The attraction of laws

Tbings fall apart and you wonder – increasingly – whether the centre can hold. Just as one part of the Government is offering to repeal laws on demand, in the name of \’cutting red tape\’, other ministers are promising to introduce some of silliest-sounding laws in history: a law to guarantee a level of overseas aid equivalent to 0.7 per cent of gross national income, and a law to put the \’military covenant\’, which recognises the sacrifices made by the armed services and commits to fair treatment, on a statutory footing.

The issue is not fair treatment for service personnel or to generous overseas aid. Both are laudable aims. But neither needs laws. Proper treatment of the armed services is a budgetary and administrative matter, as is overseas aid. These laws will not create new offences, new rights or new statutory powers. So why take parliamentary time up with them?

Three explanations suggest themselves. One is that the Government is grand-standing; using legislation to make these administrative commitments is simply a way of underlining their importance, of inscribing press releases on vellum. A second explanation is that the Government is simply trying to wrong foot any of its successors who would want to govern differently; what they could do by fiat, they will make their successors do by law (or face the consequences of trying to repeal legislation).

A third explanation is perhaps more disturbing, if less cynical. As our constitution forms the executive from the legislature, it must be easy to confuse making laws with governing the country. This must pose a particular problem to a Conservative/LibDem coalition. They are pledged to roll back the frenzied law-making of which they accuse the previous government. But they can\’t stop legislating, any more than a shark can stop swimming as it sleeps. Making laws is what Parliament does, what governments do. So, instead of seeking to meddle in the every day behaviour of citizens, they have turned their gaze inwards, and apply the harsh discipline of statute to themselves and their successors.

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