In yesterday’s news headlines, one major candidate for leadership of the Conservative Party has claimed that Britain should want to leave the European Convention on Human Rights. This argument has derived from a history of struggles over the rights of prisoners and foreign national extremists. Yet it overlooks the long history of contested relations between the government and the people in this country.
Some analysts have pointed out that the recent referendum more closely addressed an expression of a feeling of lack of control or powerlessness rather than the issue of Parliamentary sovereignty. In this, the events of the past few days reflect an extremely long history of British contention between rulers and ruled which has encompassed much more than the British Islands.
My previous post on the Magna Carta highlights how that 800 year old document marks the shift away from religious to secular law, and specifically challenges the Government (in this case the Crown) to recognise the basic needs of ordinary people, to be able to sustain themselves despite the demands of the Crown to provide funds and soldiers for ongoing and fruitless war with France. Enshrined in this document was the concept that the monarch was not above the rule of law, and subsequently, further movements such as the Chartist movement made the same claims about the governing authority of Parliament, claiming that not only was the monarch not above the law, but neither were those of the House of Lords or House of Commons.
Fast forward several hundred years and persistent war in Europe had spread across the declining Empires of France, Russia and Britain, against those of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. This Great War was only shortly followed by another, as financial penalties enforced on the aggressors were wholeheartedly rejected by a population driven to the far right through austerity.
The parallels with today’s situation in England, Brussels and Greece, in particular, are frightening. The European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) was an outcome of these Imperial conflicts and an attempt to assert the worth of the individual as something that cannot be overruled by the State. No matter the argument for the ‘greater’ need or purpose of the nation, no individual should be denied life, liberty, due process before the law, freedom of thought, assembly and association. It is this agreement which prohibits police brutality, imprisonment without trial, forced labour and many other terrible instances of state domination of individuals or groups.
In British Law, the ECHR is incorporated into domestic use through the Human Rights Act. Yet in debates over terrorism and illegal migration, there have been numerous attempts to deny these rights to specific individuals. Regardless of the worthiness of these individuals, would you trust current politicians to maintain these rights for you and yours while denying them to someone else? The matter of freedom of expression and association is crucial here, as we enter a time of political upheval and passionate differences over what our future as a nation, in business and civic life, might look like.
This poem, which you may have encountered before, directly addresses these issues of individual rights and the power of the state. Scrutinise those who would strive for power carefully, for we may not like what they do with it.