Chris Grayling’s proposals are a calculated move to win over UKIP’s growing constituency of angry little men
The world’s dictators and autocrats will sleep a little sounder tonight. “No more lectures Mr Cameron,” they will say, in preparation for the next time our Prime Minister attempts to talk about human rights violations on the world stage. And then, perhaps cordially, they will telephone our PM to congratulate him: ‘welcome to the club’.
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling will today set out the Government’s plans for a “British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities”. Or in the words of Amnesty International, Grayling will propose “a blueprint for human rights you would expect from a country like Belarus”. Under a majority Conservative Government, the Human Rights Act, which was introduced by Labour in 1998, would be repealed and replaced by this British Bill of Rights.
Britain may not yet be a “banana republic”, but such is the state of politics in this country that a winning electoral strategy now involves posturing as if you want the UK to become one.
The Conservatives’ attempt at trashing the Human Rights Act is pure Ukip-fodder; where Nigel Farage goes, the establishment follows. Farage, an admirer of Vladimir Putin, the bare-chested persecutor of homosexuals, is now the trend-setter of British conservatism. And if that means pretending to line up alongside Europe’s last outpost of unadulterated despotism for electoral advantage, then so be it.
I say this because, despite the sabre rattling, scrapping the Human Rights Act is not as revolutionary an act as the Justice Secretary is making out. According to Barrister and Former government Lawyer Chris Garner, “many of these changes are sounding brass”. Hot air and red meat for the gutter press, in other words; but very little that would actually change very much.
No doubt to the chagrin of the right-wing press, the Government is not proposing a withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights, nor is it opting out of the jurisdiction of the European Court. This means that the proposed British Bill of Rights would not have stopped hate preacher Abu Qatada from delaying his removal from the country (his deportation would still have breached the Convention) and it means that under Grayling’s plans prisoners would still not have the vote.
And this gets to the nub of the matter. Grayling’s proposals are a calculated political move by a government that is desperately seeking to win over UKIP’s growing constituency of angry little men. “I wouldn’t say the plan signifies nothing; but it’s not as significant at it sounds,” as Garner puts it. The changes are largely cosmetic. They are alpha male posturing. Or as the cliché goes, the Tories are trying to “out UKIP UKIP”.
And yet sound and fury matter. And they matter beyond the parochial and tedious fight over UKIP/Tory marginals. For while Grayling’s plan may not result in a sweeping transformation at home, the message it sends abroad is unambiguous: no more human rights lectures from Britain.
Rather than being a “gift to our enemies”, as the Daily Mail would have it, the Human Rights Act is actually the opposite. Introduced by New Labour in a moment of radicalism, it undermines the Russias, the Venezuelas and the Saudi Arabias of the world by providing an example of something better.
That something is universality: the idea that regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexuality or political affiliation, human beings are basically the same, and as such are deserving of the same treatment by the State. National “sovereignty”, the refuge of every dictator and demagogue the world over, is replaced by the sovereignty of the individual. In a reversal of the formulation deployed by your average kleptocracy, human rights emphasise a citizen’s unencumbered right to interfere in their own internal affairs.
Unfortunately, and in common with the Chinese Politburo, the Conservatives are this week loudly emphasising the importance of “sovereignty” when it comes to democracy and human rights; even if, in the case of the latter, they don’t really mean it.
And if talking up human rights matters, talking them down matters more. Now we must expect the world’s most unpleasant regimes to do the same. And when the latter do it, they will really mean it, with consequences far beyond a short-term bounce in the polls and a kick in the shin for Mr Farage. Dictators around the world will applaud this Tory human rights vandalism, even if it is make-believe.
James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.