In the footsteps of H G Wells

The great author called for a Human Rights Act; 60 years later, we have it

At the beginning of the Second World War, H G Wells wrote a letter to the Times attached to a draft "Declaration of Rights". The celebrated author called for a set of written principles to clarify what people were fighting for. His point was that fundamental rights were not just legal entitlements, but a set of values - perhaps the only values powerful enough to inspire and bind a nation of disparate people in the common undertaking of defending their country from invasion.

Wells called for a great debate on the issue, and the left-wing Daily Herald obliged. It made a page a day available for a month, for a discussion of the articles in the draft Declaration. The final version of the Declaration was published in the Herald in February 1940, with comments by distinguished personalities, including J B Priestley, A A Milne, Kingsley Martin, Barbara Wootton and Clement Attlee, the future Labour prime minister.

The Declaration was translated into 30 languages and sold thousands of copies. A Penguin special, The Rights of Man or What We Are Fighting For by H G Wells, was published with a revised version of the "Declaration of Rights". Wells sent a copy to his friend, President Franklin Roosevelt, and on 1 January 1942 the allied powers belatedly included the protection of human rights among their official war aims. After some further lobbying, this goal was reflected in the founding charter of the UN.

This was not the first time that the idea of fundamental rights electrified these islands. Wells traced a line between the Magna Carta, the 1689 Bill of Rights and his own vision of fundamental rights.

One hundred and fifty years before Wells's efforts, Tom Paine's extraordinary two-part booklet, The Rights of Man, had endorsed France's newly minted Declaration of Rights. First published in 1791, it was a bestseller - about one in ten readers bought it.

That other hero of the left, however, Karl Marx, dismissed "the so-called rights of man" - and the curtain largely went down on a debate that had so fired radicals in an earlier era. Wells excepted, from then on, bills of rights were usually dismissed by the left as irrelevant at best and hopelessly individualistic at worst.

As the 20th century wore on, successive UK governments bequeathed a bill of rights as a leaving card to virtually all its former colonies, most recently to Hong Kong in 1991. One by one, virtually the entire democratic world adopted bills of rights, or incorporated human rights treaties into their laws. But Britain hung on to its common law liberties and unwritten rights.

Until now, that is. This month, the people of the UK finally have their own bill of rights - a set of written entitlements that can be enforced in the courts. Although most of us may already enjoy many of the rights written down in the Human Rights Act, we do not all inhabit such a benign world. If you are black and stopped repeatedly by the police, or a multiple sclerosis sufferer who happens to have the wrong postcode, you had no effective remedy, until now. Anyone who found themselves at the sharp end of the law, for any reason, could not practically claim notional rights to free expression or protest if the letter of the law said otherwise. In the famous dictum, Britons have been free only to do that which is not forbidden.

It is not widely appreciated that, until this week, the courts were constitutionally barred from determining whether legislation or the decisions of officials breached our fundamental human rights. Now the Human Rights Act is in force, for the first time we have a higher law on our statute books. All legislation - past, present and future - will, wherever possible, have to be interpreted to comply with the values in the European Convention on Human Rights, and decisions can be quashed if they breach them.

We have passed from an age of failed utopias into an era of privatised moralities and aggressive individualism. Only Big Brother or petrol prices appear to unite the country in dialogue. While diversity is clearly a source of richness and inspiration, we seem to lack shared reference points through which we can debate the great political and ethical issues of the day such as the appropriate treatment of convicted paedophiles. Bills of rights have never been a panacea. In many countries, they are worthless. But throughout the world, and down the ages, bills of rights have provided a source of shared values in otherwise disparate societies, from 18th-century America to modern South Africa.

If in time our Human Rights Act is to have a similar effect, it is important to be clear what its basic values are. The ECHR and its parent charter, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, were drafted not only to protect individuals from abuses by the state, but to establish a set of enduring values to counter the descent into barbarism that culminated in the Second World War. The Universal Declaration is addressed as much to individuals as to governments. The state is portrayed as the body charged with protecting rights, as well as a potential abuser.

In contrast to a famous British prime minister, the ECHR recognises that there is such a thing as society. Central to its philosophy is the idea that the individual is part of a community, whose collective needs must be weighed in the balance. In short, human rights are as much about establishing a set of secular, ethical values as they are about legal entitlements. H G Wells understood this 60 years ago. Will we?

The author's Values for a Godless Age, the story of the UK's new Bill of Rights, was published by Penguin on 28 September