Humpty-Dumpty legal interpretation by the UK government

  • ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,‘ it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’
  • ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
  • The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’
  • From Through The Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

The UK government has frozen the UK assets of the Icelandic bank Landsbanki under the 2001 Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act passed after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the USA. This is an outrageous and deeply worrying perversion of the intent of the Act. The UK government may have a financial dispute with the Icelandic government, but not even the most paranoid denizen of Whitehall would be able to find a link between Icesave and Landsbanki and terrorism. It would be farcical – true political vaudeville worthy of a tin-pot dictatorship – if it weren’t part of a worrying pattern of executive encroachment on our basic freedoms.

This is the same government that wants the British public to trust it, when it requests an increase from 28 days to 42 days in the maximum period for which terrorist suspects can be detained without being charged. This is the same government that has restricted the right of an accused person not to incriminate himself. This comes from the government of a country where local authorities abuse surveillance cameras put in place to fight terrorism and violent crime, by using them to spy on people suspected of not paying their council taxes or of being welfare cheats.

This government has a long history of encroachments on fundamental human rights and of a lack of respect for civil liberties at home. The government’s disregard for the rule of law, exemplified by its decision to freeze the Icelandic assets under the Anti-Terrorism law, may well spill over into other areas, including the harassment of domestic and foreign political opponents and the pursuit of business and commercial disputes with inappropriate means.

Surely, the must be enough left of checks and balances in the British constitution to rein in this government’s Humpty-Dumpty method of legal interpretation: Laws mean what we want them to mean?

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website