Opinion: Is the Fuhrerprinzip* the new basis for governing Britain?

The latest round in the Sir Fred Goodwin saga contains possibly the most astonishing statement yet to emerge from a senior Government Minister:

The prime minister has said that it is not acceptable and therefore it will not be accepted,”
Harriet Harman

This is part of the Government now talking about retrospectively changing the law to deprive Sir Fred Goodwin of his pension. The law, and acts legal at the time, will be subject to revision subject to the Prime Minister’s definition of acceptability.

Retrospective legislation is always dubious. Better historians than me may be able to correct me, but the last example of retrospective legislation targeting a specific individual I know of is the Act of Oblivion of 1660 which led to the disinterring and mutilation of the corpse of Oliver Cromwell. Not the greatest precedent on which to base an action.

There would also seem to be emerging a tacit acceptance that Sir Fred is entitled* to his £650,000 a year pension and the Government dropped the ball when supervising his arrangements.

Entitled is used of course in it’s legal sense. I’m pretty certain he doesn’t have much moral entitlement to his payout, and it’s not something I would have supported had I been in a position to agree it. However, unless we are planning to dismantle pretty much the entire basis of contract law then moral wrongness doesn’t equate to legal wrongness.

There is a bright side though. When we adopt Harriet Harman’s idea for our new legal system a lot of money will be saved by doing away with the courts and legal questions being decided by what the Prime Minister thinks is acceptable.

And it might be enforceable in a court of law, this contract, but it is not enforceable in the court of public opinion and that is where the government steps in.”

Finally, an admission that the rule of law is subject to the rule of tabloid outrage.

* According to Wikipedia this concept pre-dates the Nazis so I don’t lose under Godwin’s Law!

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I was astonished and somewhat horrified when I heard Harman use those words. A senior minister – and the Leader of the House of Commons – suggesting that public opinion was higher than the law of the land, and that the Government’s role was to follow the public.

    I thought she used to be a civil and human rights campaigner?

  • David Heigham 1st Mar '09 - 4:14pm

    If Harriet Harman is saying that “What the PM wants overules the law” we may take it that she is becoming capable of subtlty in her campaign to undermine Gordon. He did not say it.

    As for Sir Fred, he seems to be asking for the Portia treatment, as meted out to Shylock. If he insists on his legal due, he will have to pay his full legal dues. As in Shylock’s case, he may find that all he owns is forfeit; in Sir Fred’s case for his failures of due care and prudence.

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