Strasbourg having a say on British civil liberties

Pretty much since the election, many people have been talking about the government’s plan to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. The narrative of those nasty Tories depriving us of our civil liberties and turning us into a police state has already developed. Whilst a very easy narrative to run and buy, it is mind-blowing how the debate has been lacking in any knowledge of the facts.

First and foremost: the government is not proposing to ‘scrap’ any human rights. This policy has nothing to do with rights and liberties, it is about changing our relation with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. At the moment, any judicial decision made by the Supreme Court in London can be overturned by the Strasbourg court, which kind of renders the Supreme Court, well, not really supreme. It is fully consistent with a strong belief in human rights and civil liberties to say the British courts should be sovereign in Britain.

The number of people who seem to have convinced themselves that there were no human rights in this country before 1998 is quite staggering. Was pre-1998 Britain a place where no civil liberties were protected, where the Crown Prosecution Service randomly picked out people it pleased to imprison without any good reason, was there no freedom of press, religion or expression? The idea that we need to be ruled by a foreign court to enjoy civil liberties in Britain is simply absurd.

To claim that there is correlation between one’s membership of the ECHR and the extent to which civil liberties are protected is quite frankly factually incorrect – and let’s not even talk about causation. Where do you think rights and liberties are protected more strongly: in Albania or Canada? Azerbaijan or Australia? Russia or New Zealand? These are meant to be rhetorical questions, by the way.

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I am not saying the Strasbourg court is a useless and evil institution. In fact, I think it has done a lot of good in many countries with a weaker record on human rights, many of which are post-Communist countries – in the Czech Republic, for example, Strasbourg helped rectify the poor treatment of the Roma community in the 1990s.

British common law has been the basis of human rights legislation throughout the world. We have had freedoms and rights in this country since even before the Magna Carta. The government’s policy merely reasserts the historical state of aff airs: that there is a convention – incorporated into British law – on whose content virtually everyone agrees which guides British courts in their decisions on human rights issues.

Before getting all angry and agitated, let’s just pause for a second. This policy does not eradicate human rights. The only thing this would do is to say that if the British Supreme Court comes to a judgement which disagrees with judges in Strasbourg, it should be the British Court which is supreme in Britain. I actually think that’s quite a good idea.

And may I just add: this policy was in the manifesto and people voted for it!