You might have thought that an organisation called the Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice would not have much hope of a grant from a Tory cabinet minister. Too much resonance of Harriet Harman. Too much potential irony in how cuts, like those to legal aid, have been directed not against Mick Philpott but against women. Yet, blow me if William Hague has not given the women’s group just under £1m. In addition, he leads a crusade to combat the systematic use of rape in war zones and upholds human rights as a centrepiece for UK foreign policy – somewhat at variance with his party’s domestic presentation.
Good for Hague. His economic politics have remained consistently dry. But, at a more personal level, he has maintained a capacity to surprise since he brought Mrs Thatcher to her feet at the 1977 Tory party conference as an insufferably precocious 16-year-old. He married the civil servant designated to teach him Welsh. He shared a hotel bedroom with a young researcher to save money. He and Seb Coe wore those ill-fated baseball hats. He stunned us with his boast of knocking back 14 pints a night. The last two may have been errors of promotional judgement rather than instances of personal impulsiveness. However, there are signs that the foreign secretary is freeing himself up as he gets older. A nice sense of humour helps. Anyone who can best Paul Merton on Have I Got News for You cannot be all bad.
Another surprise is that Hague has taken to hanging out with Angelina Jolie and admitted to be inspired by her film In the Land of Blood and Honey. This had a special screening at the Foreign Office, where the director herself, a special envoy for the UN refugee agency, spoke about the background of the film in the Bosnian war. British foreign secretaries do have a bit of a track record of being struck by sassy American women. And Jack Straw may yet come to regret his otherwise political dalliance with Condoleezza Rice when the Gibson report finally makes public any collusion with US torture and rendition. Rice may have charmed Straw way off course.
By contrast, Hague’s concern with the use of rape in war zones is entirely consistent with UK policy. He introduced the last Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) human rights report by saying that ‘the promotion and protection of human rights is at the heart of UK foreign policy’. The FCO has a well-established human rights and democracy programme that has withstood the change of government. Its goals range from ‘global torture prevention’ to ‘business and human rights’.
The foreign secretary has, however, gone beyond doing the minimum necessary genuflection to desirable but unattainable ends. He went off in March to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda with Jolie to speak to survivors of the use of rape as a means of intimidation. He used the trip to announce more money for Physicians for Human Rights to treat victims of sexual violence. He promised that combating the intimidatory use of rape was his ‘personal priority for the meeting of the G8 foreign ministers in April and at the UN later this year’.
There is a paradox here which Hague is far too bright not to notice. While he dallies up the Congo, his party is in the middle of two European campaigns – one to loosen the bonds of the EU and one to weaken the European Convention on Human Rights. These are thought to play well at home. The Daily Telegraph ran a story under the title ‘Tory Attack Dog Chris Grayling Comes Off the Leash’. The justice secretary was quoted as saying ‘if I had the choice I would be working like billy-o to bring forward reforms to the Human Rights framework’. Hague, meantime, is playing the human rights card as the centre of British diplomacy and much more widely than his recent concern over the use of rape. For example, back in 2011, during the Libyan crisis, he addressed the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva with a warning that there would be a day of reckoning for ‘anyone contemplating the abuse of human rights in Libya or any other country’.
The foreign secretary has not suddenly become a cheese-eating surrender monkey. His recent speech to the Royal United Services Institute controversially justified co-operation with those countries which use torture. But his essential message was for a ‘framework of accountability and human rights’. UK foreign policy, for all that it might occasionally fall from grace, is based on the bedrock of commitment to human rights. In that context, talk for a domestic audience of limiting the European Convention on Human Rights is simply incoherent.
Roger Smith is visiting professor at London South Bank University and former director of human rights group Justice