Democracy is a complicated thing. As we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, building a fully functioning democracy requires so much more than just giving people the vote. You need a delicate, often invisible, infrastructure in place to support the more obvious political institutions – of which the fair rule of law, the equality of everyone before the law and an independent judiciary are the most important, alongside a free press.
We are truly lucky to live in a country where these institutions have grown and been strengthened over centuries in order to cement and secure our free, liberal democracy. But we are so used to these vital strengths our nation possesses that we are in danger of becoming blind to their presence, and forgetful of their importance. We should not fool ourselves that these building blocks of our society are a natural state of affairs; or that they are invulnerable and permanent.
I have been reminded of the necessity of our legal institutions and traditions in the last weeks following some of the reaction to the appointment of Sir Martin Moore-Bick to head up the inquiry into the Grenfell fire. I fear that at times the criticisms aimed in his direction, before he has even started his important work, are the latest in a number of reckless attacks on our institutions. Some have gone much too far, and seem to be attempts to make political points in the wake of a terrible tragedy.
Words cannot describe the horror that befell the residents of that tower, as they slept in their homes, believing they were safe and secure in their local authority provided accommodation. No one in Britain should be left in such a situation, certainly not when they’re at their most vulnerable. It cannot happen again. That is why the Government was right to set up an inquiry, led by a capable and independent judge to make speedy recommendations as to what must be done to rule on what exactly happened, and what needs to change to ensure that it will not happen again.
The survivors and the families of the victims of Grenfell are right to be angry. And if the police find any evidence of criminal wrongdoing or neglect, then I expect charges to be brought and justice to be done. However, it has been sad to see many who should know better blurring the lines between the criminal process and a judicial inquiry. It was particularly frustrating to see politicians attack Sir Martin as a ‘technocrat’, and even suggest he wouldn’t be able to do his job because he is white.
What we need is someone with the capability to swiftly understand the vast amounts of difficult technical information that will come before them and be able to make practical recommendations about the way forward in the shortest time possible. I cannot see why Sir Martin would not fit that bill. Just as amidst the multiple uproars about the different chairs to the child abuse inquiry, we have to find a way to remove as much emotion as possible from these difficult investigations into terrible subjects, and allow professionals to do their jobs.
We should be worried that this process keeps happening before these individuals have started work; before they have put forward anything to be criticised for. It is not that people are unhappy with what they have done, or believe their work to be inadequate – instead, their mere appointment is enough for them to be castigated. It also seems to regularly have a political element, and it looks as though some politicians hope to attack the government through these appointments of judges undertaking important and independent work.
Prejudging our judges in this way is unacceptable. Our whole system is based on the capability of highly intelligent and experienced individuals to make emotionless decisions based on the facts. This is why we’re the country we are today. Of course, if a judge ever shows himself or herself to be incapable of reaching or maintaining those high standards then they must be criticised – in order to maintain confidence in the system. But this system is precious, and vulnerable if we seek to push judges in certain directions before they have even sat at their desks. We definitely should not accept attacking them with a political aim to damage the Government.
We live in an era in which our public debate only seems to be becoming angrier and less trusting. Many find it tempting to attack our independent media, see bias around every corner and seem unwilling to tolerate dissenting opinion. Indeed, we have also seen that political capital can be gained from cynically misusing this anger. But politicians should think twice about doing so. We need to be careful about how we treat the infrastructure of our democracy, whether it is our free press or our independent judiciary. They are absolutely key to what sustains our nation and we mustn’t be blind to their importance. Ultimately, we need to let the Grenfell Tower inquiry get on with its job: after all, we need to hear its answers fast.