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16 June

Why it’s so easy but foolish to use the ECHR as a culture war flashpoint

Even Tony Blair tried to frame human rights as a defence for terrorists.

By Susie Alegre

“What’s the European Convention on Human Rights ever done for us?” You might have seen the video doing the rounds on social media. Patrick Stewart as a Pythonesque prime minister, his advisers spelling out for him the various things the ECHR has done, from preventing domestic violence to restoring peace in Northern Ireland. The video was made in 2016, when Theresa May suggested we should leave the ECHR instead of the EU (and indeed, she was not the first).

The sketch is as good an example of British humour as the ECHR is of British diplomacy and law-making. It is too easy today to make drastic comparisons to the 1930s and 40s when fascism stalked Europe against the backdrop of economic devastation. The Union Jacks and congas that feted the 75th anniversary of VE day in 2020 were, however, a celebration of Britain’s role in restoring peace and dignity to a devastated continent after the Second World War.

And indeed, a key part of Churchill’s vision for a “united Europe whose moral concepts will be able to win the respect and recognition of mankind” was a “Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law”. This is the origin story of the ECHR, drafted by the Conservative MP and lawyer David Maxwell Fyfe. A legal framework for ensuring human rights in Europe and beyond, protecting our rights from political pressures and from mob rule, guaranteeing peace, dignity and democracy for us all, is essentially a British Conservative project.

The urge to destroy the ECHR, however, is not uniquely conservative. In 2006 Tony Blair threatened to tear up human rights law when his government’s deportation project was thwarted by the courts. Deportations are a perennial flashpoint in the culture wars around human rights. They allow politicians to frame human rights as something for foreigners and terrorists, a challenge to our sovereignty. But the ECHR protects all of us.  

In the past, cases decided in Strasbourg, the home of the ECHR, have confirmed that the police have an obligation to protect us from dangerous stalkers and that sexual orientation is not a bar to serving in the military. And since our own courts have been able to interpret the law in light of the ECHR, they have found that soldiers have the right to adequate kit to protect their lives, even in war zones.

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At a time when Europe is faced with the atrocities of war in Ukraine, we must ask ourselves whether Britain really wants to follow Russia out of the ECHR. To do so would not only undermine the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to the United Kingdom, but it would also risk further destabilising the European peace that our ancestors worked so hard to create.

Patrick Stewart’s prime minister, faced with the overwhelming evidence that the ECHR is not only a good thing, but a fundamentally British good thing, leaves the room with an exasperated “Oh f*** off!” Boris Johnson may want to think about channelling Churchill rather than Monty Python next time he talks about the ECHR.

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[See also: Why Britain is once again the sick man of Europe]