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