The Telegraph today prints the laws since 1997 its readers would most like to scrap. Since many of them voted to scrap the 1972 European Communities Act, maybe it wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that they are all living in a timewarp, and haven’t yet moved into the 21st Century. What is more a sign of the times, however, is their near unanimous desire to get rid of the Human Rights Act introduced in 1998. One such reader demands with a flourish that:
“A Conservative administration should repeal any law passed under Labour which removed or reduced our freedoms, so hard won by our forebears. It should remove the Human Rights Act from the statute book and repeal or amend laws granting supranational rights to others.”
It irks me that someone can talk about hard won ‘freedoms’ while in the same breath argue that we should abolish rights, and supranational ones at that. Freedoms and rights are inextricably linked. Most British people would agree that freedom of expression is an essential part of the make-up of our democracy and society. Our forbears did fight hard to guarantee it.
Thomas Paine was accused of sedition when his book The Rights of Man was published in 1791, was prevented from publishing it and fled to France. Such a freedom happens to be safeguarded now under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, incorporated into UK law through the Human Rights Act.
Article 4 – The prohibition of slavery and forced labour – takes on added poignancy after this weekend’s 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. Article 8 protects your right to a private life, while Article 11 protects your right to peaceful assembly.
The backlash against rights has been a result of the right-wing print media digging up scare stories about criminals being let loose on our streets, when the truth is that many of these are the result of system incompetence rather than the Human Rights Act itself. A good guide to debunking the myths about human rights has been produced by Liberty. Many of the myths are based on fears about the British way of life being eroded (hence the confused reader’s reference to our ‘forbears’). Yet these arguments have been made by conservative reactionaries for centuries – Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France argued that the concept of democracy and the ‘rights of man’ attacked the essence of the British constitution and psyche of the British people.
Given that David Cameron has suggested he would get rid of the Human Rights Act, those of us on the left should do more to celebrate what was, and remains, a piece of progressive legislation enacted to protect rights which our forbears truly did fight for.