What’s so wrong about human rights anyway?

Many things in life are too complicated to understand. Governments, particularly right-wing populist ones, like it that way.

Instead of acknowledging and explaining troublesome complications to voters, they make a distracting fuss and racket about something vaguely related to the (probably grubbily opportunistic) matter to hand.

When Boris Johnson’s government proposes abolishing the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA), it does so with a sticky bit of anti-European sentiment found at the back of the empty Brexit cupboard.

Of course, Brexit itself was a perfect example of complicated dressed up as simple: flogged to us as a matter of sovereignty (whatever that is), and battered in sentiment, alongside a vinegar sense of something lost, a weight of unspecified disgruntlement, all aimed at one target: the EU.

As we now see, there have been no advantages to Brexit at all, only disbenefits, but that won’t worry those who voted ‘yes’ with a passion. Proud foolish sentiment is not persuaded by economic fact or general sense; proud foolish sentiment has its own logic.

As a legal dunderhead, I cannot explain much about the government’s new Bill of Rights Bill, only to point out that honesty suggests it should be titled the Bill of Fewer Rights That You Had.  Oh, and doesn’t it raise an important question – what’s so wrong with human rights anyway?

Fortunately, there are people who know much more about this than a man sitting on a ledge, scratching his bald head. Among them is Mark Elliott, professor of public law at the University of Cambridge, often to be found talking sense on Twitter.

He has provided a detailed and, yes, quite long analysis of the Bill of Rights Bill, laying out what the government wants to do. It’s well worth a read and the link to his personal blog Public Law for Everyone is here:


Professor Elliott points out that the HRA was introduced with the proclamation that it would ‘bring rights home’. It would do this by making UK courts follow rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights. And these rights “were at least in part inspired by the common law tradition and by the work of British lawyers”.

Now the government wants to trash this the HRA because, as Justice Secretary Dominic Raab has since dribbled in a newspaper article, the new Bill “will strengthen traditional UK rights” which are “under attack” from “stifling political correctness”.

Hatred of political correctness ­is another vague sentiment that cannot be satisfied or silenced, even if the thing itself is merely a handy dog-whistle.

Professor Elliott’s analysis can’t really be encapsulated in a short blog, but he ends by making some salient general points. Not least that the aim of the Bill seems to be to send human rights back to Strasbourg and replace them with reduced rights.

Behind it all lies a political party, shaped by its leader, that brooks no interference or obstacle, whether from the European Court of Human Rights or domestic courts, or anyone really.

This Bill has long been darkly mumbled about by this government, and its arrival now follows the legal intervention of the European Court of Human Rights in stopping migrants being deported to Rwanda.

And that deeply appalling policy is, of course, another dark distraction, introduced in the knowledge – and hope – that such legal interventions would occur, allowing Johnson and co to harrumph about Europe and Brexit all over again.

One worrying interpretation of this new Bill is that it aims is to place the government above the law. And sometimes the importance of human rights laws, and of the law itself, is to give citizens protection from governments, of whatever persuasion.

Changing laws for reasons of short-term political opportunism should worry us. And please do give Professor Elliott’s properly informed analysis a go. He knows a lot more about this than I do.

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