Leading Article: Cavalier ministers in the dock

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The Independent Online
MOST people rarely glimpse how arrogant, unpleasant and aggressive the state can be in the pursuit of its own ends. The elegance of buildings and the dress, language and urbanity of minions mask a potential for malevolence and ruthlessness. Unfettered, the state is capable of trampling the most defenceless individuals. Indeed, as was illustrated in a case adjudicated yesterday by the Law Lords, ministers even contend that they are above the law. This may surprise those who believe that Britain is a liberal democracy.

The state's autocratic streak was briefly exposed when it deported an asylum-seeker in 1991 against the expressed wishes of the High Court. Having defied the judiciary, Kenneth Baker, then Home Secretary, did not take the blame, make amends and apologise. Far from it. He and his successors, knowing no shame, simply thumbed their noses at the judges and defended the indefensible as far as the House of Lords.

Yesterday, the Law Lords finally brought Mr Baker to book. They concluded that his behaviour had indeed been contempt of court. Ministers, they said, were mistaken in claiming that judges cannot force obedience to their rulings. If the state were to have its way, they said, adherence to the law would be no more than ministerial good manners rather than a necessity. Upholding such a notion would reverse the result of the Civil War, the Law Lords declared.

Regrettably, there will be no ministerial resignations for this abuse of power and the outrageous reasons offered for ignoring the courts. Thanks to the Government's defiance, the final ruling has taken more than two years, allowing a general election to take place and Mr Baker to be put out to grass. Nor is any punishment being imposed. The sight of a minister being placed behind bars or heavily fined would have sent an exemplary message to those who act high- handedly in office.

The Law Lords also absolved Mr Baker of personal responsibility on the grounds that he had merely followed the advice of civil servants. That opinion is no doubt legally sound, but it will reinforce the feeling that ministers exert great power with little accountability. Mr Baker was not obliged to take the advice proffered, yet he has made a Houdini-like escape, both legally and politically.

So, although the Law Lords have been able to call the executive to account for flouting judicial authority, the resolution of this matter has insufficiently cut the state down to size. There will still be those in government who think they are a law unto themselves. The revelations of the Scott inquiry into the sale of arms to Iraq furnish fresh evidence that those in power feel they can do largely what they like without fear of discovery or sanction.

Incidents such as the deportation of the asylum-seeker and the arms sale scandal can be dealt with in isolation. But they are symptomatic of a general malaise in this country's governmental institutions, which can be cured only by reforms modernising the state and establishing proper accountability. Who would believe that the question of whether ministers are obliged to obey the law is in 1993 still the subject of lengthy legal argument? Most people would expect that the matter had been settled long ago, perhaps when Parliament achieved supremacy during the Civil War. Centuries later, the state continues to be cavalier in both the historical and pejorative senses of the word.