Happening On Campus

Populism and the Assault on Law

The University of Nottingham’s Human Rights Law Centre invited Baroness Helena Kennedy QC to give it’s 2019 annual lecture. In light of the current political atmosphere, the chosen topic of  discussion was, ‘Populism and the Assault on Law’. 

Baroness Helena Kennedy’s resume is a force to be reckoned with. Currently Director of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) as well as a member of the House of Lords and chair of Justice, the British arm of the International Commission of Jurists. She has also received honours for her work on human rights from the governments of France and Italy and has been awarded more than 40 honorary doctorates.

Kennedy began with an emphasis on the rule of Law noting its importance in playing a key role in a democracy. The law, however, is influenced by cultural context and ideological shifts. For example, by the current context of heightened levels natural disasters caused by climate change, a rise in extremism and a recent global recession from the collapse of the banking system in 2008. It is therefore now under immense scrutiny and challenge. 

In light of this, the discussion turned to globalisation: the good, the bad and the ugly. Notably, that globalisation includes many positive aspects including groundbreaking technological change and the increased interconnection of people around the world. However, Kennedy highlighted how such interconnections with social media enable people to see how life is in other parts of the world and how their lives could be thus, changing the expectations of ordinary people. In accordance, anxieties from globalisation have fostered the rise nationalism. The ideas of freedom of movement and labour likely had a dynamic affect on the economy. However, these aspects arose in tandem with black markets facilitating criminal organisations and illegal trafficking. International terrorism also spawned with the ability to now cross borders.

Therefore, it was stipulated that the liberal stance behind lifting regulation has in fact had illiberal consequences. Notably with the growing gulf between the rich and poor. For example, it was noted that for every $1 a worker in America earns, CEO’s tend to earn $278. Significantly, this doesn’t include the creators of business but instead refers to those who have worked their way up to CEO status and are rewarding themselves with enormous, immoral bonuses.

“For every $1 a worker in America earns, CEO’s tend to earn $278”

Baroness Helena Kennedy was further critical of the challenges globalisation has presented to the taxation system. In particular US tech companies, including Facebook and Amazon, finding loopholes to avoid billions of dollars worth of taxation, as well as the increasing number of offshore tax havens. Kennedy noted how this has resulted in “nations competing with each other to offer the best tax deals for companies”. The significance of such companies avoiding tax is the reduced money available for infrastructure, schools, NHS, climate policies, mental health etc.

To end, Kennedy focused on the politics of populism and it’s implications on the law. Kennedy significantly stated,

“Populism suggests simple problems and diagnosis for complex issues.”

The rise of social media has synonymously worked hand in hand with populism enabling politicians to dissolve politics into soundbites – as seen by President Trump with his extensive use of Twitter. Populism has also undermined  key tenants of the rule of law with populist politicians exploiting the law for their own purposes. This was seen in Britain with the use of the Supreme Court a few weeks ago. Not only that, populism enables for a facade of a more ‘direct democracy’. This therefore enables politicians to appear to hone in the disillusionment felt by many by offering direct solutions (‘lock them up’, ‘build a wall’, ‘send them back’).

Throughout, Baroness Kennedy took a cautionary tone citing that the current political trajectory is not a good one. Notably, populism is contagious (it has now infiltrated Europe and the US) and emboldens racism whilst also inciting violence. The rule of law is therefore one of the most fundamental aspects for all if we are to live in a world of justice and peace. Populism’s assault on the law is therefore a danger to us all.

Mia Haffety

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