Theresa May is an authoritarian. That’s why she wants to rip up human rights law.

May is using terrorist attacks to advance her long-running ideological crusade


In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Westminster in March, we commended Theresa May for her uncharacteristically restrained response to the incident.

‘We will all move forward together,’ she told the country. ‘Never giving in to terror. And never allowing the voices of hate and evil to drive us apart.’

Three months, two further attacks and a snap election campaign later, her restraint has disappeared. Since the devastating attack on London Bridge on Saturday, she has used reverted to her authoritarian norm in a desperate scramble for votes.

From Sunday morning, she has made crude statements about the ‘single evil ideology of Islamist extremism’ and the superiority of ‘British values’, as though Britain had a monopoloy on pluaralism and tolerance. She has advocated the expansion of police powers, but refused to acknowledge the resourcing problems that arose during her own period in the home office.

And yesterday, inevitably, she pledged to abandon elements of human rights law, which supposedly impede the government’s ability to tackle terrorism. This could include extending the possible period of detention without trial for suspected terrorists, the deportation of foreign terror suspects, and controls on the movement and association of suspected terrorists.

These extensions would almost certainly require further derogation from the European Convention on Human Rights.

Of course, many leaders on both left and right begin to question certain particulars of human rights law when faced with threats to their publics. But even if we were to accept that some of these laws are not inviolable, we should not trust May’s motivations.

Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit secretary and former Director of Public Prosecutions has pointed out that ‘there is nothing in the human rights act that gets in the way of effectively tackling fighting terrorism’ and argues that May is simply trying to divert attention from her failing election campaign.

Nick Clegg, former deputy prime minister, agrees:

“None of this posturing about human rights is about keeping us safe. It’s all about making up for her lacklustre, flagging election campaign. I think it’s very cynical and I don’t think people will be taken in by it.”

Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley called the proposals ‘a knee jerk reaction’ that ‘could be dangerously counterproductive.’

However, it’s also about more than the election. May has been fighting against the Human Rights Act and the ECHR for many years. As home secretary, she was a vigorous critic of existing human rights legislation, using any available pretext.In 2011, she used her Conservative conference speech to claim that she had dealt with an immigrant ‘who cannot be deported because, and I am not making this up, he had a pet cat.’ (Note: she was making it up).

As home secretary and as prime minister she has attacked ‘activist, left-wing human rights lawyers’ who supposedly ‘harangue and harass the bravest of the brave.’ This sensationalist claim was also without grounds: there is little evidence of an ‘industry’ of ‘vexatious litigation’ against the armed forces.

So let there be no doubt: these latest statements are part of May’s ideological anti-human rights crusade. She is a classic authoritarian, who believes that the rights and freedoms of the individual are secondary to the self-identified interests of the state.

To use a terrorist atrocity as an excuse to pursue a personal political vendetta is deeply distasteful. To do it two days before a general election is offensive.

Once more, the prime minister’s mask has slipped.

Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter.

See also: Soldiers aren’t being harangued by lawyers – it’s a myth designed to discredit the Human Rights Act

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