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20 November 2000

We’re all liberals now

Support for human rights goes far beyond the metropolitan elite, reports Stuart Weir

By Stuart Weir

When John Mortimer was protesting to Baroness Jay about Jack Straw’s plans to abolish jury trial for many offences, she replied: “Nobody outside the M25 cares about juries.” This is the standard view among certain new Labour cognoscenti: human and minority rights, devolution, freedom of information, electoral reform – all such matters, it is said, are of interest only to Hampstead intellectuals.

Not so. People all over Britain prize jury trial – 93 per cent say it should be protected in a British Bill of Rights. We know this because it is revealed by a new ICM poll of 2,400 people commissioned by the Rowntree Reform Trust in its “State of the Nation” cycle of polls. And the poll reveals a remarkable change in support for a wide range of human rights since the 1990s (see table below). A broad popular consensus has grown around both civil and political rights – the right of peaceful protest, the right to strike, media freedom – and social rights such as free hospital care and a woman’s right to abortion.

Earlier this year, when the Human Rights Act was about to come into force, ministers fretted that people would see it as a charter for unpopular minorities. Their fears were unfounded. On this and other issues of civil and democratic rights, including political asylum, the government has caught the spirit of the times. The only problem is that, in some cases, the reforms haven’t gone far enough to satisfy the public.

Take devolution. People in Scotland are critical of aspects of devolved government, but there is strong backing for the principle of devolution. Around three-quarters want the Scottish Parliament and Executive to have still more powers. In London, 44 per cent want Ken Livingstone and the Greater London Assembly to have more powers to run public transport, generate employment, etc, as opposed to 37 per cent who want to retain the status quo and 10 per cent who would give ministers and Whitehall more powers.

Even in Wales, where devolution was a knife-edge issue, more people (43 per cent) want to increase the powers of the Welsh Assembly and Executive than back the status quo (28 per cent) or the return of powers to London (10 per cent).

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The poll repeated a mini-referendum on electoral reform held at the time of the 1997 general election. We asked people to choose between two systems for future elections to Westminster – the existing system and the Additional Member System (AMS), the proportional system introduced for elections in Scotland and Wales. In 1997, the result was a near dead heat – 41 per cent for the existing system, 45 per cent for the PR alternative. The result this time provides one of the biggest shocks of the poll – more than half (53 per cent) chose AMS, while only 28 per cent chose the existing system.

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Here, it is possible to discern a probably unintended side effect of the devolution settlement in Scotland. Backing for proportional representation has risen there from less than half the population in 1997 to more than two-thirds now.

New Labour is also failing to match people’s expectations – or Tony Blair’s pro-mises – with its Freedom of Information Bill. Since 1991, our polls have shown growing public support for greater openness in government. Now large majorities are in favour of two of the amendments that reform-minded Labour MPs have pressed for in parliament. Four out of five people think that an independent commissioner with powers to overrule ministers should make the final decision on whether government documents should be released. And more than two-thirds say that policy advice from civil servants – which ministers want to keep secret – should normally be published.

The disappointed expectations may be both cause and effect of public cynicism and distrust of Tony Blair’s government. New Labour proclaimed its credentials as a “people’s government”, but two-thirds of those same “people” believe that ministers don’t tell the truth, while 58 per cent think that they put the interests of business before the public interest. Moreover, 54 per cent believe that this country is becoming less democratic under Labour rule.

In general, most people (70 per cent) believe that the public should have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of power between elections; but only 19 per cent think that they do have this degree of power. Faith in the way we are governed, which grew after 1997, is falling away again. Blair has failed to restore trust in British democracy and to bring government closer to the people. Overall, the public now take much the same view of the government and the governing system as they did under John Major.

The reckoning probably won’t come at the next election (although the unusually large survey shows Labour only three points ahead of the Tories among people who intend to vote). But ministers’ determination to protect executive secrecy and to preserve their powers over parliament and the public is storing up a wider and more profound reckoning. At some time in the future, Tory ministers will themselves exploit executive dominion. Then, Labour politicians, like the rest of us, will be out in the cold. And faith in British democracy will be eroded still further.

Helen Margetts (University College London), Patrick Dunleavy (London School of Economics) and Stuart Weir (Democratic Audit) designed the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust poll. Full results on

The People’s Rights Agenda – What human rights should be in a British Bill of Rights?

Fair trial before a jury: 1995 – 82 per cent support, 2000 – 93 per cent support
A woman’s right to abortion: 1995 – 60 per cent support, 2000 – 76 per cent support
Right to join legal strike without losing job: 1995 – 63 per cent support, 2000 – 86 per cent support
Right to know what information government holds about you: 1995 – 74 per cent support, 2000 – 89 per cent support
Right to know reasons for government decision affecting you: 1995 – n/a, 2000 – 90 per cent support
Right of the press to report on matters of public interest: 1995 – 53 per cent support, 2000 – 79 per cent support
Equal treatment for British citizens on entering or leaving the UK, regardless of colour or race: 1995 – 59 per cent support, 2000 – 82 per cent support
Defendant’s right of silence in court (without prejudicing the defence): 1995 – 32 per cent support, 2000 – 66 per cent support
Source: Joseph Rowntree “State of the Nation” polls, 1995 and 2000