More of a “guideline” than a “rule”…

Here’s a phrase to conjure with: Lord Goldsmith’s “explanation” of the decision to halt the anti-corruption investigation into BAE in response to an ultimatum from the Saudi government:

“It has been necessary to balance the need to maintain the rule of law against the wider public interest.”

Just let that one roll around inside your brain for a few moments. I’ve been brooding over that sentence for the past few days, and it doesn’t get any less depressing with time.

As a letter to the Guardian pointed out, “the rule of law should not be ‘balanced’ against ‘the wider public interest’: the rule of law is the public interest”. But Tony Blair – ever the constitutional innovator – clearly regards the rule of law as equivalent to the ministerial code of conduct: useful up to a point, but not something that should be allowed to stand in the way of a busy prime minister with things to get done.

The alternative explanation – trying, like a good Lutheran, to follow the eighth commandment and explain everything in the kindest possible way – is that Lord Goldsmith was not offering an explanation, but making a cry for help; that he was sending out a subtext that he realised how iniquitous this decision was, and was alerting people to the threat it represented to the rule of law. Well, er, maybe.

Setting such speculations aside, I was trying to find a suitable comparison that didn’t involve breaking Godwin’s Law. It was my wife who nailed it: “It sounds like the sort of thing Robert Mugabe would say”.

Update: An excellent suggestion from Daniel S. Ketelby in the comments, who suggests that “it’s a Capricorn One statement – an apparently innocuous mistake or mis-statement used in hostage situations to signal to loved ones that all is not well.”

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