Human Rights Act: Mr Cameron's 42 days
Writing for his new best friends at the Sun, David Cameron proclaimed a top 10 of Tory on Friday, with a depressingly retro feel. Thus one promise embodied an aversion to Europe, and another the superstition that prison works. Most, however, were sufficiently vague to avoid hard commitment. The exception to this rule is the explicit pledge to "replace the [HRA] with a new British Bill of Rights". A magisterial pamphlet – written by two leading conservatives, and published by today – explains why his approach is not merely awry, but an affront to Tory tradition at its best.
With forensic logic, Tory candidate Jesse Norman and conservative journalist Peter Oborne rehearse arguments often made in these columns. They question the lazy assumption that trampling on rights will tackle terrorism; they debunk absurd fictional rights cooked up by the media; and they explain how the perverse effect of scrapping the HRA would be to shift power from the British courtroom to Strasbourg. The twist, however, is that they argue from the centre-right – and they are less concerned with abstract arguments than attending to history. Its lesson is that Mr Cameron's innuendo about swapping funny foreign protections for the roast beef rights of old England is incoherent.
Winston Churchill kick-started a charter of rights for Europe, with a view to affording the central protections of English common law to the continentals, as they emerged from totalitarianism. His overriding concern was protecting the individual against an over-mighty state, and this was reflected in the eventually penned by the British Conservative lawyer David Maxwell-Fyfe. Potentially desirable entitlements to welfare provision were sidelined; instead, the stress was on those rights – such as the bar on torture and arbitrary detention – that had evolved under the guiding hand of English jurists since the time of Magna Carta. The 10-year-old HRA simply embeds the 60-year-old convention in UK law – and in an impeccably pragmatic manner. Laws passed by parliament cannot be struck down, and judges are asked to interpret laws to respect human rights only "insofar as it is possible to do". Liberals hanker after much stronger protections, which is why Norman and Oborne can reasonably describe the HRA as an "exquisitely conservative" document.
Their argument only deepens the mystery and heightens the alarm about why today's Conservatives would rip it up. Which rights, precisely, do they want to prune? Free expression? The right to life? The prohibition on torture? Mr Cameron suggests would indeed be new flexibility on torture. Fortunately, there is no chance of that, since he remains committed to the European convention and Strasbourg would respond to the HRA's repeal by guarding the rights of Britons more jealously. The only real effect would be to send a monstrous signal to other convention signatories, and to undermine a precious contribution to the international rule of law.
Mr Cameron is not alone in playing politics with the HRA – the justice secretary proposes a nonsensical "", spin designed to suggest duties might be given equivalence with unpopular rights. The big difference is that the Labour gimmick would sit alongside the existing act, while the Tory gimmick would replace it.
The struck a blow for freedom when they opposed Gordon Brown's bankrupt plans to jail uncharged terror suspects for 42 days. Repealing the HRA, though, would diminish the framework that safeguards liberty right across the continent. The pledge cynically barters freedom for headlines, and represents Mr Cameron's own version of 42 days. And it provides lovers of liberty, on both the left and the right, with reason to regard him with suspicion.
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