Kaitlin Dryburgh – 7th June 2022
With the promise to bring a healthy dose of common sense and to reign in the “rights inflation”, the new Bill of Rights was introduced into Parliament on 22nd June. This has been a long-awaited Conservative promise and for individuals such as Dominic Raab (a long-time objector to comprehensive human rights) and Priti Patel (who’s cancelled Rwanda flights, humiliated ministers and spurred on this Bill of Rights) this couldn’t come soon enough. However, what we are seeing in real-time is one of the first democratic nations in the world repealing their human rights by providing a watered-down version in which parliamentary power is strengthened and the individual’s ability to hold public bodies to account or simply protest is weakened. Meaning that public enquiries into events such as Hillsborough may have never taken place, the police force do not need to answer to their actions if it is not in their best operational interests, this is an erosion of accountability in which basic human rights do not exist for all.
This sneaky yet lethal piece of legislation looks to use British sovereignty as the blanket excuse as to why the government looks to distance itself from the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). Of course the UK is still a signatory of ECHR, in fact it was one of the states to first draft the ECHR after World War two, and of course the UK remains committed to the convention, what “committed” means to the current government I am unsure. However, this new vague Bill of Rights allows the UK government to be both in compliance and in violation of the ECHR at the same time if they so choose to be. It widens the gap between the European Court of Human Rights and the UK courts, while also weakening the abilities of the British courts when in dispute with parliament. As a citizen you can indeed still take your case to the European Court of Human Rights, but that does not make certain that the ruling will be upheld by the British Courts if it is seen to be in dispute with the new Bill of Rights. What this legislation looks to do is to abolish any positive obligations, which is the difference between the government not interfering and ensuring your right is protected. For example you have the right to life, and this could mean that government is not interfere with your life or kill you, but it could also mean that the government have a positive obligation to keep you alive. This new legislation allows for the latter to be the less likely interpreted version.
There are numerous ways in which this bill can be detrimental to citizens within the UK and oversees, if it passes it will repeal the right for the armed forces to be held accountable for acts committed during military operations outside of the British Isles. Certainly, bereaved families of individuals killed in action due to lack of suitable equipment, or those wrongly prosecuted by the British Armed forces oversees can be heard in Strasbourg and the UK can be found to be in breach of the ECHR. But what does that really mean? Hungary’s current right-winged government has repeatedly introduced legislation that repeals human rights and is in breach of the ECHR yet rarely did they withdraw or change the law. As we know there is no international or European police as such, if one’s own country does not hold the ability to safeguard rights, that leaves its people extremely vulnerable.
It could be said that the UK is experiencing a constitutional crisis, without a constitution. Unlike many European states the UK does not as such have its own constitution, a document that would protect the rights of it’s people by ensuring that if anything was to be amended it would have to go through rigorous voting. The UK does not possess such a thing, it is an unwritten accumulation of legislation and customs, it is unique in that it is neither absolute nor supreme but up until now has been completely functional, based on the premise that the government respects it, knowing that its decisions do not take precedence over the rights of their citizens. Unlike the constitution of Canada for example, which requires the Parliament, Senate, and a minimum number of provincial legislators to approve changes to the constitution, the UK emphasises Parliamentary supremacy.
Legal and constitutional experts have warned us for years about what is currently taking place, that although previous governments have mostly looked to strengthen the rights of the UK citizens, there could always be the government that doesn’t. This shaky path which has flung the UK constitution into this precarious state can be traced back to several events, that significantly have all been the first, for example when the government chose to close down parliament for five weeks without any given reason or try to remove the UK from the EU without a deal. There has always been a lack of safeguards surrounding our rights, however we’ve never seen a government take full liberty of this fact until now. Gone are the days when we could rely on the government to uphold some integrity in their decisions.
This week we have seen yet again another lie come to the surface in Westminster, it is almost hard to keep count of how many there has been now. When asked what the Prime Minister’s mood was after two cabinet ministers resigned, Jacob Rees-Mogg replied with “business as usual”, which is ironic as that’s the problem, this does seem to be the usual now. The integrity of this current UK government has been thrown into question countless times, from having the first serving Prime Minister break the law while in office, to the backtracking of the Northern Ireland protocol. We have encountered an unravelling of what is means to give your word to something, and for the those in government to uphold the interest of the UK people above their own. So this undoubtedly casts uncertainty over the capability of this government to uphold human rights and as they have put it “enhance the freedoms of this country and our tradition of liberty”.
However, as Dr W. Elliot Bulmer stated in the Common Weal Policy Podcast, we’ve reached a point where it is no longer possible or required to construct a UK constitution due to the discourse in current politics, the long-gone empirical expansion of the union and the superseded path to free markets between England and Scotland. What would be more appropriate, is to reconstitute the states, to disband the union so each country may have their own constitution.
Scotland can take note from other notable countries which have recently written their constitutions, for example Barbados which having recently become a republic has had to amend their constitution. Or the Baltic states, such as Lithuania which created its constitution in 1992 and most notably states that “No one may limit or restrict the sovereignty of the People or make claims to the sovereign powers of the People. The People and each citizen shall have the right to oppose anyone who encroaches on the independence, territorial integrity, or constitutional order of the State of Lithuania by force.” Perhaps Scotland would have its own constitutional court, like countless other countries do, a court that would only settle constitutional matters so that criminal law and constitutional law are kept separate, and the only purpose of these judiciaries is to uphold citizen’s rights.
Above all else we would have the opportunity to create a constitution that is practical, applicable and gives sovereign power to the people in which parliament and the government are bound to uphold and are unable to take it away. It seems that the origins of the ECHR have been forgotten by some, that the lessons learnt from a world war are being eroded, as human rights should be universal and should not be trampled upon or moulded to fit with personal or political agendas.