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The left's favourite Tories: David Maxwell Fyfe

For a Labour politician, writing about a Conservative you admire is always going to come with heavy caveats, and there is a lot not to admire about Sir David Maxwell Fyfe (1900-67). His socially regressive views on homosexuality and his refusal to commute Derek Bentley's death sentence might make him seem an unlikely choice. But it is hard for me, as a lawyer and shadow lord chancellor, not to admire the man who prosecuted the most significant trial in international law, at Nuremberg, and played a principal role in drafting the European Convention on Human Rights.

As deputy chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, Maxwell Fyfe was responsible for one of the most noted cross-examinations in history when Hermann Göring took the stand. His exposure to the evidence of Nazi atrocities hardened his commitment to human rights. The European treaty overseen by Maxwell Fyfe contained the fundamental rights and freedoms that underpin our society and democracy: the right to life, liberty, the freedom from torture or inhumane treatment, the right to a fair trial, free and fair elections, the right to receive an education, to practise your religion and express yourself freely.

So, it seems ironic that the convention, overseen by a British lawyer who held four offices of state in Churchill's government, is now being attacked by Tory MPs as an assault on Britain's identity and values. To me, there is nothing more British than enshrining in law the rights and liberties that citizens should be free to enjoy without incursion from the state. I wonder what Maxwell Fyfe would think of the repeated trashing of his legacy on the Tory back benches.

Had we been contemporaries, Maxwell Fyfe and I would have more often than not found ourselves on opposite sides of the political debate and the voting lobbies. But, in devising the European Convention on Human Rights, he created something that still has a positive impact on our everyday lives. For that, I am full of admiration and gratitude.

Sadiq Khan is MP for Tooting (Labour) and shadow lord chancellor and shadow secretary of state for justice

Sadiq Khan is MP for Tooting, shadow justice secretary and shadow minister for London.

This article first appeared in the 03 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Which Tories is it ok to love?