Paul Benneworth: The Conservatives and their British Bill of Rights

Journal columnist Paul Benneworth attacks Tory tactics as a no-risk gambit to stir up jealousy and hatred to persuade us all to throw away our rights

Anthony Devlin/PA Wire Justice Secretary Chris Grayling
Chris Grayling

The Tories conference garnered triumphant headlines last week launching their British Bill of Rights. A series of high-profile court rulings that ministers and their departments had broken the law had seriously embarrassed and inconvenienced the Government.

In response, they argue for a common sense plan, stepping out of the European Convention of Human Rights to prevent criminals and foreigners using legal loopholes to get away with murder. Christopher Grayling conjured up images of corrupt foreign judges giving prisoners rights to room service or granting asylum for people with pets.

I am saddened ‑ if not surprised – with tabloid cheerleading for this constitutional vandalism. The reality of the Convention is that British principles run through it like letters through a stick of Blackpool Rock.

Although only formally incorporated into British Law in 1998, the Convention drafting team was chaired by a leading British lawyer, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe. His personal enthusiasm for European integration was borne of experiences as a leading prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials.

But he was a Conservative and pillar of the establishment, and went to great lengths to keep the Convention well away from social and economic rights. The Convention only guarantees those rights vital for the rule of law, underpinning both healthy democracies and free-market economies.

The Convention is – as pointed out by other commentators far more eminent than I – a quintessentially Conservative document. And it shows how what a desperate rabble today’s Tory Party have become in their search for a cheap poll-boosting headline.

They would allow ministers to decide which of us deserve these fundamental rights, something they’ve sold as allowing crackdowns on foreign criminals, jihadists and the feckless poor. It’s a no-risk gambit, stirring up jealousy and hatred of others to persuade us all to throw away our rights.

But we’ve no guarantee that governments would use these powers responsibly. A government addicted to populist headline-grabbing would find it all too easy to deliver a constant stream of scapegoats up to a vengeful public.

Their so-called common-sense argument is a boggle-eyed version of the timeworn “if you’ve done nothing wrong, then you’ve not nothing to fear”.

But the temptation for public bodies can be to do everything at their disposal to get their own way particularly when it comes to hiding their own cackhandedness from us.

The disingenuously-named Regulation of Investigatory Power Act unleashed an army of petty bureaucrats electronically snooping on us for dubious reasons justified by the most minor suspected infringements.

And they do not restrict themselves just to the weakest. Just this week, the Mail on Sunday – who gave the Tory plans the loudest cheer ‑ revealed how police hacked their phones to identify their anonymous source in a perjury case whose anonymity was supported by the case judge.

When any government decides to come after any of us, the odds are stacked against us. And this new British Bill of Rights would abolish at a stroke any last rights we have to demand fair treatment when it might potentially embarrass the government.

The Convention was forged at a time when memories of the Nazis drove efforts to prevent history repeating itself. Pastor Martin Niemöller memorably pointed out how the Nazis laid the foundation for their reign of terror by eliminating opposition groups one at a time.

As generations change, it is now surely the time not to forget that lesson.

We must cling onto the Convention as our ultimately guarantee against an overpowerful state. Otherwise, to paraphrase Niemöller, we have only ourselves to blame when they decide to come for us.

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