would not wish their own employers to pursue such a draconian policy either. If you are alleged to have fiddled your expenses, you would expect a full investigation before you were fired. You would also hope for a warning for a first offence in most businesses, rather than summary dismissal.

Nonetheless, this affair is bound to filter into attitudes towards compliance with the law. After all, why be quite so accurate in reporting one’s tax affairs, when it is clear that those who pass the laws think it is beneath them.

Whether this will make a difference in the long run is open to question. There is much media froth at the moment about redefining politics, but we have had such moments before - remember the Social Democrat Alliance passing the 40 per cent mark in opinion polls – and they have passed.

It may depend in part on whether your view of the British people and their history is of essentially law-abiding, solid citizens – or workshy, foot-dragging chancers. There is support for both positions, with a well-based alternative historical tradition – from Robin Hood to the Poll Tax riots - and popular meme (e.g., "Passport to Pimlico") suggesting that we are less law-abiding, less conformist than the authorities would like to hope we are.

At base is the question of whether our consent to be governed, to be policed, has weakened in any way. The answer is almost certainly yes. But it would be unwise for those in authority to respond in an, er, authoritarian manner. Wiser counsel, both in the Police and legal establishment, are well aware that policing with consent is infinitely cheaper and more effective than policing with grudging acceptance – or worse, open defiance.

If we are able to make any predictions at all, it is not that the public will now indulge itself in a crime spree of epic proportions: rather that the collective will to abide by the spirit of the law is now irrevocably weakened and that in future, where a rule can be bent to individual advantage, it is much more likely that it will be. ®

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