Power doesn’t disappear overnight. In the immortal words of Paul Simon, it slip slides away. In Helmand, Afghanistan I realised things were falling apart when people stopped coming to the government to resolve disputes. They turned to the Taliban instead. That was 15 years before the end.
Subtly, almost unnoticed, here was proof that people were choosing a different future. One not based on a complex and often corrupt set of rules and officials sent by Kabul, but instead on the ability of local warlords to make their decisions stick. People could not wait for a resolution, only a quick fix.
The future was no longer based on agreed principles but the strength of a warlord’s militia. That shortened time horizons, and curtailed investment decisions as the world became less stable.
The lesson was clear – rule of law in a well-governed state doesn’t just resolve today’s arguments, it makes the future predictable. Independent judges building on case law, tradition and Parliament can give business the solid platform for growth that transient powers never can.
In Britain, it’s more than an idea, it’s one of the essential building blocks of our prosperity. The reason so much investment has come here, why so many choose to build lives here, is because more than most places, we’re predictable.
A government whim isn’t going to change who owns your property. Your rights, once established, will last. Your obligations won’t change without warning. What makes the UK politically dull makes us rich, and that’s not dull.
People come from all over the world to invest in the UK because of that certainty about the future. Some even come just to settle disputes. We are now the divorce capital of the world, as well as the insurance, shipping and commercial law centre for good reason.
Britain’s legal industry, which employs more than 350,000 people, is worth tens of billions of pounds to the British economy. And it sits at the heart of Britain’s professional services, which have fuelled our economic growth in the past decade.
Still, most of the benefits of the dull predictability the law brings are invisible. Knowing the government won’t simply override a judicial decision, or on a whim change a commitment allows others to invest in the UK and use our markets. They trust our markets because they trust our courts no matter who is in Downing Street.
This difference has been made starker in recent years by the erosion of justice in other places. Hong Kong, once a centre of legal probity in Asia, has been undermined by the growing state intrusion of the Chinese Communist Party. As civil rights have gone, economic interests have changed. After all, there’s no point in being the richest person in prison.
As the international lawyer Philippe Sands warns, and many Afghan friends could tell you, chasing a fast buck or a quick fix can cost you much more in the long term. Those Essex Court lawyers sanctioned by the Chinese state in retaliation for a report on the crimes committed in Xinjiang, are worth more than any Chinese investment because they are part of the foundation of our economy.
Shoring up the rule of law at home is key to our credibility as a global actor. At times recently, we seem to have forgotten this strength and instead invested in our reach.
Those voices looking for an efficiency and to direct judges or overrule decisions risk injecting doubt in a future that needs confidence to encourage investment. Those voices looking for an efficiency and to direct judges or overrule decisions risk injecting doubt when we need confidence to encourage investment. Challenging legal decisions with arguments in court should not be confused with showdowns with the judges that undermine faith in the future. In 2017, we set a record we shouldn’t have done: for the first time in 71 years, we failed to place a judge on the International Court of Justice. For all our sakes, it’s important that isn’t a sign of things to come.