LEADING ARTICLE:Regina versus the politicians

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Something extraordinary is going on in the relationship between judges and politicians. In the last month, we have seen the Lord Chief Justice swept aside by the Home Secretary in a dispute over sentencing and a violent row between Government and Eurojudges over the Gibraltar shootings. Judicial review of faulty ministerial acts is becoming commonplace.

Then there is Lord Nolan, the judge brought in by the Prime Minister to calm public anxiety about the ethics of MPs. A rebellion inside the Tory party now threatens the proposed Nolan rule book. Meanwhile Sir Richard Scott sits polishing his long-delayed report on arms sales to Iraq.

The latest conflict is a vicious campaign against Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor. Led by the Daily Mail, this attack has so far come in three waves. First, against the Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill, sent back for re-drafting after being falsely dubbed the "Live-in lovers' Bill" by Mail headline writers. (The Bill actually extends protection against violence to those who are neither spouses nor partners.) Then came the assault on the Divorce Bill, whose central purpose is to prevent marriage breakdowns leading to pointless and costly argument about "fault"; the Bill substitutes a mandatory one-year cooling-off period to encourage reconciliation or, where that is impossible, orderly discussion about children and money. This "anti-family" Bill may not now make the Queen's Speech.

The Mail went for the hat-trick yesterday by suggesting that Lord Mackay is about to sanction involuntary euthanasia in response to a report by the Law Commission, the official body that makes proposals on complex new areas of law. If backed by government, these are then framed as legislation for Parliament to consider. In vilifying the commission as a relic of the permissive 1960s (yes, the Mail is still haunted by this faraway decade) the newspaper yesterday lambasted the "twice-married feminist" Mrs Justice Hale, who served on the Law Commission from 1984 to 1994, as yet another enemy of family values.

Apart from the personal hypocrisy of the people who own this newspaper and who write this claptrap, two things are going on here. The first is that a Parliament stung by its own shame and failure into accepting external scrutiny of its members' financial affairs is peevishly sniping back. Judges were brought into the political process in a new way because of the perceived crisis of legitimacy of our politicians. Now the politicians and their press baron allies are seeking to discredit the judges and law officers.

The second is a growing conservative backlash on personal morality and "the family". It first hit the political mainstream with Mr Major's self- imploding "Back to Basics" programme and has been buttressed by the conservative moralism of New Labour, partially inspired by communitarianism. The fact that Lord Mackay is, as the Prime Minister put it last week, "one of the most civilised, decent and humane men" will not stop the propaganda. Mackay is painted as the politically gormless tool of dark, permissive purposes.

As the election approaches, there will be more of this. But before blocking your ears, remember that most of this talk about "family policy" has little to do with the way we really live. A third of children are born out of wedlock; policy-makers cannot ignore such realities. And for the Mail to dress its social authoritarianism in Burkean Tory robes, insisting that the best government is the least government, merely underlines its deep confusion.

So next time you encounter a right-wing political tirade against the judges, remember this. The politicians can see the judicial tanks on their lawn and they don't like it. Rather than set about serious reform of the democratic institutions over which they preside, which is the only way they will regain respect, too many parliamentarians prefer the good old ways. Blame the 1960s. Blame Europe. Blame the judges. Such diversionary rhetoric will not blow away the public's disenchantment.