Six questions for Chris Grayling on human rights

The Justice Secretary's assault on the Human Rights Act is legally illiterate and betrays a breathtaking ignorance of our history.

Yesterday’s speeches by Chris Grayling and Theresa May at the Conservative Party conference were like a game of right-wing reactionary bingo. All of the choice issues ticked off, one by one. And making it a full house was the old chestnut of human rights.

Chris Grayling's speech built on his Spectator interview from last week, which rehashes some lazy rhetoric on human rights. No doubt it will go down well with those in his party flirting with UKIP, and looks good in his battle with Theresa May over who can be the most anti-human rights. But it’s also legally illiterate, and betrays a breathtaking ignorance of our history and our position in the world.

As a result, I have six questions I’d like to pose to Chris Grayling:

1. Are you content to dilute individual citizens’ rights by removing their ability to petition an international court when domestic courts get things wrong?

You claim our Supreme Court should be ‘supreme’ and not Strasbourg. But would you accept that there have been very important cases over the years when our courts have not protected our citizens' rights and it has been left to Strasbourg to step up to the plate?

While I regularly praise the quality of our legal system, having the option of an international court of last resort has proven crucial to the British people on a number of occasions. Our own courts did not find British Airways’ policy of banning employees from wearing crucifixes to be illegal. Nor did our courts protect the Financial Times journalists who were forced to reveal their sources. It was left to Strasbourg to protect religious freedoms and freedom of speech.

And on anti-terror legislation, David Anderson QC, the government’s own independent adviser on terrorism legislation, recently praised the Strasbourg Court as having moderated the “more objectionable” aspects of UK anti-terror laws without decreasing the public’s safety in any way. It was Strasbourg that found Sections 44-45 of the Terrorism Act 2000 violated Article 8 (respect for private life) after our own domestic courts found no contravention.

2. Do you think those who wrote the original Convention thought time would stand still?

You regularly state that the authors of the convention would be horrified to see how it is now being used. But by claiming that, are you really saying that the court should not have ruled in cases like phone hacking, equal rights for gay and lesbian people and rights for sufferers of HIV? None of these could have been envisaged back in the 1950s, but are judgements that have nevertheless raised the standards of human rights across the continent.

3. Do you think William Hague is wrong to use the promotion of human rights as a tool of our foreign policy?

The Foreign Office is actively using human rights as a tool of our foreign policy. Look at the FCO website – it's full of promoting human rights. Hague is on record saying “there will be no downgrading of human rights under this government”, so why do you appear to disagree?

Is it your view that human rights in other countries are not important? Our influence around the globe is enormous, and we can bring great pressure to bear on those countries whose records on human rights are still lamentable. But we can only do this if we ourselves maintain an impeccable record at home otherwise we are open to accusations of duplicity and hypocrisy. Without that moral authority, it becomes more and more difficult. The Foreign Office gets this. Some of your colleagues get this. Dominic Grieve, your Attorney General, said we would become a “pariah nation” if we walked away from Strasbourg. Do you really see it as a badge of honour to join Belarus as the only other nation in Europe that is not a member of the ECHR?

4. Which bits of the Human Rights Act wouldn’t make it into your Bill of Rights?

You and Theresa May are committed to abolishing the Human Rights Act and replacing it with a British Bill of Rights. I’ve heard it so many times over the past years but it’s still meaningless unless you can outline which of the rights protected in the HRA you would jettison, or which new ones you’d include. Otherwise it's pretty vacuous nonsense. Perhaps you want to dump the right to life, or the protection against torture? Please do shed some light.

I’m guessing you’d quite like to dump Article 8 – the right to a family life. But do you realise that this isn’t an absolute right? It has to be balanced against other responsibilities and always is. Dumping Article 8 would strip our citizens of one of key protections of their privacy we have. I'm not sure you'd want to be remembered for that.

5. Do you think judges have any role in holding governments to account?

Given the cuts to legal aid on your watch, the curtailing of judicial review and the almost daily railing against human rights, it’s hard not to conclude you’d rather not be held to account by judges. If this is the case, perhaps you might explain why you think governments should not have to abide by the rule of law, yet everyone else has to? What makes governments different from its citizens?

In addition, experts who know more than you or I, point out that even if we abolished the HRA and left Strasbourg, some of the judgements you've railed against would still have happened in our Supreme Court because of case law and other international obligations. Perhaps you want to leave the UN too?

I'm on record as saying that the Strasbourg court needs to reform and modernise. The quality of the judges is an issue and more can be done to take account of each nation's unique circumstances. But I want to shape it from the inside, not turn on my heels and flounce away.

Isn't it simply the case you just want judges to do as you want? That's a system I don't want to live in - an independent judiciary creates a positive tension we should be proud of, not seek to undermine.

6. Do you believe in the universality of human rights?

There is a fear that the Tory idea of a British Bill of Rights is nothing but a hierarchy of rights, which some groups have full access to, while others have their rights limited. We know that the latter will be the marginalised, the vulnerable and minorities. Using a very small number of cases as justification for a full scale dismantling of our human rights legislation would be a disgrace and would leave many of the already downtrodden at the whim of the power of the state. Isn't it a bit odd that a political party that prides itself on being on the side of the individual citizen against the state wants to abolish one of the few mechanisms that can make that a reality?

Conclusion

There's going to be a lot more of this windy rhetoric between now and the election. Labour is determined to fight hard to protect our human rights laws; to keep the Human Rights Act and continue to be signatories to the European Convention of Human Rights. We will also stay members of the Strasbourg court and at the same time try to improve the way the European Court works. Anything less would expose our citizens to human rights abuses and let down millions abroad who look to us for moral authority.

Rt. Hon Sadiq Khan MP is Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling speaks during the Conservative conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.
Sadiq Khan is MP for Tooting, shadow justice secretary and shadow minister for London.
Getty.
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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.