Although Lord Neuberger has served with distinction as president of the supreme court, it may ultimately be the case that nothing in the role became him like his leaving of it. He steps down in September. On Thursday he gave the BBC Radio 4 Today programme a deliberately condemnatory exit interview.
The judiciary – the Daily Mail’s “enemies of the people” – took a ferocious beating as it sought to adjudicate over the triggering of article 50. The scars are still visible. Perhaps that’s no surprise. But then there is the shock, not just at the ferocity of the pounding judges endured from the mob made up of the Brexit right and its allies in the press and on social media, but also the failure of those whose role is to protect them. It was as if the mob brandished fists within the courtyard of a police station and the desk sergeant donned headphones and drew the blinds.
“We [judges in general] were certainly not well treated,” said Neuberger. “One has to be careful about being critical of the press, particularly as a lawyer or judge, because our view of life is very different from that of the media. I think some of what was said was undermining the rule of law.” As to the lack of protection from government – principally from Liz Truss, the lord chancellor – he said: “I think they could have been quicker and clearer.”
It was unsurprising that Neuberger should seek to protect less senior judges and support the foundations of our system. But his intervention highlighted a wider concern. The Brexit right is in its pomp. It won its referendum, it has its prime minister, it has plum seats in cabinet, it is on the road to triggering article 50. But like a crime syndicate that has annexed a new market and now worries about territorial encroachment, its tendency has been to focus with increasingly deranged ferocity on any sign of dissent.
The judges encroached. They had to be dealt with. It was nothing personal, just business. There is a notable irony here. In seeking to establish their new Britain of democratic purity and unfettered sovereignty, the Brexit right’s leaders seem to be doing everything in their power to curtail a meaningful national debate as to how nirvana is to be reached.
The judges could compare scars with Gina Miller, the businesswoman targeted by the mob for months on end – her life, her businesses, her qualifications ransacked in search of scandal – for having the temerity to insist – rightly, as it turned out – that article 50 could not be invoked without the involvement of our elected representatives in the Commons. Consider the personal attacks she endured because she exercised her democratic right as a citizen in ways that displeased them.
They might swap trauma notes with the civil servants who have had the temerity to question the Brexit right’s assertion that life post-EU will be a thrill ride, and have suffered the consequences. When Sir Ivan Rogers quit his job as EU ambassador in January, he was not allowed to depart as a man who had assessed our situation and pronounced in good faith as to its peril and complexity. Instead, with the assistance of Brexiters such as Iain Duncan Smith, he was publicly traduced as unprofessional and unreliable, perhaps a leaker of government secrets.
“Ministers don’t fully trust him,” said the former Tory party leader, who knows full well what damage that will inflict on a career civil servant. The mob, with IDS at its head, took Rogers’ reputation down a dark alley where the violence could be overlooked and screams could not be heard.
Rogers may empathise with the Speaker, John Bercow, singled out for a knuckledusting after using the discretion accorded to his job description to ban Donald Trump from addressing the House of Commons. Bercow survived the mob; a figure liked and loathed in equal measure, he has traded blows with them before. Still, there was a point to the assault: pour encourager les autres: it gave a portent of the future to others who might dare to challenge the populist-leaning, faux-patriotic right.
This is menace with a purpose: gains must be protected, territory ringfenced. The mob doesn’t want discussion of its wish to curtail a humane refugee programme, even one for child migrants, because it knows its position, subject to honest scrutiny, would not be morally sustainable. It cannot permit a good-faith discussion of its hostility towards Britain, the fifth largest economy in the world, devoting 0.7% of its wealth to foreign aid. Instead it seeks to derail this with distorted hyperbolic headlines about waste.
The mob cannot stand by and allow the hated “experts” to expose the illogicality and lack of preparedness at the heart of its beloved Brexit strategy. It must silence any witness who voices public revulsion at the wretched embrace of Donald Trump necessitated by Brexit. It must and will protect Theresa May, whatever the failings and deficiencies of her government, for it is through May that Brexit will be achieved.
Since the last general election, with the referendum vote and the accelerating disintegration of the official opposition, the mob increasingly regulates the terms of debate. Brexit secretary David Davis said he expects the House of Lords to pass the Brexit bill, according to “its patriotic duty”. Think on that: the Brexiters now set the standard for patriotism.
Of course politics is rough. Opinions are deeply held. Tensions run high. And we are not cursed with the sort of political culture that routinely crosses the divide from adversarial rhetoric to actual violence. But neither are we without taint in that regard. Just this week, police chiefs made a direct link between the toxic, intemperate referendum campaign and a spike in some areas in the number of recorded hate crimes. Once the mob is stoked, there is cause and effect.
And what of the less obvious costs? What is the quality of public discourse when those who have a duty to facilitate it so readily shut it down? What is the chilling effect on public servants – even judges – when discharge of their functions or the advocacy of decent positions makes them personally vulnerable?
These are questions to which the mob has its answer, for the stymying of advocacy and debate suits its purpose. Lord Neuberger called out this mob. He must be the first of many.