Today's rather weary lesson comes from closer to home. I've heard senior government ministers take to the airwaves and say some very scary things. Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education, said that 'people get frustrated by human rights'. The Prime Minister said on Channel 4 News that the government needs to develop a mechanism for people who 'currently on just on the right side of not endorsing violence…we shouldn't give freedom to these sort of groups…who are really inciting people'
Now call me a boring old democratic stick-in-the-mud, but from all my history lessons, I remember being told that the glory of the British legal system was that freedom was enshrined in law (in theory, naturally). If something wasn't specifically illegal, it was permitted. I'm no lawyer, but I was under the impression that if you stayed – as the politicians accept – on the 'right side of the law', then you're a law-abiding individual free to go about your business unhindered. Yes, the security services might spy on you and so on, but you can't be silenced just because you're an idiot. We make laws by electing MPs and putting party donors in the House of Lords so that there's a degree of discussion about what we collectively consider OK, and what isn't acceptable. If there's doubt, you get your day in court and a judge or jury decides, rather than some party hack.
But now the Conservative Party (with the connivance of a Labour Party which has abandoned all commitment to civil rights because UKIP is coming) has decided that there's a special category of people who are both law-abiding but also deserve silencing and repressing.
|These upstanding members of society have earned human rights|
|These people don't. I mean, just look at them.|
I suppose it's part of the 80s revival: back then Sinn Féin members couldn't be heard on the airwaves despite being a legal political party, while Ian Paisley's extremists were perfectly welcome. The media responded rather satirically:
Personally I'd have pushed the satire and employed a Margaret Thatcher mimic to voice Gerry's words. So here we are again. We've decided that some politicians can decide amongst themselves (largely for electoral purposes) who we can and can't hear without regard for thought-through law. The just want to ban people like the rather disgusting Anjem Choudhary, recently arrested after saying this:
“The war being waged by the US/UK & co is a war against Islam & Muslims,” he wrote. “The Islamic State could not wish for a better rallying call for Muslims worldwide to join them than for the USA to start bombing again.”The first phrase is, I think, erroneous: while the US and UK are apparently addicted to waging war on Muslims, I don't think it's because they are Muslims, and anyway, the ISIS conflict is between competing interpretations of Islam to some extent. The second clause of Choudhary's sentence seems to be sound common sense to me, rather than incitement. It's not hard to find ISIS propagandists – including Choudhary – framing the Western powers' actions as anti-Islamic. But I don't think this is incitement. I'm very, very scared that the rule of law is being subverted by a political culture which sees freedom as a brand rather than as a practice, as a prize for people who behave, as something reserved for those who know when to shut up. Without the certainty of law, the limits to free speech become arbitrary and unfathomable: the start of the lynch mob. I always thought we elected people to make laws and constituted juries to decide whether they'd been broken. Apparently no longer.
Surely freedom is only present when it's tested? The freedom to conform is no freedom at all. The freedom to offend and dispute is in a sense the only kind of freedom there is, and sacrificing it so that a party can win an election is terrifying. Ranting Muslim militants today, the heirs of Scargill tomorrow, civil liberties campaigners the day after? Here's how Alan Moor put it in his graphic novel V for Vendetta all the way back in 1982.
Worse than that, our elected leaders have decided that 'human rights' should actually become 'some humans' rights'. 'People', said Nicky Morgan, 'are frustrated'. Which people? Well, Conservatives, New Labour and UKIP voters are frustrated that other people have rights. Those other people being brown, poor, unemployed or without the rightward-shifting political 'mainstream'. Morgan herself voted against extending equal marriage rights to homosexuals, for instance, which didn't stop the Prime Minister making her the Minister for Equalities.
The Minister for Justice announces that 'rights', like democracy, are something to drop on other countries. He's going to join Belarus in the list of European Countries Outside the European Convention on Human Rights (written by a UK Conservative Government) while saying that
What will happen when the UK withdraws from the ECHR? Here's what the Minister for Justice says:
The UK armed forces would cease to be subject to human rights legislation overseas, and Labour’s 1998 Human Rights Act would be scrapped to be replaced by a “British bill of rights and responsibilities”, the policy document states.
We also have to be much clearer about when human rights laws should be used, and that rights have to be balanced with responsibilities. People in this country are fed up with human rights being used as an excuse for unacceptable behaviour.That's right: any foreigner who gets himself shot, blown up, kidnapped, handed over to oppressive regimes we currently support, tortured or murdered by UK forces will just have to suck it up because hey, 'stuff happens'. Back home, it's clear that rights will no longer apply just because you're human. You'll get rights if you behave yourself, of fulfil some vague 'responsibilities' nobody asked you about. What's 'unacceptable'? Who knows? Why are rights suddenly dependent on Britishness?
David Cameron has said the court risks becoming a glorified "small claims court" buried under a mountain of "trivial" claims , and suggested Britain could withdraw from the convention to "keep our country safe"I always thought a country's duty was to keep the people safe, not the other way round. Countries don't have rights, they have armies and treaties. People have – or apparently had – rights. What the hell is a 'trivial' right? The answer, of course, is obvious: it's really an 'inconvenient' one, similar to the air pollution laws Boris Johnson ignores in London.
Because Tory and UKIP voters think that Britons (white, upper-class, Mail-reading) are under attack by Abroad (incorporating poor, gay, lefty, black, feminist, honorary foreigners who were mistakenly born here).
Think I'm joking? This is what happens to judges who disagree with the Mail:
Just look at her. She went to a posh private school and betrayed her class by going to a polytechnic, and her sex by remaining unmarried, childless and developing mild female tendencies.
Now imagine what kind of treatment gets handed out to people from less privileged backgrounds who are even more extreme than a woman who declines to call herself Miss.
I'm going to write to my (Tory) MP and ask him which human rights he particularly objects to. I suggest you do the same. Beyond that, we can do nothing, because he, and several other MPs in marginal constituencies, have potential UKIP voters to placate. Who cares about treating our fellow humans with the dignity and justice we'd expect when there's an election to win?
And by the way: the whole plan is legal bollocks, to use the technical term. The Tories know this: they're just engaged in a political stunt.