Thursday, 22 January 2009

Labour's assault on liberties is linked to its misrepresentation of rights

It is to good purpose that we speak of civil liberties being ‘eroded’. Frequently this corpus of law, which protects freedoms, rights and entitlements inherent in our British citizenship, is diluted almost imperceptibly. The Labour government’s systematic diminishment of our liberties has been a monotonous drip, frequently camouflaged by the rhetoric of security. The overall effect is that often we do not realise that a freedom is under attack until is already gone. We remember that it was once enjoyed, but not the exact circumstances or timing of its removal.

To this end Comment is Free is developing an aide-mémoire detailing legislation through which Labour has deprived Britons of liberties since its election victory in 1997. Subsequent to that date the government has created 3,600 new criminal offences which Lord Phillips, until recently Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, has described as a ‘ceaseless torrent of legislation’. Afua Hirsch introduces the guide with a brief exposition of acts which have applied in some high profile examples where liberties have been curtailed.

A considerably different medium, ConHome, also examines the civil liberties issue today. Dominic Raab is Chief of Staff for the new Shadow Justice Secretary, Dominic Grieve. He argues that Labour’s removal of basic protections for individual liberty has coincided with deliberate misrepresentation of the concept of human rights. Increasingly rights are portrayed less as defences against the arbitrary removal of freedom and more as legal entrenchments of dubious claims on the state. I wonder if he has read the NIHRC’s recommendations for a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland. It is a document which makes an apotheosis of this erroneous interpretation of rights.

Raab wants a new Bill of Rights for the United Kingdom which will, ‘provide greater clarity and stronger protection for our fundamental freedoms, but give maximum flexibility to restore democratic control over - and check - the flow of novel claims dressed up as human rights’. In other words a legal architecture which strives to find some balance between rights and responsibilities. Raab’s boss has already expressed the opinion that Northern Ireland should be included in such a bill, albeit with room to provide any additional safeguards for identity and parity of esteem which might be appropriate.

Concern with the removal of liberties is not a partisan issue. As the campaign against forty two day detention demonstrated, opponents of Labour’s assaults on freedom are drawn from across the political spectrum. The government has not just offended a libertarian fringe. It has repeatedly attacked fundamental principles which underlie the Kingdom’s constitution and its political identity.

It should not be forgotten, however, that whilst the process has entailed a diminution of rights in the accepted sense, it has also involved an exponential increase in the erroneous invocation of rights as a concept. Both phenomena need to be urgently addressed.

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