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Johnson’s attacks on ‘lefty lawyers’ are childish and sinister

DAVID RENTON explains how the government has attempted to justify it Rwanda policy in the press and through attacks on lawyers

AT 9.30pm on Tuesday last week, five hours after the Royal Courts of Justice were supposed to have closed for the day, the Court of Appeal granted an injunction preventing the Home Office from deporting refugees to Rwanda.

What lawyers call “interim relief”, the question of whether individuals can be deported, will be back in that court on June 28. 

Meanwhile, the High Court will have a further hearing in July which will assess whether the Rwanda scheme needs to be scrapped in its entirety. 

Most readers of the Morning Star will not need to be persuaded of the inhumanity of the scheme. The largest number of refugee applications in Britain last year came from Syria and Iraq. People flee to England, knowing that there are large exile populations of each nationality in London and in each of our main cities. 

Instead of letting refugees settle here, Boris Johnson intends to force them to live in central Africa, separated by thousands of miles from family, community ties or legal assistance. 

The main justification of the Rwanda scheme is that it is so unpleasant that it will scare refugees and dissuade others from following them, so that the number of people coming to Britain will fall.

That argument makes the government’s next big claim – that Rwanda is a beacon of human rights and prosperity in which anyone could live – ridiculous. 

What I want to focus on here is not the scheme as such, but rather the way the government has attempted to justify it in the press through attacks on left-wing lawyers.

At the press conference announced the Rwanda policy, Boris Johnson drew the media’s attention to the prospect that his plan would be challenged in the courts. “I know that this system will not take effect overnight,” he said. “We have such a formidable army of politically motivated lawyers who for years have made it their business to thwart removals and frustrate the government.”

One of the reasons why the Court of Appeal found the Rwanda flight unlawful is that our government is a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees.

This was signed by governments all around the world in 1951 as one of a series of international treaties, the purpose of each of which was to stop the world repeating the crimes of fascism. The Convention sets certain minimum standards for the fair treatment of refugees. Britain did not have to sign that Convention; we could withdraw from it any time. So long as we remain a signatory, the government is bound by our own promise to respect it.

The evidence from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was that the Rwanda scheme breached the Convention.

That evidence persuaded the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to make “interim measures”, preventing the removal of one of the detainees. The judges of the Court of Appeal were persuaded that the criticisms made by the ECHR were generic; they applied to everyone potentially facing deportation to Rwanda. 

This is not the first time that the government has been attacking left-wing lawyers. The language dates back to summer 2020, when Home Secretary Priti Patel claimed that deportations were being “frustrated by activist lawyers”. 

So incendiary was Priti Patel’s rhetoric that one member of the public determined to take it into his own hands. He attended the officers of a London law firm carrying a knife, and launched a physical attack on the staff who worked there.

Patel was widely condemned. At that year’s Conservative Party conference, however, Johnson joined in the attacks on “lefty human rights lawyers”, retrospectively legitimising both Patel’s attacks and the violence associated with them.

He did the same last week, accusing the lawyers who had spoken out against the Rwanda scheme of “abetting” criminal gangs.

Johnson denounces left-wing lawyers repeatedly, at Prime Minister’s Questions and outside.

This rhetoric has spread from him and become part of the daily language of government, so that when civil servants pointed out some of the flaws in the drafts of William Shawcross’s forthcoming review into Prevent, those criticism too were blamed on “lefty lawyers”. 

There is undoubtedly a legal left, composed of such venerable institutions as the Haldane Society and the Society of Labour Lawyers. No, we do not secretly run the Home Office. And neither do we send out moles to infiltrate the Civil Service.

Johnson’s language is childish because it seeks to give lawyers an exaggerated power we do not have. We cannot “thwart” anyone or anything.

The only people who can do that are the judges; and they can only stop a government policy where that scheme is illegal. It is sinister because it reflects an attitude towards government in which any dissent must be silenced. 

Thirty years ago, when Boris Johnson’s name first came to public notice it was as a result of an old school chum, Darius Guppy, who was subject to unwanted press scrutiny. Guppy phoned Johnson, asking for his help in giving the journalist a “cracked rib”. Years have passed since then, but Boris Johnson is still unwilling to live with the cut and thrust of competing opinions which separates democracy from dictatorship.

David Renton is a barrister and the author of Against the Law: Why Justice Requires Fewer Laws and a Smaller State, published by Repeater in July

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