On 31st March 1968, Dr Martin Luther King gave a famous address at the National Cathedral in Washington DC and, paraphrasing a sermon of Theodore Parker, said: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. It is sometimes difficult to remain hopeful going into the 12th year of Conservative rule, with the generational effects of austerity and a hard Brexit taking its toll across society and our economy, and a morally bankrupt Prime Minister in Downing Street still two and half years away from needing to call an election. Progress is often a struggle. After all, four days after giving this speech, Dr King himself was assassinated.
One depressing, consistent theme over the past decade has been the Tories’ inherent contempt for human rights. Their manifestos in 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019 all committed to dramatically amending the Human Rights Act 1998 – one of the landmark achievements of the last Labour government. Conservative leaders have flirted with withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights, joining Russia and Belarus as European countries who are not signatories to the treaty drafted by British lawyers in the aftermath of the Second World War and the uncovering of the extent of fascist evil.
Dominic Raab has now finally announced formal plans to introduce a “Modern Bill of Rights”. I have previously written about Raab’s disdain for human rights. This is the man who has turned his nose up at those campaigning in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and has bemoaned the “equality bandwagon”, arguing that “men are getting a raw deal”. Raab does not have much time for human rights.
His proposals for a ‘British Bill of Rights’ are described in the foreword as “far-reaching proposals for reform, with a particular focus on those quintessentially UK rights, such as freedom of speech and the right to trial by jury”. Raab states that he wants to offer a “healthy dose of common sense”, and the blame for our apparently irrational system “lies with the Human Rights Act” and the purported adoption of a “continental European model”. As ever with the Tory right, it always seems to be ‘continental’ Europe’s fault.
The “far-reaching reforms” do not really intend to reform or develop legislation in this area, but really amount to a receding of our rights. Reading the document, there is no mention of strengthening any rights, bar for insubstantial exclamations about freedom of speech (which inherently affect privacy rights detrimentally and the devil will inevitably be in the detail). The right to a trial by jury, which the government also intends to “strengthen”, is important, and the mention welcome, but it is unclear why.
Is Raab suggesting that the right should be extended so that all criminal trials should be before a jury (rather than more minor offences that are heard in the magistrates’ court)? If so, it is very possible that the current delays to criminal trials – often around two to three years from offence to trial – would likely more than double and the costs increase significantly. It is more likely that Raab realised his document needed some positive noise amidst the agenda to weaken our rights and threw this in with a vague notion that it was “quintessentially” British.
This document does not represent progress. A long-considered idea, popular with some academics and campaigners, is that human rights should be extended to offer forms of social protection: the right to basic healthcare and the right to adequate housing, for example. One might argue, considering the unique provision of free at the point of delivery healthcare through our NHS, such a healthcare provision was “quintessentially” British. These are specifically ruled out in Raab’s paper.
At the heart of Raab’s argument is that the ‘British’ notion of human rights and civil liberties is individuals struggling with “a central government seeking to claim increasing powers for itself”. It is hard not to grimly snigger, considering Raab is a member of a government that has consistently attempted to hoard power in Downing Street – weakening our rights to judicial review and the right to meaningful protest, attacking the judiciary, and now seeking to weaken the mechanism of holding the government to account by defending human rights. As argued so cogently by Schona Jolly QC, the notion that the government is worried about the extent of executive power is laughable when two parliamentary committees have warned of the shift towards the government in recent years.
In reality, the whole agenda is less about British values and a history of civil liberty campaigning, and more about Daily Mail headlines. The most concerning aspect of the proposals is the intention to create a two-tier human rights system, with deserving humans and the undeserving. The document describes the aim as requiring the “courts to give greater consideration to the behaviour of claimants and the wider public interest when interpreting and balancing qualified rights”. There is a lengthy list of claims brought by prisoners, some of which do admittedly appear rather spurious. It is of note that all of these claims failed, and whilst Raab cites the costs to the government of defending, is his case that rights to bring such human rights claims should be diminished on the grounds of costs? Of course, this section is silent on the fact that deaths in prison increased by more than 50%, as compared to the year previous.
The battle against the bill will be hard-fought, and the new Shadow Justice Secretary, Steve Reed, has made it clear Labour will oppose the proposed changes. Sometimes the fight for justice is necessarily defensive, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. The Tories are on the run: polls show Labour have developed a consistent lead, as Johnson swaggers from one scandal to the next and Keir Starmer begins to set out Labour’s stall with an impressive speech. As Martin Luther King remarked, the arc of history is long and in dark moments we must remain hopeful and never falter.