Independent on Sunday, 5 October 2014
It has replaced ‘political correctness’ as the dinner-party phrase designed to appeal to right-wing prejudice
It used to be “political correctness”. You only had to say the words to set a coalition of right-wing columnists, Tory backbenchers and patriotic Englishmen (sic) seething with rage. Respecting the rights of gay people, women, the disabled or foreigners was loudly condemned as “political correctness gone mad”, which was one step worse than PC on its own. What is the country coming to when you can’t make jokes about loony left-wing councils banning Christmas? (Not that they ever did.)
Now David Cameron needs a new bogeyman to rally wavering voters. So it’s goodbye to political correctness, and hello to the dire threat to our way of life known as “human rights”. Actually, that should be the “human rights industry”, as I expect it’s known at dinner parties attended by right-wing cabinet ministers. Other key phrases in the lexicon are “Abu Qatada”, “votes for prisoners”, and the soppy idea that we shouldn’t deport people to countries where their private parts might be hooked up to electric wires. Such absurd claims are contrasted by Conservative politicians with violations of “real human rights”, which are to be found in North Korea.
Another word senior Tories are fond of is “crazy”. Last week the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, branded some uses of the Human Rights Act, which enshrines the European convention on human rights in domestic law, as “crazy” and “unacceptable”. A day later, Cameron grabbed headlines by confirming he would scrap the Act if the Tories win the next election. Their vocabulary on this subject is virtually indistinguishable from that of the Daily Mail, which gleefully reported that the party would give MPs and judges the power “to ignore the European Court and its crazy decision making”. The paper proclaimed “a triumphant week for British values” – and that was before Grayling caused shockwaves by suggesting that the Tories might withdraw from the European convention if they fail to get a veto over judgments at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
Well, I have to say I’m outraged by this attempt to hijack “British values”. What the Tories are doing is highlighting a few decisions they dislike by the ECHR, as though they amount to a special imposition on the UK. This is nonsense: no country should expect to win every case that comes before the court. As for the endless complaints about Abu Qatada, this self-proclaimed opponent of human rights merely exposed his own hypocrisy by using the law to delay his deportation. I like the fact that even the Home Secretary has to follow due process.
That’s one of the things enshrined in the European convention. It also outlaws torture, punishment without law, slavery and forced labour, while protecting free expression and respect for private and family life. What’s wrong with any of that? I can see it would go down badly in North Korea, Syria or China, but that makes it all the more astonishing that the Tories are turning their loathing of “human rights” into a central plank of their election platform.
Don’t be taken in by the spin that they’re just replacing a messy piece of legislation with a sensible British Bill of Rights. Since Cameron’s speech in Birmingham, headlines have focused on proposals to turn the ECHR into an “advisory body” whose judgments are no longer binding on the UK. This would set a precedent for countries with terrible human rights records, including Russia, which has lost many more cases before the court than the UK. But that’s not the half of it. The Bill would apply only to British territory, according to a policy document published two days ago, so allegations of human rights abuses by British forces serving abroad could no longer be heard in a British court.
Viewed in conjunction with an intention to redefine “degrading treatment”, this looks like an attempt to limit the ability of British courts to hear cases which might reveal complicity in torture or extraordinary rendition. Most far-reaching of all is an apparently anodyne clause promising to amend the Ministerial Code to “remove any ambiguity… about the duty of ministers to follow the will of Parliament”. Some lawyers say this would amount to removing the British Government’s obligation to comply with international law and treaties. Are the Tories really crazy enough to do this, with all its dire implications for Britain’s standing in the world?
The answer appears to be that they are; what’s more, they’ve been planning it for some time. That’s why ministers have been softening up the public with speeches caricaturing the effect of human rights legislation, faithfully reported in The Sun and Daily Mail.
Then there was the mysterious sacking in July of the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, a barrister by profession and one of the few Tories almost everyone likes. At the time Grieve said he didn’t think his dismissal was linked to his opposition to the UK withdrawing from the ECHR, but added that it was “possible”. Last week he became one of the fiercest critics of the proposals, describing them as “almost puerile” and saying they would “damage the UK’s international reputation”.
Cameron’s demonising of human rights law marks a significant shift to the right. It is also calculated, an abandonment of wiser heads in his own party in an attempt to fight off the threat from the Ukip. It’s hardly surprising that a Tory leader who couldn’t win an outright majority against Gordon Brown should live in terror of Nigel Farage, a man who reduces politics to populist slogans. But the result will be incalculable damage to the country he claims to love, inflicted by a prime minister so desperate that he is prepared to turn “human rights” into an insult.