Thursday 16 March 2023

Drifting apart


The main driver for the establishment of the European Convention of Human Rights in 1950, on which the European Court of Human Rights was based, was a certain Mr Churchill, and most of the drafting was done by British lawyers. It was heavily based on the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and was intended to provide a framework to prevent the sort of inhuman treatment of some groups which had bedevilled the European continent over the previous two decades. The values underpinning it were at that time generally (outside the UK at least) believed to be close to universal, with only rogue states declining to ratify the convention and join the court. It was one of the earliest and best achievements of pan-European co-operation and understanding.

It is strange that the state which did so much to ensure that it was written and implemented should now be the one most critical of its very existence. Even stranger is some of the language being used to justify that scepticism. A few days ago, the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman (and it continues to astound me that those four words can be used in conjunction), declared that "… it's a court which is politicised, …” and “I think sometimes the jurisprudence from the Strasbourg court is at odds with … British values more generally." For a court largely based on British values and the British interpretation of human rights to have strayed so far from its original mission would be quite a change. But wait – we need to allow for that strange Anglo-centric view of the world which has infected the Tory Party here. Because what’s changed isn’t the values – those ‘universal’ values – which were at the heart of the establishment of the court, but the values and beliefs of the English Government. Only a perverse Anglo-centric view of the world could conclude that it's everybody else who is out of step with ‘us’. And her suggestion that the court is politicised seems to be code for failing to do what the greatest nation on earth, as they see it, requires of it, which is to allow it to erode, step by step, those rights which the court is bound to uphold.

It might have been the British government and British lawyers who led the process of establishing the convention and the court, and the supremacists and exceptionalists amongst them (of which there were many) may well have believed that they were imposing British values on the rest of the continent in order to save it from itself, but they were not and are not exclusively British values. And they’re no longer even commonly-held in the UK. In the 1950s, it would probably have been fair to assume both that those values were commonly held across the UK and that many in the UK really did believe them to be uniquely British. Today, it is obvious that they are wrong on both counts. Not only is the English government increasingly an outlier within Europe, it is also becoming an outlier within the UK itself. The gulf between the values being expressed by the English government and those being expressed by the governments in Wales and Scotland is increasingly wide, and it’s hard to see how they can be reconciled in the long term. Whilst much of the debate around independence centres on economics, the question of shared values and a shared ethos is equally important. When those things no longer exist, what is the glue which makes people feel like part of a single whole? Just as England is drifting away from its continental neighbours, so it is also drifting away from those who share these islands with it.

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