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Thursday, February 10, 2011

In praise of … Lord Mackay on the rule of law

In praise of … Lord Mackay on the rule of law

His view on why the European court opposes Britain's blanket ban on prisoners' voting rights deserves support

The Guardian leader column and the Conservative former lord chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, are not invariably as one. Yet Lord Mackay's views on the rule of law, which can be found in a Commons select committee report published yesterday, deserve wide circulation and support. Today, MPs from all parties will compete to denounce the European court of human rights ruling against Britain's blanket ban on prisoners' voting rights. Many will do so because they oppose a general right to vote; others because they get a rush of blood to the head at any ruling by any European court or by any court on human rights grounds. Some will be outraged on all counts. But Lord Mackay is less easily tempted. He told the committee that the key problem for the court was not our denial of votes to prisoners but the blanket nature of our ban – one which, among western European nations, is indiscriminately applied only in the UK, Ireland and Liechtenstein. Then he stressed a far deeper principle. "If we believe in the rule of law," he said, "we are just as much bound to observe the decisions of the European court on matters within their competence as we are to obey the decisions of our own courts in matters within [theirs]." Anti-Europeans will bridle at that, willing to ignore both our treaty obligations and the profound interrelationship between international and national law. Yet Lord Mackay is right, as also was Ken Clarke yesterday. MPs may be free to change the law. But they are not free to defy it.

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