The Rule of the Lawless

CAIRO – In one of his last essays, the late, great historian Tony Judt asked what we should have learned from the last century, a period in which so many soldiers and civilians died in conflict. One important part of the answer, I think, is the critical importance of the rule of law, both domestically and internationally.

To be sure, there are many other things that are crucial to the good life in peaceful, open societies: freedom of speech, religion, and association, and the power to choose – and remove – your own government. But nothing guarantees free societies' liberties as much as the application of the rule of law with equal force to the governed and the governing.

When I was a British cabinet minister and chairman of the Conservative Party, I had a legal adviser who was aptly named Mr. Maybe. When I was taken to task for some infringement of administrative law or alleged excessive use of my legal powers, he would never be able to tell me how the courts would ultimately rule. “Will we win this case?" I'd ask Mr. Maybe. His reply was always conditional. “You should win," he once said. “But I cannot promise that you will."

Authoritarian governments find this a difficult concept to understand. I recall negotiations with my Chinese counterpart when I was Governor of Hong Kong. I was attempting to explain why the rule of law mattered so much to the territory's future, and I noted that when I was in the British government, the law applied to me just as much as to those I helped govern.