Israeli protests remind us how fragile democracy is - Alex Cole-Hamilton
I’ve always been struck by that. For me it sums up the seductive lure of populism. That tyrants will seduce the people they mean to overthrow by suggesting that reforms which will strip them of their freedom are actually in their best interests.
I was reminded of that quote just this week in the scenes coming out Israel. For several months, massive protests have been taking place there in response to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempts to dramatically reform the country’s judiciary.
The reforms are simple, but they are devastating. If passed, they would basically hand control of the appointment of judges to the government; allow the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, to override the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the law and abolish the use of “unreasonableness” as grounds for the court to review decisions of government
Many have pointed to the coming judicial scrutiny of Netanyahu, currently under investigation for corruption, as reason for why he is pushing the reform.
Every democracy needs a strong judiciary. Without it the checks on executive power wielded by the government or its ministers become meaningless or non-existent. It’s why Trump’s appointment of Supreme Court justices in America were so worrying. They have already led to the quiet erosion of personal freedoms in the US, the roll back of women’s reproductive rights for one.
By appointing judges loyal to his brand of politics, Trump was attempting to stack the deck so that they would be unlikely to stand in the way of his policy agenda. With another presidential run on the cards, they could still yet bend to his will and further undermine American democracy.
Living as we do, with the traditions and history we have here in the UK, we’d be forgiven for thinking that British democracy was assured and robust. On the contrary, it should never be taken for granted. We have to nurture it and protect it.
This is central to the mission of the Liberal Democrats. It's why we led the charge to prevent the SNP’s abandonment of trial by jury (a legal tradition that had spanned 800 years) as one of the measures of infection control suggested during the coronavirus emergency.
While the need to resist overt assaults on democracy, like we see in the US or Israel is obvious, we need to remain vigilant to the threats on our shores.
That is why my party and in particular my Westminster colleagues have fiercely opposed the Conservatives’ Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill which threatens the vital right to protest. Or more recently, the Illegal Migration Bill which inhibits the role the judiciary plays in immigration cases.
Politicians who readily abandon their values or commitments for the sake of popularity risk undermining democracy – whether that’s Rishi Sunak’s desertion of green policies to court the motorists’ vote or Labour rowing back on their commitment to minority rights.
Ultimately, politicians need to be bold and persuade the public of difficult truths rather than simply following public opinion, because they may get the thunderous applause, but democracy will suffer because of it.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is MSP for Edinburgh Western Constituency and leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats