Britain agonizes over rule of law: national security vs. individual rights

Britain, mother of parliamentary democracies, is engaged in a battle royal over the supremacy of the rule of law. The battle is every bit as much over how the law is being applied in specific trade union cases, as it is over how the law should be used in principle to set limits for citizens in a democratic society.

In the thick of the fray are Britain's solemn and bewigged judges. While they are addressed deferentially as ''M'lud'' in court, their judgments are arousing strong political feelings outside the courtroom.

Both the government and trade unionists have been ruffled recently by court decisions. Both sides have interpreted judges' rulings as undermining their basic positions.

Such is the polarization in the country that when a court ruled last month against militant coal miners who are currently on strike, a Labour member of Parliament was temporarily suspended for several sessions for shouting out that the decision was the result of a ''Tory judge.''

For the participants, the issues often represent a clash between a government which believes it is maintaining security, law, and order, and unions which feel an unsympathetic government is overreaching itself in curbing trade union activities.

This week an Appeals Court overturned an earlier High Court decision which had gone against the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. This was a source of considerable relief to the Thatcher government, which had previously been told its actions in banning trade union membership at the top-secret Government Communications Center (GCHQ) at Cheltenham were illegal.

The Appeals Court stated categorically that the government was within its rights in banning union membership at this high-security listening post. But, rather than settling the dispute, the unequivocal court ruling is adding to the debate over what are the responsibilities of the government vs. the rights of individuals in a democratic country.

The Council of Civil Service Unions and six GCHQ employees say they intend to take the case up to the highest British court, the House of Lords. If necessary, they say, they will also take it to the European Court of Human Rights.

The Aug. 6 Appeals Court ruling opens up the controversial question as to whether national security takes precedence over individual freedom. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Lane, who chaired the three-judge Appeals Court panel, said that it did - and that government ministers were sole judges of what the national security required.

This view has caused some consternation in Fleet Street, which is always skeptical of government claims of secrecy. The British press fears such a court ruling could give the government carte blanche to do whatever it claimed was in the public interest on the basis of protecting national security.

Although the ruling of the three Appeals Court judges applied only to the Cheltenham case, with its obvious strategic implications since GCHQ monitors Soviet and East bloc communications, the decision is not likely to be divorced in the political arena from other areas of government activity.

The GCHQ dispute, for instance, is expected to be a subject second only to the long-continuing miners' strike at the annual conference of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to be held next month in Brighton. The mood within the TUC suggests that what had been heralded by some as a ''new realism'' of working with the Thatcher government already is disintegrating under the weight of recent court rulings and the government's stand on issues such as GCHQ.

A TUC official interviewed about the forthcoming conference says that Mrs. Thatcher's ruling Conservative Party is a totally different organization from the Conservative Party of Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath - more fundamentalist, more aggressive, and less willing to accomodate. He summarized the Thatcher government's approach to the unions as, ''we have noted your position but we intend to go ahead anyway.''

The government feels it has strong public support for trying to prevent militant miners from disrupting industry, attacking police lines, intimidating other miners still at work, and damaging property. And it is important for the government that the TUC conference not serve to unite the labor movement behind the striking miners. Rather it would like to draw a clear line between acceptable union action and what some government supporters are beginning to refer to as ''mobocracy'' - the way in which militant miners are seen as taking the law into their own hands.

The problem for the government is how to proceed if the striking miners or other unionists defy decisions of the courts. So far, the unions have seemed impervious to adverse rulings of the courts or to the implied threats of what would happen - such as having their assets sequestered - if they continue to disobey them.

Militant miners in South Wales seem adamant they will not abide by court rulings, contending that such decisions are politically inspired and violate the independence of the unions.

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