Chris Grayling has a pretty toxic record of having people's rights curtailed. Photo: Getty
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The takeover of the Tory party by those opposed to human rights is complete

Walking away from Strasbourg and abolishing the Human Rights Act would merely serve as a convenient smokescreen for an out-of-touch government playing dog-whistle politics.

Announced last week, the Conservative party’s proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act (HRA) and almost certainly leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) represent the latest attack on the post-1945 settlement that all main parties have remained signed up to until now.

It is as significant as their undermining of legal aid, the welfare state and the NHS, though for the first time it does not have the support of their Lib Dem coalition partners.

An angry mix of europhobia and the threat of Ukip has brought us to a point where a mainstream party of government is openly suggesting that the UK join Belarus as the only European country willing to walk away from the universal principle of human rights.

The 1998 Act enshrined in UK law our commitment to the ECHR. Although it was the Labour party that introduced the HRA, it did so with cross-party – including Conservative party – support under the banner of ‘bringing rights home’.  The same slogan is now being used to justify repeal of the Act, a hint at the incoherence of the policy.

Practitioners have already indicated that refusing to take account of European Court judgments may have a snowball effect which will make the UK’s position incompatible with membership of the European Union or the Council of Europe – of course a large number of Tory MPs would welcome this also – not to mention throwing into doubt both the Good Friday Agreement and the devolution settlement for Scotland.

Historically, there is support for human rights within the Tory party. Winston Churchill and David Maxwell Fyfe were enthusiastic supporters of the Convention which Britain took a leading role in drafting and was the first country to join. Shadow Lord Chancellor Sadiq Khan has recently expressed his fears that “were Churchill to be in the Tory cabinet today, Cameron would have sacked him.”

In the aftermath of the proposals former cabinet ministers Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve have powerfully made the case for the HRA, rebutting Grayling’s "puerile" "howlers".  The silence of the new Attorney General, Jeremy Wright, by contrast, shows how the takeover of the Tory party by those opposed to human rights is complete. There can be no doubt that the price for speaking up for the rule of law in the Tory Party now is the sack.

It is regrettable that the libertarian wing of their party, ably represented by David Davis, who spoke out strongly against the revival of the Snoopers’ Charter this week, is also silent on this issue. Their irrational hatred of Europe trumping their rational support of the citizen against the state.

And this is the crucial point. The HRA exists to support the citizen against the state. Not only to protect him or her from its excesses and arbitrary exercise of power but to give positive duties to governments to uphold fundamental rights of citizens.

Seen from this perspective, the jettisoning of the Act and convention fit very well with Grayling’s record as Lord Chancellor. Almost every policy and legislative initiative has seen him rebalancing the law away from the individual and toward the state or other powerful vested interests like big corporations. Slashing legal aid, curtailing judicial review, making freedom of information requests more difficult, and introducing policies that have seen an 80 per cent fall in employment tribunals add up to a pretty toxic list of people’s rights curtailed.

The reality is that these back-of-the-envelope plans will not even achieve what the Conservatives truly desire or claim. Walking away from Strasbourg and abolishing the HRA would merely serve as a convenient smokescreen for an out of touch government playing dog-whistle politics. Under David Cameron, the Conservatives find themselves turning inwards, ignoring international treaties and pandering to its base. This is not the United Kingdom that we know and love. We should be leading the way in the world, proud of our legacy, not falling back.

Andy Slaughter is Labour MP for Hammersmith and a shadow justice minister

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue