Observations of an expat: Rogue Britain

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Britain is becoming a rogue state. In fact, it may already be one. The Johnson government’s threat to jettison the EU Withdrawal Bill negotiated last year and an alarming philosophy of “creative destruction” threatens to leave the UK dangerously isolated on the world stage.

This is bad for Britain and bad for the world.

The UK is one of the chief pillars of the post-war rule of international law which has underwritten the world’s longest period of relative peace and prosperity. Without these legal structures dictators are emboldened to embark without fear of serious reprisal on genocide, murder of political opponents, theft and even war.

The specific issue at stake is Boris Johnson’s Internal Market Bill which will be debated in Parliament on Monday.  Under the terms of the EU Withdrawal Bill which Johnson negotiated a year ago, there would be pretty much an open border between Northern Ireland and Eire, with a de facto customs border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The terms were unpopular and a major British concession a year ago. But they were agreed and became a legally-binding building block on which to construct a UK-EU trade deal. Talks for that deal are now deadlocked over fishing rights, legal jurisdiction and competition rules; and Boris fans say that the only way to overcome the impasse is by threatening to break the previous agreement.

The government is fully aware of that such a move is a breach of international law. Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitted as much. It was confirmed by the protest resignation of Sir Jonathan Jones, the government’s top legal adviser. But they don’t care. Boris Johnson is fixated on British withdrawal from the European Union on his terms. This blinkered policy put him in 10 Downing Street and he is quite happy to sacrifice the rule of law to protect his political legacy and emerging brand of radical conservatism.

It is obvious that the British Prime Minister has failed to fully assess the consequences of his law-breaking decision. For a start The Internal Market Bill undermines the Good Friday Agreement which ended “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland.  It also threatens the much-touted US-UK free trade deal which is meant to replace much of Britain’s lost trade with Europe as a pro-Irish Congress has served notice that it will block any deal that threatens the Good Friday Agreement.

Then there is future relationship with Brussels. Regardless of the outcome of the current of trade talks, it is essential that Britain have good relations with its closest neighbours on a wide range of issues. Breaking its word—or even threatening to do so—at the first opportunity, has already created an air of suspicion that will linger for years.

And what about other trade agreements? If Britain cannot be trusted to keep a cornerstone agreement with the world’s largest trading bloc than how can other countries’ trade negotiators place their faith in the word of Albion?

Let’s not forget Hong Kong where the British are leading the charge against China for breaching international agreements over legal, political and human rights in the former British colony. London’s complaints now reek of rank hypocrisy.

Former British Prime Minister Sir John Major said: “If we lose our reputation for honouring the promises we make, we will have lost something beyond price that may never be regained.”

Andreas Bummel, Director of the Berlin-based Democracy Borders, said that jettisoning international agreements by a major country such as Britain “undermines trust in the reliability of international treaties and sets a bad example across the world.”

In May 2018. British Foreign Office Minister of State Harriet Baldwin opened a speech to the UN with the words: “There are few values more important to the UK than upholding international law. It is the very foundation of peace and security.” Boris Johnson sacked Ms Baldwin in December 2019.


* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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  • Its painful but nothing will stop Bojo committing an international crime and thus becoming international criminals. I cannot see him pulling back. This is his brand of populist politics that we will see over the coming years. Soon we will have to learn to fight fire with fire with messages to the heart as well as the brain, SirEd take note.

  • David Allen 11th Sep '20 - 6:55pm

    Once you’ve hoisted the Jolly Roger, there are no limits. Parliament and the judiciary to become wholly owned subsidiaries of a Johnson / Cummings / Gove triumvirate? The groundwork has been laid. Mafia state? Well, a £100bn “moonshot” project with no realistic aims is tailor-made to leak money on a massive scale into Cayman Island bank accounts. Steve Bannon has led the way. These people are true believers in an extremist ideology – and it is not a political ideology. It merely masquerades as such.

  • Maybe a few folk in the English Lib Dems might begin to understand now why some of us living in Scotland no longer want any part of it.

  • Barry Lofty 11th Sep '20 - 8:15pm

    The government of the UK has sunk to a new low. Just when we needed leaders who posses statesmanship, common sense and pragmatism we get a bunch of self serving hypocrites.

  • john oundle 11th Sep '20 - 9:06pm

    So it’s perfectly OK for the EU to threaten to block some food exports to even if they meet EU requirements?

    Just like the financial sanctions taken against Switzerland, although they were not guilty of any agreement breeches.

    And in terms of the WA it does clearly mention negotiating in ‘good faith etc. which clearly the EU are in breech of.

  • John Marriott 11th Sep '20 - 11:05pm

    This is not a government. It is a cabal, led by an iconoclast with a chief lieutenant with an unexplained Rasputin like hold over those that wield the power, who believes that laws are for other people to obey. He cut his teeth at the Department of Education and honed his skills by teaming up with current cabinet members in the Leave campaign.

    Besides the Internal Market Bill that is coming before Parliament next week we will see, I believe, the first appearance of the new English Local Government Bill, which is designed not to bring a bit of sense Into England’s current mishmash of County, District and Unitary Councils; but to construct a collection of massive councils, each with its separately elected ‘Gauleiter’, masquerading under the comforting title of Mayor. Under the pretence of devolving power to the people, this move, like the creation of Academy Chains, whose ultimate direction comes from the Minister of State for Education, thus bypassing democratically accountable LEAs, will enable those in charge at Westminster to direct operations via these individuals in the shires in particular, where the Tory writ runs large and probably in many other areas in the north as well, that have recently turned blue. This isn’t devolution. It strikes me that it’s about even more control ending up in the hands of a small collection of 21st century buccaneers financed largely by entrepreneurial capitalism, which owes allegiance to no country, and which preaches the gospel of short termism for its own gain. If you want proof, just look at the number of contracts awarded recently without competitive tendering during the current pandemic.

    What is this fascination in the so called democratic countries with the concept of the non political strong man, who gets things done by bypassing the very institutions established to scrutinise their policies? Has the power of parliaments and their members finally failed the people they seek to represent? We are where we are in these islands thanks largely to the inability of the opposition parties to get their act together last Autumn and allowing themselves to be suckered into holding a general election they could have avoided. I ask whether our fellow citizens really care what is about to be executed in their name. The answer from a large proportion of them would appear to be in the negative.

  • The perception from abroad has long been Perfidious Albion.

  • john oundle 12th Sep '20 - 1:18am


    Yes,pigs flying etc.

  • Peter Martin 12th Sep '20 - 6:48am

    “john oundle does not need to worry. He can rest assured that the EU will always act within the rule of law.”

    Martin is probably right to say this, because the EU wants “the rule of law” to be interpreted according to the wishes of the ECJ. This is the issue that was foreseen last year when Theresa’s WA was given a few tweaks and previous problems were declared solved.

    They obviously weren’t.

    So regardless of any other merits the WA might have, we are now having to face up to that. If we get the FTA as promised then all should be well. That should be the focus of efforts on both sides now. Side step the difficulty and there is no difficulty.

    The Lib Dems and Labour need to be careful. If open hostilities between the UK and the EU do break out, the inclination of most will be to side with the government. “My country right or wrong” and all that.

    If they are seen to be siding with a foreign power they’ll lose out big time.

  • Peter Martin

    I am sure that is what Johnson and Cummings are banking on. The arguments must be carefully framed, but they MUST be made. We cannot allow the country to go down this road with little opposition. It would betray every value we hold dear.

  • John Marriott. Exactly right. If the Lib Dem leadership had any gumption they would call this out and campaign for the restoration of L.E.A.s and the end of the for profit care home system. A parcel of rogues are running this country.

  • If parliament passes this bill, what message does it send to the country? You only need to keep laws that are convenient? This seems dangerous to me.

  • George Monbiot’s article in today’s Guardian should be compulsory reading for every Lib Dem.

  • Peter Martin 12th Sep '20 - 8:37am

    “You only need to keep laws that are convenient?”

    Very likely the Bill will be passed.

    We had this discussion when that statue was thrown into the dock. The view of many was that this was perfectly permissible if those who did it were prepared to take the consequences. There’s happened throughout history. Women didn’t get the vote for voting for it, for example.

    More worrying about breaking laws, to many, including myself, is the suggestion that Britain will welch on an agreement. But the EU has made an agreement, albeit without any legal status, as outlined in the Political Declaration. The UK negotiators were foolish to accept that. They should have stuck to “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. But they allowed themselves to be bullied into it by the EU.

  • Martin. Create 300+ brexiteer peers. Never mind that they will not all fit in. Never mind the fury of the opposition. Now we know what ever it takes means.

  • Peter Martin 12th Sep '20 - 9:07am

    Many Brexiteers are citing Clause 38 of the WA as justification for next week’s Bill. On the face of they do have a point. Either Parliament is sovereign and can legislate for the whole of the UK, including Northern Ireland, or it isn’t and they can’t.

    So this point does need to be answered before the UK is found guilty of breaking any laws and being a “rogue state”. The Lib Dems will do well to avoid such language in public even if that’s what they might say in private.

  • Peter, that is a fair point. But what is different this time is that the people who are responsible for the agreement are the ones threatening to break it: it was not imposed by external authority. In addition, parliament needs to show it believes in rule by law if it is to have credibility when making law. There must be a better way forward.

  • John Marriott 12th Sep '20 - 9:40am

    I do not know what the legal niceties are regarding whether or not welching on an agreement is a good idea or not. If the UK is using this bill, if it can be passed by both Houses of Parliament, as a bargaining chip, it is really indulging in high stakes poker. Even if it does get its way and the EU caves in, it won’t do much for our international reputation. Perfidious Albion, indeed!

    Peter Martin is right about our possibly having been bullied into signing the original treaty and whose fault was that? Gove let the cat out of the bag when he admitted that it had been drawn up “in haste”. And whose fault was that? So we are left with the question; “Was it a case of conspiracy or cock up?” Who knows? One thing is certain as far as I am concerned. Outside the protection afforded by being an albeit semi detached member of the EU, little old Britain is going to find a few more bullies out there with the economic and financial clout to exact a high price for any of those ‘easy as pie’ trade deals promised us by Dr Fox.

  • richard underhill.,. 12th Sep '20 - 10:05am

    We will see whether Boris Johnson seeks to legislate to alter the impeachment process, or to flood the peers with sympathisers, if the monarch is agreeable. The First Lord of the Treasury surely has a responsibility for the country’s credit rating in the world’s markets, which he is allowing to be damaged

  • Denis Loretto 12th Sep '20 - 11:08am

    How was it that Theresa May felt forced into agreeing special arrangements for the Northern Ireland/Great Britain transfer of goods characterised as “a border in the Irish Sea”, so evidently essential that Boris Johnson felt forced to agree virtually the same arrangements prior to the election? The answer is that a brexit unilaterally demanded by the UK electorate was never compatible with the Good Friday Agreement, entrenched as it was by simultaneous referenda north and south of the Irish border. Persisting with brexit despite clear warnings from those who understood the threat it entailed to the Irish peace process has led inevitably to somewhat bizarre constructions
    which Johnson/Cummings/ Gove are belatedly trying to undo with catastrophic effects upon the international reputation of “global Britain”.

  • richard underhill.,. 12th Sep '20 - 11:18am

    Britain waives the rules
    “Britons NEVER, NEVER should be slaves”
    Neither the navy, nor the Air Force, prevented the invasion of 1066, nor had HS2 from Leeds been finished in time to provide quicker and earlier reinforcements to prevent the defeat and consequent serfdom of the entire nation
    Press-ganging in southern ports was unpopular and, if there had been a referendum, it should have been defeated, What the navy did do was to capture and search American merchantmen, so that, despite the prevalence of forged papers, any sailors considered likely to be Brits could be pressed into service. ISBN 0 19-913074-4.
    Admiral Nelson looked down on the poll tax riots without commenting.

  • richard underhill.,. 12th Sep '20 - 11:25am

    12th Sep ’20 – 8:24am
    Would an independent Scotland join NATO?

  • Denis Mollison 12th Sep '20 - 11:50am

    @Richard Underhill
    The SNP used to be against joining NATO, but changed policy early in the 2011-16 parliament, leading to two of their MSPs (Jean Urquhart and John FInnie) going Independent (Jean – the founder of the Ceilidh Place in Ullapool – stood as a candidate for RISE in 2016 and failed to get elected; John Finnie was elected as a Green MSP, will be standing down in 2021).

    Of course, joining NATO or not (after independence) would be up to the Scottish Parliament not just the SNP.

  • Andrew Melmoth 12th Sep '20 - 12:43pm

    The idea clause 38 gives legal cover to breaking an international agreement is a piece of nonsense dreamed up by the Brexiteers to con their more credulous followers.

    No surprise that our ‘Vote Leave’ government should undermine the rule of law. Attacks on democratic institutions and norms are intrinsic to the populist logic of Brexit.

    If the IMB becomes law then 3 consequences follow a) No trade deal with the EU b) No trade deal with the US c) increased likelihood of the end of the UK.

    It’s quite hard to decipher the governments intentions though it clearly suits them to have a row at this point in proceedings. If foreigners are angry and remainers are outraged than the average Brexiteer will imagine things are going well. It’s become very obvious over the last 4 years that Brexit is a political project that needs enemies; it thrives on anger and division.

    So is the government preparing cover for a climbdown in order to get a deal, or is this just part of the blame game for the awful consequences of a no-deal outcome? I suspect no-one really knows even, or perhaps especially, Boris Johnson.

  • Sue Sutherland 12th Sep '20 - 3:19pm

    I had been idly wondering if Johnson could be impeached for breaking International Law but, of course, the government would win any vote and those who brought impeachment procedures could themselves be subject to impeachment for siding with a foreign power. The government would win, the right wing press would have a field day and all Brexiters would be fired up enough to ignore any economic pain resulting from Brexit.

  • Sue
    I think it is more a question of breaking up the UK rather than breaking international law.

  • jayne Mansfield 12th Sep '20 - 5:59pm

    @ John Marriott and David Raw,
    As a former school governor, I agree about the need to return to LEA’s.

    Perhaps it’s an age thing! All the more reason to see us wiped out.

  • Yes, Jayne, it’s a number of issues : local democrat accountability, co-operation between schools instead of so called ‘competition’, opportunity for staff development and excellence led by LEA Advisers, getting away from the nonsense of ‘Chief Executives’ being paid astronomical salaries – and Academy Chains pushing right wing agendas. Fortunately it’s something we’ve avoided in Scotland.

    I’d also like to set on record my personal debt, affection and respect for the late Glynn Harris, Senior Adviser in the old Westmorland LEA. A great man and leader of a real team esprit de corps. Much missed.

  • Antony Watts 13th Sep '20 - 1:11pm

    Let’s be perfectly clear. The “rule of law” is now owned by the EU, along with its better political organisation.

    Not UK

  • Sadly, objecting on moral grounds to this government’s excesses is like throwing snowballs into hell..
    Suella Braverman’s response to the question, “What has changed since former justice minister Lord Faulks stated in 2015 that ministers would not breach international law?”, says it all.
    She told the bar council that his statement reflected “government policy at the time”.

  • Peter Martin 14th Sep '20 - 7:50am

    The question really does comes down to how reasonable the EU will be in interpreting the WA.

    If, for example, a buyer in Belfast wishes to order a consignment of GB made cheese, is it reasonable for the EU to insist that a 40% + tariff has to be paid on the grounds that it might end up being further shipped on across an open border?

    Either the UK is a sovereign country and can set rules on internal trade or it isn’t. We are either in the EU and have to abide by EU rules or we are independent and we set our own rules.

    The WA agreement cannot be interpreted as the EU having sovereignty over a part of the UK. Our part of the bargain is that we do what we reasonably can in co-operation with the EU to ensure that the cheese doesn’t cross the border. But there has to be a recognition that this will happen to some extent. Get the FTA in place and this is no longer a problem.

  • Peter Martin 14th Sep '20 - 9:47am

    “The idea clause 38 gives legal cover to breaking an international agreement……”

    No doubt ultra remainers would say this, wouldn’t they? But this is what it says about the recognition of British sovereignty. Why put it in the WA if it doesn’t mean anything?


    Incidentally, we can all agree that an agreement between, say, France and the UK would be “an international agreement”. But is the EU a nation in the same meaning? If it is, then any resolution of disputes over interpretation should be the responsibility of the International Court of Justice.

  • “The question really does comes down to how reasonable the EU will be in interpreting the WA.”

    No it absolutely doesn’t. When you have signed an international agreement and you then find that there are ambiguities in some of the details, you can get these resolved by due legal process. What you can’t do is to have one side – either side – insisting on having its own way.

    “If, for example, a buyer in Belfast wishes to order a consignment of GB made cheese, is it reasonable for the EU to insist that a 40% + tariff has to be paid on the grounds that it might end up being further shipped on across an open border?”

    That was what the UK signed up to promise would be done. If the UK didn’t think it was reasonable, they shouldn’t have signed in the first place. Now they have signed, they should stick to what they agreed.

  • Peter Martin 14th Sep '20 - 3:28pm

    David Allen,

    I’d agree that we should never have signed up to such arrangements. BJ is saying how he couldn’t imagine that the EU would be so unreasonable. If he couldn’t, there were plenty who could!

    A friend of mine who works in Customs tells me that it is potentially even worse than I had thought. If the EU withhold third country status, then it will be illegal under EU law for us to export cheese, and many other agricultural products, to Northern Ireland. So it’s not just a matter of tariff payments.

    There is no process in International Law to decide on such matters as such – as there is no supranational court and is only a weak or non-existence enforcement mechanism. “International Law” is really just politics by another name – much like “Economics”.

    One of the issues with the WA was that there was no ending process within it. But of course to the UK that doesn’t matter since International Law cannot bind on UK domestic law without an Act of Parliament translating it into UK law. A consequence of the English Civil War, I believe.

  • Andrew Melmoth 14th Sep '20 - 3:45pm

    “Why put it in the WA if it doesn’t mean anything?”
    Sovereignty isn’t a synonym for abracadabra. A parliament can’t wish itself the power to declare void its legal obligations under an international treaty. Clause 38 is a nullity which was inserted into the Withdrawal Act because Tory Brexiteers think their followers are fools. I suggest the point at which you find yourself parroting the nonsenses of Bill Cash is the point at which you need to take a good hard look in the mirror. You can believe membership of the EU requires unacceptable constraints on the space of domestic politics with making yourself the useful idiot of the Tory right.

  • Peter Martin 14th Sep '20 - 7:14pm

    ” A parliament can’t wish itself the power to declare void its legal obligations under an international treaty.”

    It can. That’s what sovereignty means. Nothing to do with any magic spells. Whether it should is a different matter. Normally Govts would amend domestic law in the event of any external conflict but we aren’t doing ‘normally’ at the moment. I don’t know if other Parliaments take the same line but British/English Parliament has been insistent on sovereignty since the time of the Civil War. If govt signs a Treaty it becomes UK law when Parliament says it does, and in the way Parliament interprets it, and not before.

    Possibly the EU has overlooked that.

    Labour and Lib Dem Remainers have been claiming Britain has to honour the Withdrawal Agreement to the letter. But when it comes down to the next election will the British people care about that? I doubt it. They will care about how Britain is going in terms of the economy, its recovery from Covid, unemployment, the NHS etc

    All of those things are within the capacity of the current government to improve. Just like the Tories ran the “Get Brexit done” simplicity in the December election, you can see them running a “Do you support Britain or Brussels” type campaign in the next one. Labour and Lib Dems will lose if they fight on that terrain. There’s no doubt about it.

    The Tories will certainly lose if they are seen to allow the EU to enforce the WA as they might wish. They are not in a position to let the EU divide up the UK. It would be electoral suicide. So that’s why it almost certainly won’t happen.

    And where do Labour and the Lib Dems stand on the state aid question? Mostly silent. It is quite odd that a right wing government should be making the running on that.

    PS I’m sure Bill Cash can’t be wrong on everything! If you knew that to be the case you could hire him a s a consultant and just do the exact opposite of what he recommended.

  • David Allen 14th Sep '20 - 7:26pm

    “International Law cannot bind on UK domestic law without an Act of Parliament translating it into UK law. A consequence of the English Civil War, I believe.”

    If you’re going to believe a garbled distortion of history, it’s a bit of a giveaway to write something that reads as “er, I read somewhere that it was something to do with that fellow Cromwell, remind me, was he an Oliver or a Thomas?”

  • Peter Martin 14th Sep '20 - 8:16pm

    @ David Allen,

    Look, I’m not a historian so I’m prepared to be corrected if you have a reference. But as I understand it, the English Civil War, which started in 1642 was about who ruled the roost. The Parliamentarians won, at least it says so in the books I “read somewhere”, and they not unnaturally decided it should be them. They did make some concessions later and allowed the King the privilege of signing off their Acts but that didn’t fundamentally change anything.

  • Peter Hirst 15th Sep '20 - 4:11pm

    Can our courts under present constitutional arrangements be impartial in deciding whether the Bill is illegal. This is one thing that a constitutional court would have a remit for. What body also would arbitrate between the EU and the UK?

  • Peter Martin 15th Sep '20 - 11:01pm

    “Can our courts under present constitutional arrangements be impartial in deciding whether the Bill is illegal.”

    Impartiality is a matter of opinion which doesn’t have any bearing on the legalities of the Bill. An Act of Parliament, almost by definition, is legal everywhere the UK has sovereignty. So it would be legal in Belfast but not in Berlin, for example.

    “What body also would arbitrate between the EU and the UK?”

    AFAIK the UK and EU haven’t agreed on anyone to do that. The EU insist on the jurisdiction of the ECJ at the same time as conceding that the UK has full sovereignty over the territory of NI. This is a contradiction. If the UK has sovereignty then it is UK courts that decide on questions of legality.

  • There is another aspect of this, which I believe to be the most important. The IM Bill takes away the power of parliament. Let me explain. There is under the WA an official “Joint Committee” whose mandate is to iron out differences and omissions and changes to/from the Treaty. This committee has met a few times, the EU has put forward some more directives they want included as far as NI is concerned. The committee answers to parliament not to the government.

    So putting forward the IM Bill directly to parliament is a way for Johnson / Gove etc to remove parliaments involvement, and the Joint Committee, in settling any disputes over the WA and removing parliament, and distracting them about “illegality” while not putting anything forward to the WA committee.

    It is in other words a power grab.

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