|GCHQ - we just accept that it is necessary and that|
it should be largely unaccountable
|It might be a bit of wry|
fun but it has a horrible
ring of truth!
And most prevalent and insidious of all - and something that we accept without further thought, it is just an accepted part of modern life - is that the rich and powerful can, and do, wield influence that both overtly and covertly moulds the world to their desires. Only yesterday we heard of how the UK’s largest commercial radio group, Global Radio, advised its stations to drop the HSBC tax story on the morning the story broke for “editorial reasons”. Global, which broadcasts to about 23 million listeners a week, is owned by Denis O’Brien and told its stations not to run reports about HSBC after it was revealed that the bank’s Swiss subsidiary helped wealthy customers store assets offshore in an unaccountable way. At the same time O'Brien brought an injunction to prevent the broadcasting of a report in relation to his private banking affairs. This is the same pattern that a few weeks before had made the headlines when the Daily Telegraph did the same thing and forced the resignation of its chief political commentator Peter Oborne, claiming the paper he worked for had deliberately suppressed stories about the banking giant. He described the Telegraph's stance as a “fraud on its readers”. In my view it was rather more serious than than that - to use an old phrase the Telegraph were at the very least being "economical with the truth". O’Brien, like the owners of the Telegraph (the Barclay brothers), lives in a tax haven so we should not be surprised that they do not want potentially damaging headlines about their practices - but as I say, we have now got so used to this sort of thing that we rarely notice and most just shake their heads and accept that it is "the way of the world" . Neither do I believe that it would be much different were Labour in power – which is a sad indictment – but the fact that the Tory party is in bed with big business leaves a worrying taste in the mouth. Who is running the country and how are we being manipulated are the questions that we need to continually ask but the election result suggests the unavoidable conclusion that most of the electorate don’t really care – and that really is worrying.
And secondly, as each general election goes by our basic democratic system falls further and further into disrepute; to coin a modern and oft used phrase it is increasingly unfit for purpose. I do not blame the Tories for this – both major parties have a responsibility but the skewing of the results of the election now no longer reflect opinion and viewpoint within the country – they merely favour the big boys. Our “first past the post system is, I believe, increasingly unsuitable for a modern democracy. In the election 1.1 million people voted for the Green party, result one seat; 3.8 million people voted for Ukip, result one seat; 2.4 million people voted for the Lib Dems, result eight seats; 1.4 million people voted for the SNP, result 56 seats. Whilst the Tory party will be delighted to have taken 52% of the parliamentary seats yet only received 37% of the popular votes cast the 7.3 million 25% of voters (some 7.3 million people) who voted Lib Dem, Green or UKIP saw only a total of only 10 MPs between. Had some form of proportional representation been adopted then our new Parliament would have looked very different - and certainly been more representative of the nation as a whole.The Conservatives would have won 75 fewer seats but would still have been the largest party in the Commons. Labour, too, would have taken fewer seats. The SNP's dramatic increase in seats of 50 would have been curtailed to 25. But UKIP, the Lib Dems and the Greens would have fared much better. UKIP would have been a force to be reckoned with in the Commons with 83 seats. Personally I would not have liked a greater UKIP representation but, and this is important, it would have been a fairer and better picture of the nation's feelings and that, after all is what a general election is all about - it is not to vote for a government but to vote for a parliament that represents the views of the nation. And, importantly, unless some more equitable way is found of reflecting the views in the country then a large proportion of the voting population will continue to be disenfranchised. Their votes will be seen to have unequal value and people’s disengagement with politics will only grow deeper. The newly elected Tory majority government is a consequence of our first past the post system – for the health of democracy in this country it needs to be changed. But, such is the vested interest here of the two major parties that I don’t see that happening within my life time.
But, in the shorter term, there is one third issue that for me is head and shoulders over the rest in these democratic considerations – the Tory proposals for the repeal of the Human Rights legislation.
In a few weeks time we will be remembering the 800th anniversary of the “signing” of Magna Charta by King John in June 1215. Britain has, since that date, been a world leader and often looked up to and copied in issues of justice, fairness and democracy. Indeed our Parliament is known as the “mother of Parliaments”. In 1647, as England waged a long Civil War, Thomas Rainsborough‘s wonderful – and at the time highly radical - call at the Putney Debates for a form of representative democracy rang out and still rings true, even in these days of universal suffrage: “.....For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under…” These words should be carved on every school wall, displayed in every public place and be made compulsory learning for all - they are the very basis of our freedom. In the intervening years since 1647 they have been built upon and our society has very slowly but surely become more democratic, fairer and probably more just – the 1832 Reform Act, the suffragette movement and in more recent years the European Human Rights Act of which Britain was a founder have all ensured the security and extension of basic freedoms and democracy within our shores so that today, in theory at least Rainsborough’s “poorest he” does today have a life to live as “the greatest he”.
By a twist of fate, we remembered the ending of the Second World War within hours of last week's general election - we celebrated again, 70 years after the event, VE Day - Victory in Europe Day. In the aftermath of the war nations of all kinds not only got down to the task of physically rebuilding their lands but of looking to the future and trying to ensure that never again would Europe be ravaged by war and oppression. The result was the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights – or to give it its full name, The European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms - a document intended to ensure the rights and freedoms of all. This is not simply an extension of Magna Charta or any of the various acts and laws that individual national parliaments have agreed to but is rather based in international law so it carries great weight and crosses frontiers. Never again, it was hoped, would a European people, collectively or individually, be subject to tyranny and oppression – the very ideals that the war was fought for.
|Theresa May hates it when the European Court prevents her|
from punishing or extraditing an alleged criminal or terrorist.
She wants the right to be judge and jury
So, in this 800th anniversary year of Magna Charta and at the time of VE day memories it is a depressing thought that our new government is intent on bucking the trend of the past centuries and ideals by setting out to reverse many of our hard won freedoms and rights by repealing the Human Rights Act and replacing it with their own version.
It is even more depressing, or rather alarming, that the man who will be guiding the nation through this legislation is a Michael Gove – a politician known for his love of the past (or at least his version of it) and his reactionary views. We know that Gove has already stated his desire to bring back the death penalty and he has been equally reactionary as regards Europe - briefly he wants to return to what he refers to "common sense" - whatever that is. If his tenure at the Department of Education is anything to go by he will want to return to the dark ages so far as the law of the land is concerned. I foresee a considerable war being waged between his department and the legal profession. Hopefully barristers and judges will be more successful than academia was but with the government having been given the seal approval by an unthinking electorate I don't hold much hope - so I am preparing myself for the worst! With Gove's declared love of his version of historical reality - we might now not only look forward to a return of the death penalty but much more besides. We'll be able to enjoy court proceedings resembling those overseen by dreaded 17th century hanging judge, Judge Jeffries; the "bloody assizes"; the Star Chamber; casual torture of the kind common in Tudor England; prison hulks will be moored in the Thames estuary ready to ship out "ne'er-do-wells" to some far flung Guantanamo Bay like prison once they have been sentenced at the Old Bailey; we''ll get used to seeing prisoners like Abel Magwitch in wrist and leg irons and accept as the norm corrupt court rooms as depicted by Dickens in Pickwick Papers, Great Expectations and Bleak House; and maybe a few open air gallows or at least village green stocks will brighten a summer afternoon's picnic. And to bring us right up to date GCHQ (and the US NSA) will be given free rein to snoop, record, and take secret action with no curb or oversight of their activities. I may mock but the really sad and worrying thing is that cheering on the side lines will be the Daily Mail, the Daily Torygraph and the Colonel Blimps and blue rinse brigade of Tory England. Giving Gove this government post is akin to giving Guy Fawkes a few nuclear warheads to play with. We should all be very afraid - Gove will already be gazing into the future, his perverted vision and mind will be in overdrive.
|You read it first in the Mail!|
For me, however, what is most alarming is that in voting Tory at the general election whole swathes of the population have shown that they are clearly in favour if this move – or more likely, as with the influence of big business and the media, they just haven’t given any thought. As usual they have been led by the nose by a right wing press, business and politicians who over the past few years have gone to any lengths to discredit the Human Rights Act.
|The Right Honourable Michael Gove.|
Now I'm the Justice Minister (even though I have absolutely
no legal qualifications) I'm ready to shape the law of the
land - but first I'll turn the clock back.
Briefly, the ECHR which our current Human Rights Act reflects establishes the:
- · Right to life
- · right not to be tortured or subjected to inhumane treatment,
- · right not to be held as a slave,
- · right to liberty and security of the person,
- · right to a fair trial,
- · right not be retrospectively convicted for a crime,
- · right to a private and family life,
- · right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,
- · right to freedom of expression,
- · right to freedom of assembly and association,
- · right to marriage,
- · right to an effective remedy,
- · right not to be discriminated against,
- · the right to the peaceful enjoyment of one’s property,
- · the right to an education.
- · And finally, it imposes a duty upon governments to provide free and fair elections.
|Today's Guardian - and other similar newspapers |
carried vetting of broadcasts story by Theresa May.
The right wing press made no mention! Mmmm!
These are the “rights” that our new government is seeking to replace with a new “British Bill of Rights" which, they say, will “remain faithful to the basic principles of human rights, which we signed up to in the original European Convention on Human Rights”. Most pundits, however, see this as difficult if not impossible without simply repeating that various statutes as set in the European mode. In answer to this, more extreme members of the Tory party – including Theresa May the Home Secretary and Chris Grayling (the ex-Minister of Justice) are already suggesting that we should withdraw completely from the EHRC to give the government complete freedom to do as it will. The desire of right wing politicians to take control is well illustrated by the story that has just broken in the last 24 hours. It has been revealed that Theresa May is keen to have the power to vet British broadcasters’ programmes before they are transmitted in order, she says, "to counter terrorism". Fortunately her plans have been attacked as "a threat to freedom of speech" by some of her more moderate Tory colleagues but one can see the writing on the wall. If she gets her way then broadcasters and other media outlets will potentially be just mouthpieces for the government - in other words pure and simple propaganda.We usually associate propaganda with extreme socialist states like Moa's China or Stalin's Russia but as we saw all too clearly in the run up to 1939 it can be just as prevalent in right wing states such as fascist Germany - and now, maybe, Britain. We should be very afraid.
Michael Gove has been appointed as the new Justice Secretary to lead this assault on the Human Rights Act and in the month when we celebrated VE Day, and within a few weeks of the anniversary of the Magna Charta, the irony should not be lost. We are seeking in 2015 to fundamentally change or maybe even dispense with what British politicians, many of them Tory, participated in the drafting of at the end of the Second World War. Those long dead politicians led by Maxwell-Fyfe, drafters of the original ECHR, believed that they were drafting an instrument that reflected the very basis upon which our democracy and freedoms are based and which, critically, reflected the very values that we took for granted as the raison d’etre for the war that they had just fought in Europe. A great war had been fought, millions of lives lost or changed forever to ensure these basic freedoms throughout Europe. And now our Tory government is seeking to change all that and as I have commented on several occasions already, the majority of the electorate don’t care – or actually cheer it on.
The Human Rights Act has two aims in ‘bringing rights home’: enabling us to access our human rights here at home in the UK, instead of having to go to the European Court of Human Rights and secondly it seeks to promote a ‘culture of human rights’ by making sure that basic human rights underpin the workings of government at the national and local level. It does this by placing a legal duty on public authorities to respect and protect our human rights in everything that they do. This means that you have rights and public authorities have legal responsibilities for respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights. This duty is important in everyday situations because it enables you to challenge poor treatment and to negotiate better solutions. Public authorities can also use the Human Rights Act proactively to develop and deliver better services. The duty on public authorities is important because it ensures legal accountability for decisions which affect our human rights. The HRA ensures the protection of the most vulnerable in our society, including child victims of trafficking, women subject to domestic and sexual violence, those with disabilities and victims of crime. These individuals now have not only a voice, but a right to be protected. The Tories want to repeal the Act and to make Britain's Supreme Court “the ultimate arbiter of human rights” in the UK. But doing this will inevitably result in clashes with Europe and indeed with many other nations – not least Scotland, part of the UK and now, following the general election result and the rise of the SNP, potentially very powerful at Westminster. Importantly, if, as those who would abolish the HRA desire, our own Supreme Court does become the final arbiter then it could also mean that the government of the day could very much do as it likes for there would be no higher arbiter. And finally, if the Act is repealed then this, combined with the restricted access to our courts already brought about in judicial reviews introduced by Chris Grayling plus the coalition government’s financial restrictions on legal aid which is intended to ensure that those of limited means can access justice, will increasingly silence the vulnerable, leave vastly more people without recourse to justice and leave great swaths of executive action unchecked and unaccountable.
Gove, the Tory Party’s Eurosceptics and the right wing press will peddle the usual Tory line that the HRA is nothing more than a villains’ charter, taking away our own “British freedoms”. It has become synonymous with blocking attempts by the UK government to impose whole life sentences on violent criminals and standing in the way of deportation of criminals. Critics say it grants overzealous protection to a right to a family life and protection from torture. They will, as they have done for several years now, blame it for all our nation’s ills – “We are in thrall to Johnny Foreigner” is a loose transcription of the complaint, “Why should faceless people in Strasbourg make laws that overide our English Parliament” in another version of the same moan.. We read almost daily in the right wing media and from the vociferous Eurosceptics in the Tory Party that if we had our own Bill of Rights we could have “common sense” laws and not be forced to do Europe’s bidding. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are not forced to do Europe’s bidding, the only requirement is that our courts “take into account” judgements of the European court; they are not bound by them. Further, although critics of ECHR and the HRA suggest that the problem with the HRA is not so much that there is a fundamental disagreement with any of the enshrined rights (indeed it is mostly accepted that any British Bill of Rights would probably look pretty similar to the ECHR and the HRA) they argue that the HRA has given judges far more scope to ignore what the law says in favour of what they think the law ought to say. At first glance this might seem an enticing argument until one thinks beyond the obvious; the application of the law in a free society is all about such considerations as to how the law ought to be applied, indeed, it is at the very root of fair and just legal decisions. not to take this into consideration runs the risk of simply making "the law look an ass" to use the old adage. To simply apply the law in a cold black and white form is the law of the tyrant. As I have argued on previous blogs, tyranny is the removal of nuance; it is black and white.There is no negotiation in a tyranny - it is the rule of the despotic or Orwellian state. And in the free society we look to our judges - wherever they might be, in London or Strasbourg - to distinguish, provide for and apply that nuance to particular situations in order that the law is applied equitably, fairly and justly.
|The right wing press at full throttle - and millions believe it|
Put simply, the ECHR and the HRA seek to ensure that in this modern age governments, powerful people, powerful institutions – be they landlords, politicians, press barons, GCHQ, MI5 or MI6, employers, terrorists or anyone else – are prevented from bullying, influencing or infringing the basic rights, privileges, life and well being of individual and groups of citizens. While the European Convention on Human Rights and the HRA are not perfect, they are the best protection that we have against the power of the over-mighty state and business corporations because the very institution that is supposed to protect our liberties, Parliament, has increasingly to date proved a poor defender of them. The Tory proposal to rewrite these two basic documents potentially will, at the very least, ensure that we in the England take one step nearer to the Orwellian state for legal judgements and infringements upon our freedoms and privacies will potentially be applied in a much less nuanced way for we will no longer have the security and recourse provided by Strasbourg. But in the longer run the Tory plans will simply deprive people of rights, divide nations abroad and divide nations at home. They are a grossly disproportionate reaction to one or two adverse rulings from Strasbourg to which right wing media and politicians have, over the years, taken exception. It also cuts across that basic fairness, dignity and equality that all nations committed to nearly 70 years ago as the great war against tyranny and oppression ended.
Sadly, however, like turkeys willing to vote for Christmas, our 21st century electorate are happy, like the children of Hamelin, to follow the magical pipe of the Tory pied pipers and give away these freedoms and rights so hard and long won. From 1215 at Runnymede, through a great 17th century Civil War, via great political, social and legal debate and action leading to legislation and more recently through a great World War we have come to a situation where the electorate are willing to forego all this for an occasional tax cut or the dubious promise of cutting the “red tape” allegedly imposed by those nasty Johnny Foreigners in Europe. We have indeed become the shallowest, most unthinking and most easily bought of generations. Our grandparents and great grandparents and all who struggled to win our freedoms would be horrified and, I suspect, ashamed of us, their heirs.