Yesterday, the British Home Secretary Theresa May threw her log onto the fire of the ‘debate’ over the UK’s membership of the European Union; stating that whilst we should remain within the EU, we should withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. It’s important to note that the ECHR and EU are two separate legal constructs, and so theoretically you can be part of one without the other.
Not long after May’s comments were published, a video with Patrick Stewart in it was released, highlighting the various benefits we derive from being a signatory to the ECHR.
The response to this that I’ve seen from those who dislike the ECHR would make May proud, with statements such as:
[these are] all rights enshrined in the  British Bill of Rights.
We had these because of the Magna Carta already.
Given that it’s becoming a popular riposte in any discussion regarding the UK’s continued acceptance of the ECHR to point towards ancient British legal documents to somehow prove that we know better than the rest of Europe, and should just go back to using the Magna Carta instead, it’s probably time to clear up a few things:
Bill of Rights 1689
This ‘British’ Bill of Rights was never actually a British Bill of Rights. It was enacted by the English Parliament before the Acts of Union in 1707. A separate Act was passed shortly afterwards by the Scottish Parliament, titled the Claim of Right Act 1689. Good luck reading that if you’re not familiar with auld Scots.
However, despite the misty eyed pride in which opponents of the ECHR call up the English 1689 Act, it doesn’t actually have much relevance to the ECHR in terms of content. It’s actually far more about the constitutional position of the Crown in a turbulent historical period.
There is no protection in the 1689 Bill of Rights for the people’s right to be free from torture (Article 3 ECHR), to be free from slavery (Article 4 ECHR), to be free to marry (Article 12 ECHR), or to assemble freely (Article 11 ECHR). There is mention of Freedom of Speech, but it only applies to proceedings in Parliament – not the general ‘subjects’ of the Kingdom.
The sort of rights that the 1689 Bill is really concerned with are:
- Outlawing Ecclesiastical courts.
- Banning the ‘rising or keeping of a standing army’ that could threaten the Kingdom.
- Protecting the right of Protestants to bear arms (yes, really – so definitely no Freedom of Thought or Religion here, as there is in Article 9 ECHR).
Whilst the English Bill of Rights of 1689 does formally recognise a few important fundamental rights that lay the groundwork for the frameworks that we have today – such as the freedom and frequency of elections – let’s not mistake or misrepresent it for anything other than what it was: a piece of law designed to protect those that were in power, not the actual people themselves.
Magna Carta (1215)
The Magna Carta is another favourite for those who oppose the ECHR. “We don’t need the bleeding heart liberals in Europe telling us what to do! We have the fucking Magna Carta!” (this is a genuine quote).
There is no doubt that the Magna Carta is a hugely significant legal document, as its international recognition clearly shows. It contains some truly brilliant and beautiful provisions, such as:
(39) No free-man shall he seized, or imprisoned, or dispossessed, or outlawed, or in any way destroyed; nor will we condemn him, nor will we commit him to prison, excepting by the legal judgment of his peers, or by the laws of the land.
(40) To none will we sell, to none will we deny, to none will we delay right or justice.
However, lying amongst the grand and oft-quoted provisions, there are also paragraphs such as the following:
(46) All barons who have founded abbeys, which they hold by charters from the Kings of England, or by ancient tenure, shall have the custody of them when they become vacant, as they ought to have.
(48*) All evil customs of forests and [rabbit] warrens, and of foresters and warreners, sheriffs and their officers, river-banks and their keepers, shall immediately be inquired into by twelve knights of the same county, upon oath, who shall be elected by good men of the same county; and within forty days after the inquisition is made, they shall be altogether destroyed by them never to be restored; provided that this is notified to us before it is done, or our judiciary, if we are not in England.
The Magna Carta is truly an inspirational piece of legal history. It should be of no surprise that it has gone on to inspire legal systems around the world, and used as the basis for hugely important international treaties… including, uh, the European Convention on Human Rights.
Therein lies the point. We should recognise both the historical importance, and seminal nature of the Magna Carta, without thinking that it is somehow an adequate or appropriate tool to solve the issues of 2016.
British Rights and Sovereignty
Whilst people have, and do use the Magna Carta and English Bill of Rights as broad swords to justify pulling out of the ECHR, the real argument being made by people such as Theresa May is that whilst these documents themselves would not be adequate in of themselves, our history shows that we are more than capable of producing law that enshrines protections.
This line of thought seems more coherent, but is dangerously misrepresentative. The most obvious reason for this is that we already have created a set of rights that applies to the challenges faced today – so much so that the rest of Europe followed suit. British judges were already developing the protections contained within the ECHR through our domestic common law before the Treaty was ever signed, and were instrumental in shaping its inception. This can be made no clearer than with the fact that Churchill himself called for a shared protection for rights across Europe, and led Britain to be the very first signatory of the ECHR. We already have a British Bill of Rights. It’s called the European Convention.
The response to this of course, is that the ECHR may once have been adequate, but is no longer fit for purpose. The Tories will tell you that the ECHR encroaches upon the ability of the British Parliament to deal with specific issues that we face as a nation today – and that’s why they had to defy the Strasbourg court, continuing to deny prisoners the right to vote. Instead, we need a new British Bill of Rights so that we can’t be told what to do by Europeans. We created rights after all, damnit!
Even if we accept the argument that the ECHR is no longer fit for purpose (which I do not), to think that we can create some British only version of the Convention that will give us the same protections is nonsense. The great historical documents of the Magna Carta and the 1689 Bill of Rights were brought about primarily to ensure the continued existence of the power structures of the time; they weren’t ever primarily about the rights of the people – and it would be the same situation here.
The Conservatives are not interested in the rights of individuals; they are intent on removing any barriers that prevent them from doing whatever they please whilst in power. This can be framed in terms of protecting the sovereignty of Britain, but it’s actually about protecting those in power. The rights enshrined in the ECHR protect the British people from the excesses of the British (or any other) state. The only way that they have any power to do this is by existing a level above any single government. A new British Bill of Rights would not be able to do this effectively – as there would be no external pressure, and so irrespective of what went into such a Bill, it would be toothless.
Yes, the UK has been one of the leading voices in history for the adoption of universal human rights, and that is something of which we should be proud. However, we should not and cannot look to the past to demonstrate our ancient achievements in the likes of the Magna Carta and 1689 English Bill of Rights. The natural culmination of these historical developments is in a shared, international acceptance of the basic rights we should have, as protection from the flux of political change and upheaval. This is precisely why the ECHR was used as a crucial part of the Good Friday agreement, helping to bring peace to Northern Ireland.
If we are going to talk about sovereignty, let’s talk about sovereignty of the people – not the self-serving sovereignty of the British Parliament.
One thought on “On ‘British’ Rights, and the ECHR”
This is one of the many reasons why this whole referendum is utter bullshit. The alternatives to EU membership don’t stack up from an economical point of view, leaving won’t necessarily stop immigration and now this.
We’re all talking and talking and talking about nothing, all whilst the NHS is being dismantled and Mr Osborne has already admitted he’s got his targets for 2016 spending wrong by 3%, less than six months after the Autumn statement. And yet he’s promising to move from billions of deficit to a positive balance in 2019, erm, 2020.