The purpose of tabloid newspapers, it seems, is to spread ignorance and to foment prejudice. And on many subjects they’ve done an astonishing job – on crime levels, the EU, single mothers, speed cameras. It’s made all the easier when the political class, as a symptom of its failure to engage with reality, is quite happy to rate tabloid ignorance higher than uncomfortable truth.
But there is no subject on which ignorance and prejudice has been spread with greater success than on the Human Rights Act. It’s a multi-layered, many-headed ignorance, one which sweeps up so many aspects of tabloid prejudice. Alternately it can be used as a stick with which to beat the EU (even though it has nothing to do with it), criminals not getting their just deserts (despite the fact that Britain as a society has systematically incarcerated more of its population than any other European nation), benefit scroungers and people getting something for nothing (even though life on benefits is hard and getting harder) and above all political correctness gone mad and the things we are no longer allowed to say (even though the tabloids say those things daily – usually in the most poisonous and obnoxious way possible).
And it’s a set of prejudices that the political class is happy to echo. I’ve already blogged about Cameron’s speech after the English Riots, in which he appeared to claim that human rights (along with health and safety) were among the factors that were leading to a breakdown in British values. A few days later, Cameron wrote a piece in the Sunday Express – headed David Cameron: Human Rights in my Sights – suggesting that individual rights somehow eroded personal responsibility. There’s an insidious conflation of “individual” and “human” rights here that bears further scrutiny – and is startling from a Government that promotes raw economic individualism at the expense of the collective.
So, what does the Human Rights Act actually do? In fact all it does is enshrine the provisions of the European Convention of Human Rights – to which the United Kingdom has been a signatory for decades (and nothing to do with the EU, except in that acceptance of the Convention is a condition of EU membership) – into our national legal systems, so that cases an be heard in domestic courts.
And what are these rights? The Government’s own website has a useful list:
- the right to life
- freedom from torture and degrading treatment
- freedom from slavery and forced labour
- the right to liberty
- the right to a fair trial
- the right not to be punished for something that wasn’t a crime when you did it
- the right to respect for private and family life
- freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom to express your beliefs
- freedom of expression
- freedom of assembly and association
- the right to marry and to start a family
- the right not to be discriminated against in respect of these rights and freedoms
- the right to peaceful enjoyment of your property
- the right to an education
- the right to participate in free elections
- the right not to be subjected to the death penalty
It’s a pretty unobjectionable list (although some on the right clearly want to do away with the last one). Now obviously a key question is how the courts interpret those rights, but there is a large and vocal “Abolish the Human Rights Act” brigade who need to be challenged with the question – which of those rights would you remove? Which of them is undermining personal responsibility and allowing the fabric of our society to be damaged, as Cameron, in grandstanding mode, appears to claim?
Moreover, Cameron and the political class know the truth. Cameron will be well-briefed; every new piece of primary legislation has to be accompanied by a Ministerial declaration that it is compatible with Convention Rights, so Ministers – if they’re doing their job properly – are aware of all this.
But there’s a poisonous and dishonest game being played here. The media and political class have created a monster called Human Rights, and are using it as cover for a power grab. While coalition Ministers – including Liberal Democrats, who once said something rather different – are claiming that personal rights are undermining the fabric of society, the state is using powers – largely granted under a New Labour government – to marginalise dissent, by kettling, by pre-emptive arrests (including that of a radical street-theatre troupe on the day before the Royal Wedding), and, in the case of the CPS in the Fortnum and Mason case, by making extraordinary claims that the carrying of leaflets is somehow evidence on which a decision to prosecute should be made against protestors (it’s interesting to see the obvious irritation of the judge in the comments quoted in that piece). Riot sentences are handed down which in some cases are clearly political, insofar as a similar offence at any other time would have been dealt with far more leniently.
The fact is simple – when the media talks about the Human Rights Act, and claim it fosters a culture of irresponsibility, they’re doing politicians’ dirty work. And they’re helping to foster what I believe to be one of the critical failings of our democracy – the detachment of politicians and media from the daily life of the citizen.