I am delighted to have been able to accept the invitation of my colleague, Baroness Emma Nicholson, to join you at this Conference dinner this evening and say a few words. I cannot claim to have visited Iraq, but Emma briefed me earlier in the year about the work of the Iraqi-British Business Council and both the extent of the business links between our two countries and the opportunities for further growth. I sincerely hope that your conference and the important networking which accompanies such events have enabled some of these opportunities to turn into realities.
I am all too conscious that there is nothing I can say about Iraq-Britain trade which would be new to you, but I do welcome an opportunity to celebrate trading links and the mutual benefits which flow from them; as well as the opportunity to say a few words about Britain today and not least in a European Union context.
And I want to start by emphasising “Britain” - the name in your title, which isn’t the same as London. This is a great city. Indeed, sitting here in the centre of London in one of the world’s most famous restaurants, roughly half way between the UK’s finance centre and its Government, might say you’re at the heart of this country. But what really makes Britain tick are the diverse nations and communities which comprise our United Kingdom.
I have just flown down this afternoon from my native Scotland after a day visiting a further education college where quality training and vocational education in a range of skills is being delivered to hundreds of young people. I visited a small but growing family business, Utopia Computers, which assembles bespoke, made to order pcs and laptops and is taking its early steps into the export market. And I went to the Irvine Bay Enterprise Area in Ayrshire where the Government’s Capital Allowance scheme and the Scottish Government’s business rates concession for life science companies is encouraging businesses to locate there and existing businesses to expand - including a major site where GSK operates and produces 20% of the world’s penicillin.
All reassuring examples of enterprises eager to do business both locally and globally.
Of course here we trade within a single market, the European Union, of 504 million people. We look to NATO for our security, and to the G7 and G20 for economic development. The United Kingdom’s effectiveness in the world- its ability to contribute to global progress, and to secure a good life for its citizens depends not on its own power but its membership of international organisations such as the European Union.
The UK is in a unique position in terms of its participation in the bodies that shape the world. As well as the EU, it is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, the United Nations security council, the council of Europe, NATO, G7 and the G20. No other country can claim membership to all these clubs.
I say this in part because the question of the UK’s place in the world has been on my mind recently. As I’ve already said, I belong to part of the United Kingdom – Scotland – that is in the midst of a major national debate on its membership of the United Kingdom. In September, only a few months from now there will be a referendum in Scotland to decide whether that Union, formed three hundred years ago, should continue.
I mentioned this not because I’m going to use this dinner occasion to campaign for the Union (and of course there will be plenty of campaigning in the months ahead) but because in the course of that debate, I’ve been thinking about and discussing the UK’s place in the world a lot recently. The UK is something most of us in this country have taken for granted in the past, and because it is an important part of the case for Scotland remaining in the UK, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on our role in the world.
If you’re a visitor to this country, you may wonder why the UK Government is prepared to countenance a vote on whether part of the UK, including about a third of its territory, should stay or leave. It is, I think, a result of our commitment to the rule of law, and to democracy. This Union of four nations is either a voluntary Union or it is truly not a Union at all. And when this vote is concluded – I hope and expect a vote for unity – the UK’s unity would have been affirmed and strengthened. It will demonstrate to the world that even the most fundamental and political debates, the question of independence or unity, can be resolved at the ballot box in the framework of Law.
I support my country, Scotland, being part of a Union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland because we live in a world today in which we expect the significance of international borders to be declining. A new border is not a sign of progress. And we look to international cross border organisations for real progress – for improving the lot of ordinary people. If we want to tackle global climate change, address world hunger, ensure our security, we look to organisations such as the United Nations, NATO, and the European Union.
My main concern, as a Government law officer, is with the rule of law – and although the crowning achievements of the European Union are largely economic – it is a shared commitment to the rule of law within the 28 member states that I find particularly impressive.
The European Union is something more than just simply an International organisation. It is a legal order in its own right, which offers its citizens a unique level of protection for the rule of law. The EU charter of fundamental rights reaffirms, among other things, the right to liberty and security (Article 6), the right to equality before the law (Article 20), and the right to an effective remedy and a fair trial (Article 47). Those 504 million Europeans can go to a court in Luxembourg and demand that EU institutions account for their actions; they can ask, and expect, their own national and domestic courts to enforce their rights under EU law, and, if they’re not satisfied with that, they can refer questions to the European Court for a ruling on EU law.
These rights are long established. The first British judge to be appointed to the European Courts of Justice was, like myself, a Scots lawyer and advocate. Lord McKenzie-Stuart wrote, in 1977, the following:
“The European communities are…. based upon legal order – the Community rule of law. While the objects of the Communities and the means of achieving them were and are a matter of political choice and agreement, Community law is there to ensure that the consequent obligations are fulfilled, and that rights are safeguarded according to accepted and acceptable principles. These rights and obligations concern not only Member States and the Community Institutions, but commercial undertakings and individual citizens. It is a feature that distinguishes the Communities from all other international associations.”
Respect for the rule of law is a value shared by the 28 member states and all the legal jurisdictions of the United Kingdom – EU law serves to enhance the protection that exists in those states.
That protection gains further strength from another international European institution – the council of Europe. That is, the states who have signed the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The member states of the European Union are all signatories to the Convention and, since 2009, are committed to ensuring that the EU and its institutions are bound by the Convention – bound so its citizens will be able to bring proceedings against the EU in the European Court of Human Rights, and can seek to enforce their Convention rights before the European Union’s own courts.
Within the EU, the United Kingdom has been a persistent and strong proponent of the rule of law and fundamental rights. For example successive UK administrations, of different political persuasions, have argued for the importance of the rule of law in setting the conditions for new members to join the Union.
Why is this so important for an institution which might appear primarily about free trade and about the free movement of goods, services and people across its national borders? Because it is with the certainty that the rule of law provides which facilitates trade and commerce between nations. If you know that another country shares your respect for legal rights, you know your contracts will be honoured, your disputes can be resolved before a court where you’ll be treated as an equal, and your employees can travel to other countries to carry out business without discrimination .
You may, if you have visited Britain have gained the impression that it is fashionable to denigrate the European Union - there are certainly some high profile and colourful politicians who give this impression. But commitment to membership of the EU is a central policy of all the UK’s main political parties, and of the majority of our elected representatives in national and local government and in the European Parliament. I have stressed today, speaking as a Government Law Officer and as a practising lawyer, the importance of the rule of law. I do so in part because the rule of law provides a level playing field for businesses across the largest single market in the world (larger than, for example, the USA and Japan combined) – a single market with a GDP of about (give or take the odd pound) 11 trillion pounds. That is a real and practical benefit, not simply theoretical, to millions of ordinary Europeans.
Our commitment to the EU is an affirmation of a wider belief in the benefits which can flow from trade and business among nations. Benefits to national economies and individual citizens. And I believe the intangible benefits which come from greater understanding of each other which trade links can foster. I am delighted to be with you this evening and my sincere hope is that your conference will strengthen not only trade between Iraqi and British businesses, but also through visits and exchanges, a better understanding between our nations and peoples.