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The government finds itself in the curious position of promising a British Bill of Rights without having any idea of its contents — other than that it should in some way be different to the much-maligned European Convention on Human Rights. As the latter was drafted by British lawyers and sets out basic rights that the UK acknowledges to be universal, the human rights lobby suspects that the “British” Bill is really some sort of plot to demolish our liberties, especially if “we” are poor or disadvantaged or were not born in Britain. But there would be educational advantages in a statement that recognisably reflects the constraints on government which people in this country have, over the centuries, struggled for and achieved, sometimes by fighting against each other (the Civil War) and sometimes against Europe (i.e. Hitler, Napoleon and the Pope). There are advantages too, in updating and improving the Convention, a wonder of its time (1953) but a time which has passed.

There is nothing unusual about having a domestic Bill of Rights, interpreted by a Supreme Court but with that interpretation open to correction by the European Court in Strasbourg if it offends against any of the universal rights set out in the Convention. Almost all the Council of Europe’s 47 member states have their own native Bill of Rights, usually embedded in their Constitution: Britain is alone in having neither a written Constitution nor its own statement of the freedoms guaranteed to its citizens. We have instead the Human Rights Act, which in 1998 simply incorporated the European Convention into British law. It is much misunderstood and “the culture of liberty” to which its advocates (myself included) claimed it would be conducive has not been achieved, largely because it is perceived as foreign — a perception encouraged by a hostile media and by Europhobic politicians. The Commission on a Bill of Rights, set up by the coalition, reported in 2012 in favour of replacing the Convention, in domestic law, with a British Bill of Rights. It comprised a mass of Queen’s Counsel (for which there is no known collective noun — a “purse” of Silks, perhaps) but even this Commission did not essay the most basic task of actually drafting the “British” charter that it was recommending.

The great value of a British Bill of Rights would not be so much to the legal system (where the Convention works well enough to paper over the cracks and gaps in the common law) but as a powerful symbol of British identity and values. It is an objectively ascertainable fact that this country has contributed much more to the language and content of human rights than any other, and it is time we taught our children, and ourselves, to take some pride in this achievement — of securing parliamentary sovereignty, representative government, judicial independence, habeas corpus, trial by jury and so on. A truly British Bill of Rights, rooted in our history yet encompassing human rights initiatives since 1953 that the UK has endorsed and often led, set out in language comprehensible to “ordinary people” (the patronising phrase used by lawyers to denote people who are not lawyers) might become a driver of that “culture of liberty” that the europrosaic Convention has failed to deliver. In America, their 1789 Bill of Rights remains a bedrock of civil culture. In Canada (a country which had no particular culture to speak of), Pierre Trudeau’s objective of strengthening national identity through a Charter of Rights has largely been achieved.  In Britain, our children leave school believing that the struggle for civil rights began in Mississippi in 1964. It is time, and it will be Michael Gove’s task, to forge a document that will tell them otherwise.

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July 16th, 2015
8:07 AM
Ummm, SOVEREIGNTY, Geoffrey?

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