The rule of law: what is it, and why does it matter?

The rule of law is a fundamental principle underpinning the UK constitution. Its core principles include limits on state power, protection for fundamental rights and judicial independence. Lisa James and Jan van Zyl Smit argue that upholding the rule of law is a responsibility shared between politicians, officials and the public – with ministers and MPs having important roles to play.  

Background

The rule of law is frequently cited in political debate, and is a key topic monitored by those worried about democratic backsliding. But what is it, and why is it so important?

The rule of law is one of the fundamental principles underpinning constitutional democracies, and its importance is not seriously questioned in any modern democratic state. But like other constitutional principles, long-running debates exist about how it can most effectively be implemented.

This briefing explains the central concepts constituting the rule of law under three broad categories:

  1. Legality and legal certainty
  2. Legal equality and fundamental rights
  3. Judicial independence and access to justice

Why does the rule of law matter?

The rule of law prevents the abuse of state power, requires the law to be followed by all, and ensures that legal rights are fulfilled in practice. It also provides the means for various other core aspects of democracy to be safeguarded – for example, making certain that the laws made by parliament are enforced, and that fair conduct of elections can be guaranteed. More broadly, it underpins social functioning by providing fair and legitimate routes for disputes to be settled. And it supports stable economies and economic growth by upholding property rights, facilitating the elimination of corruption, and maintaining a business environment in which contracts are enforced, and international trade and investment can flourish. The rule of law alone is not sufficient to make a state democratic, but a state which does not observe it cannot be a healthy democracy.

As such, the rule of law has long been recognised as a fundamental part of the UK system. Many of its core aspects were established during the seventeenth century – particularly by the Bill of Rights 1689. Nineteenth-century scholar Albert Venn Dicey considered it, alongside parliamentary sovereignty, one of the ‘twin pillars’ of the constitution. More recently, Margaret Thatcher considered its observance central to Conservatism, arguing that ‘the institution of democracy alone is not enough. Liberty can only flourish under a rule of law’. And the 2001 Labour government recognised its importance as an existing principle in the Constitutional Reform Act 2005.

What does the rule of law cover?

Like other fundamental principles, the precise details of the rule of law are debated, but its central tenets are widely recognised. Lord (Tom) Bingham of Cornhill, a former Senior Law Lord, provided one well-known schema, on which the Venice Commission’s Rule of Law tools for assessing constitutional reforms are based. Another influential definition was given by then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who defined the rule of law as:

…a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards.

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What does the new Prime Minister mean for the constitution?

The Constitution Unit held an event in November at which three expert panellists discussed the potential constitutional impact of newly appointed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, discussing the problems posed by concerns about ministerial standards, the government’s decision to proceed with several bills that pose worrying constitutional questions, and the future of the devolution settlement. Alice Hart and Hashmath Hassan summarise the contributions.

On the day that the UK Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish Parliament cannot legally hold another independence referendum without Westminster’s approval, the Constitution Unit held an event to discuss the potential constitutional impact of the new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. The event was chaired by Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit, and brought together three expert panellists: Jill Rutter (a Senior Research Fellow at UK in a Changing Europe and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Government); Dr Ruth Fox (Director of the Hansard Society); and Professor Colm O’Cinneide (Professor of Constitutional and Human Rights Law at University College London). The summaries below are presented in order of the speakers’ contributions. 

Jill Rutter 

Jill Rutter discussed the need to repair the damage done to the perception of standards in public life during Boris Johnson’s time as Prime Minister. Johnson suffered the resignation of two Independent Advisers on Ministers’ Interests in as many years, tolerated misbehaviour from his MPs and was ‘fast and loose with the facts’ in parliament. Sunak’s commitment to the integrity agenda is unclear, Rutter stated. He has made assurances that he will appoint an Independent Adviser (unlike his predecessor, Liz Truss, who indicated that she did not need one) and has appointed a barrister to lead an independent inquiry into bullying allegations against Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab. However, questions remain about Sunak’s approach to his new Independent Adviser, such as whether he will provide the postholder with sufficient resources (as promised by Johnson to former Independent Adviser Lord (Christopher) Geidt) and whether he will make any effort to ensure their independence in terms of both the publication of reports and initiation of investigations without the approval of the Prime Minister.  

Other than these immediate actions, little is known about Sunak’s plans to restore integrity and trust in government. Clamping down on lobbying may be a good place to start, Rutter suggested: she noted that the Gordon Brown review of the constitution commissioned by the Labour Party is planning to propose limitations on MPs’ second jobs. She provided some examples of big ideas that Sunak could adopt, such as Labour’s proposal to establish an Integrity and Ethics Commission and the Australian government’s introduction of an anti-corruption commission. A key challenge for Sunak, Rutter suggested, is dealing with Johnson’s and Truss’ lists of nominations to the House of Lords – especially with regard to how they may affect trust in politics.  

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How far did parliament influence Brexit legislation?

Parliament’s role in the Brexit process has been the subject of widespread controversy among politicians, commentators, and experts. This makes it important to understand exactly what kind of influence parliament wielded in that period. Tom Fleming and Lisa James shed new light on this question by summarising their recent article, Parliamentary Influence on Brexit Legislation, 2017-2019, as published in ‘Parliamentary Affairs’.

Parliament’s role in the Brexit process was – and remains – highly controversial. But despite this controversy, there is widespread agreement that parliament was unusually influential during this period, and particularly during the hung parliament that lasted from 2017 to 2019.

This verdict is largely based on parliament’s high-profile impact on the Brexit negotiations, where MPs famously torpedoed Theresa May’s exit deal, and delayed the UK’s eventual departure from the EU on multiple occasions. But parliament also considered a raft of important Brexit-related legislation, which aimed to unravel the UK’s membership of the EU and create new domestic regulatory frameworks. This legislation has been less studied, but is crucial to our understanding of the relationship between parliament and government in this period.

Our recent article therefore explored the extent and nature of parliament’s influence on this Brexit-related legislation. We did so by analysing the parliamentary passage of the 13 Brexit-related bills introduced in the 2017-19 parliament, including the fate of over 3000 proposed amendments.

More specifically, we explored three different mechanisms by which parliament can influence government legislation: passing non-government amendments; forcing government concessions; and influencing the government’s approach through ‘anticipated reactions’. For each mechanism, we investigated its prominence between 2017 and 2019, and compared this to evidence from earlier periods.

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The constitutional causes and consequences of the Truss-Kwarteng budget crisis

Within weeks, Liz Truss’s premiership was plunged into economic and political turmoil due to Kwasi Kwarteng’s ‘mini budget’. But this crisis, suggests Meg Russell, has distinctly constitutional roots. Building on Boris Johnson’s legacy, Truss chose to sideline expert officials and regulators, and shut out her own MPs. The consequences that have since befallen her are a compelling advertisement for respecting – and rebuilding – appropriate constitutional checks and balances.

The Conservative Party conference, indeed the entirety of Liz Truss’s new premiership, has been severely destabilised by the market reaction to Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s ‘mini budget’. Far from securing Truss her desired reputation for acting on the energy crisis and boosting the economy, and a positive bounce in the polls, Kwarteng’s 23 September ‘fiscal event’ saw the pound plunge, lenders withdraw mortgage products, and Labour achieve record poll leads. Faced with a mass rebellion by Conservative MPs, Kwarteng performed a U-turn on abolition of the top rate of income tax, while other parts of the package may face further such trouble ahead.

Fiscal policy is well beyond the usual scope of the Constitution Unit blog, or of this author. But the extent to which the unforced economic and political crisis built on foundations of poor constitutional and governance practice is striking. Boris Johnson played fast and loose with many constitutional norms, and Liz Truss seems quickly to have followed suit. But her now catastrophic position – with some Conservative MPs calling for the Prime Minister’s removal after less than a month in the job – demonstrates just how shortsighted and dangerous such behaviour can be.

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The UK’s constitutional norms and standards took a severe battering under Johnson: Labour should pledge to restore the system

There is no guarantee that the Johnson government’s dismal record on safeguarding our democracy will be improved upon by the new Prime Minister, Liz Truss. This creates big opportunities for Labour to offer a real alternative by restoring integrity and accountability to politics, writes Meg Russell.

Concerns about honesty and integrity and the erosion of constitutional norms were central to Boris Johnson’s dramatic downfall. The new Prime Minister’s attitudes in this area remain largely untested – though the omens during this summer’s leadership contest were not good. Meanwhile, public opinion research suggests that voters really care about these questions. That presents significant opportunities for Labour.

The charge sheet against Johnson was remarkably long. The journalist Peter Oborne, formerly political editor of the Spectator and a Telegraph columnist, dedicated both a website and a book to chronicling Johnson’s uneasy relationship with the truth. This trait was well known before he assumed the premiership and to an extent ‘priced in’. But the difficulties under his leadership went far wider, covering multiple aspects of integrity in politics and respect for the essential rules and norms that underpin UK democracy. This often put him at odds with regulators and non-political figures holding responsibility for maintaining the system, as well as with senior figures in his own party.

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