I don’t buy a British bill of rights, wherever the word ‘British’ appears.
Is there a difference between a British bill of rights and a bill of British rights – other than the change in place of the word ‘British’?
Does the word ‘British’ add anything to the phrase ‘bill of rights’ anyway, wherever it is placed? These nuances come to the fore with the government announcement of a ‘British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities’.
If we accept that human rights are universal, then there is no such thing as a bill of British rights, because British rights are the same as any other. Of course, volumes have been written about the very complex question of universal human rights. Should the treatment of women (and we can apply this test to other groups, too) be the same wherever they are located in the world? Personally, I can see nothing in the concept of British rights. Rights are rights are rights.
I had assumed that the use of the phrase ‘British bill of rights’ meant that word ‘British’ referred just to ownership of the decision-making power over the rights.
But when the prime minister announced the new measure in his speech to the Conservative party conference, he blurred the distinction by saying: ‘This country will have a new British bill of rights to be passed in our parliament, rooted in our values.’ We know that he hates the European Court of Human Rights. But then why did he say that the British bill of rights should be ‘rooted in our values’. That makes it sound as if, deep down, he believes that there are such things as British rights, applicable to just British people.
I would love to know what they are.
If he meant (and it seems that he did) that British courts should decide British human rights cases, he is being, to put it mildly, hypocritical. When Alex Salmond said that Scottish people should decide Scottish affairs, the prime minister threw his weight behind the continuation of the Union, implicitly rejecting that Scottish people alone should decide everything related to their country.
Personally, I agree with the PM on Scotland, because there is no end to the concept behind Alex Salmond’s wish. Edinburgh knows best how to decide matters relating to Edinburgh. People in my street know best how to decide matters relating to my street. People in my house… and so on. That leads to atomisation, and the notion (formulated by a previous Conservative prime minister) that there is no such thing as society.
So the question becomes where you draw the line. Why should British people decide about British rights, when rights are universal and there is a European Convention and a European Court in which the UK participates? You can imagine the outrage if certain countries enacted similar provisions, on the grounds that their values are different – a Saudi Arabian bill of rights, or a Chinese bill of rights.
Personally, I think the line should be drawn around shared values. A condition of membership of the Council of Europe is to become a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights and to respect the decisions of its Court. We all know that not every member country is the most magnificent example of its values, but the majority are acknowledged respecters of human rights, and they have all signed up to an unimpeachable document.
Acceptance of a belief in the universality of human rights seems to imply that a country might become subject to an international court made up of members who share its values. Is that not an aspect of one of the main pillars - not the only pillar, I know - of the Union argument with Scotland?
So I don’t buy a British bill of rights, wherever the word ‘British’ appears. So far as I know, no one has objected to a word in the actual European Convention on Human Rights. The future British bill will not, I believe, differ in its content of rights. It will be the British bill of European rights. What is the sense in that? Of course, it is the decision-making that rankles. Certain politicians (and the newspapers which support their line) object to some of the interpretations of the undisputed content.
But the whole point of a right is that it should be enforced by an independent court regardless of political interference. The whole point of courts is that they have to make difficult decisions in which there are winners and losers, including in political terms. The use of the word ‘British’ in the name of the bill seems to be to raise emotion to disguise a retreat from reason and judicial procedures.
Personally, I believe that I am the best decider over what is right for me. I would also prefer that any court decision made in respect of my behaviour should be advisory only.
But I accept at the same time that I live in a community of shared and universal values where I should cede sovereignty over difficult decisions affecting how I behave to institutions which endorse and enforce those universal values.