Teresa May has called for the Human Rights Act to be scrapped. David Cameron has backed her. The BBC article reporting this works itself up into a lather of excitement at the prospect of division between the coalition partners on this issue (because Nick Clegg used his conference speech to declare that the Act would not be scrapped). This is all very silly, and an absolutely blatant example of political distraction.
Firstly, “Scrap the Human Rights Act” is a wholly empty piece of rhetoric. The Human Rights Act incorporated the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law. This was the cause of some procedural changes – human rights issues are more often settled in UK courts than previously – but didn’t actually change anything fundamental. Before the Human Rights Act, the UK was subject to the provisions of the ECHR: if the Human Rights Act is scrapped the UK will still be subject to the provisions of the ECHR. This is because the UK has been subject to them ever since we became the first country to ratify the Convention (which we were largely responsible for writing) on the 8th March 1951, fully 49 years before the Human Rights Act came into force. It follows that, if we want no longer to be subject to the provisions of the ECHR, we have to repudiate the Convention itself. If May, Cameron and the other politicians calling for the Human Rights Act to be scrapped were serious in their intent they would be calling for the repudiation of the ECHR. The reason they are not doing so is that such an action would have hugely damaging ramifications.
To begin with, ratification of the Convention is a prerequisite of membership of the Council of Europe (the European Court of Human Rights is a subsidiary of the Council of Europe), so repudiation of the Convention would result in exclusion from that organisation, too. Given the red mist that clouds the judgement of many whenever the word ‘Europe’ is mentioned, it’s perhaps worth pointing out that the Council of Europe is wholly separate from and independent of the European Union: it’s a cooperative international organisation that coordinates discussions about trade, defence and many other important matters between the governments of 47 countries (an area much larger than the 27-state EU). Exclusion from the Council of Europe would itself be a huge blow to the UK’s national interests, but things wouldn’t stop there.
Most rational economic commentators – even the passionately Eurosceptic ones – accept that the ability to trade freely (i.e., without being subject to import duties and other tariffs) with our European neighbours is critical to the success of the UK economy. Eurosceptics like to argue that the UK could leave the EU, then join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) instead; the EFTA members (Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway, Switzerland) enjoy the right to trade freely in the internal market of the EU, even though they are not themselves members of the EU. It’s not hard to see why this seems like a happy state of affairs to Eurosceptics, but they tend to overlook the price the EFTA countries pay for these trade opportunities.
In order to obtain what they wanted – the free movement of goods and services – they had to also sign up to the free movement of capital (so as a member of EFTA the UK would still be unable to stop British businesses being bought by foreigners) and the free movement of persons (so we would still be unable to prevent people from any EU member state coming to live in Britain). Those two issues alone account for the content of about two-thirds of anti-European rants, but the EFTA countries are also subject to a whole host of what are termed ‘Flanking and Horizontal Policies’, which require them to implement EU policy in a wide range of other areas – many of which cover rights guaranteed by the ECHR. Furthermore, all of the EFTA countries are members of the Council of Europe and signatories of the ECHR, and it’s likely these would be considered minimum requirements for joining the Association. It would certainly be a bold step to assume that the existing EFTA members would welcome into their midst a pariah nation that had been excluded from every other European institution and association, and had just insulted and offended the member states of the EU – on whose good will the EFTA countries are heavily dependent.
So, to summarise: in order to be meaningful the cry of “Scrap the Human Rights Act” would have to actually be “Repudiate the European Convention on Human Rights”, and that cry, if acted upon, would lead to the collapse of Britain’s international reputation, our expulsion from international organisations vital to our national interests, and, very probably, the exclusion of our companies from the vital European export market. David Cameron knows this perfectly well, of course, which is why, when he’s put under pressure on the issue, you’ll notice that all the references to scrapping the Human Rights Act disappear. In their place you’ll find instead much more equivocal and hesitant references to reframing the legislation, or to negotiating with the rest of the Council of Europe to perhaps secure a slight modification in the scope of the ECHR. But Cameron also understands that, political reporting in this country having descended to the level it has, he will only rarely be put under pressure, and when he is it will be in venues where no-one except sad no-lifers like me pay attention. That means he can use his home secretary’s call for the scrapping of the Human Rights Act as a very useful piece of distraction.
It won’t have escaped your attention – even given the truly dire nature of political reporting – that things are not going well for the Conservatives at the moment. (You know things have got pretty bad for a political party when a poll putting them barely ahead of their rivals is regarded as freakishly good news.) That’s why there’s been this little rash of truly risible policy announcements ahead of the Conservative party’s conference this year – the guarantee of weekly bin collections that isn’t a guarantee, and the consultation on raising the motorway speed-limit to 80 mph. These kinds of policy announcements are intended to be popular, cheap (in the case of the speed limit, virtually free) and to distract attention from the fact that pretty much everything that can go wrong is going wrong. The attempt to reignite the debate about the Human Rights Act is part of the same distraction strategy, although it’s rather more sophisticated than the other two, mainly because it works on more than one level.
For a start, it coincides very neatly with the tabloid agenda, so it’s likely to pick up a fair amount of media attention, much of it positive. Then, because the Human Rights Act was introduced by Labour, it’s a sharply partisan issue that will energise the Conservative base. Next up, it’s loosely interconnected in people’s minds with Europe, and thus will attract the attention of the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party. Normally you’d expect David Cameron to prefer walking barefoot across red hot coals to drawing attention to the issue that most troubles the cohesion of his party, but in this case it seems likely he’s calculating that every moment Eurosceptics spend telling journalists they agree with him on the Human Rights Act is a moment they can’t spend criticising his ‘weak’ leadership on the rest of the European issue. Finally, the Human Rights Act is a marker of difference between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, but a relatively safe one, and this makes it useful for both Cameron and Clegg. Both of them can point to their difference of opinion as evidence that they haven’t abandoned their core principles, but can also rest easy in the knowledge that the difference of opinion is on a fairly abstract matter that’s far less dangerous to the long-term survival of the coalition than the difference of opinion on substantive issues like cutting the top rate of income tax.
As an example of the art of political distraction, this really is pretty impressive – there’s so much for people to concentrate on, so many different angles, so many ramifications to be teased out. But, as when a magician does something with his right hand to distract you from what he’s doing with his left, the important thing is to concentrate on what it is you’re supposed to ignore. In this case, of course, we don’t have to look far to find it – it’s the economy, stupid. The Conservatives are desperate that the focus during their conference should be on anything other than cuts, and the ballooning deficit, and falling living standards – on anything other than the growing suspicion amongst the public that the country’s headed for hell in a hand-basket, and that the Conservatives have few ideas, and certainly no coherent plan, for making it better. Much better we should all be focussed on some nice, abstract, arcane debate with little relevance to the day-to-day lives of most people – and judging by the way this story is exploding across the news media, it’s been a successful ploy.