Eight hundred years ago on the fields of Runnymede, a ragtag band of plucky rebel barons challenged a king and changed the course of history.
The story of King John is a cautionary tale for those who rule us now: a tale of freedom trampled under hoof; of disastrous wars, oppressive taxes, and submission to the authority of a continental bully.
At it’s heart the Great Charter forced on King John (and more importantly reaffirmed by his son Henry III) was all about restraining the power of government and forcing it to follow a clear set of rules.
Clause 39 and 40 are worth quoting at length. “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”
In other words, if you had not committed a crime, the local sheriff had no right to throw you into prison. If you found yourself under arrest, you had a right to be tried by your peers.
Supporters of the Human Rights Act – when they are not pretending freedom did not exist prior to 1998 – frequently like to parade their credentials as the intellectual heirs to the Runnymede barons. Those credentials are as false as the naked emperor’s robes.
Human rights are not the same thing as freedom. Aside from the fact that someone bothered to write (or type) both documents down, the tradition of Magna Carta has nothing to do with the thinking behind the European Convention on Human Rights.
Freedom means no one has the right to interfere with your life, liberty or property. You cannot kill, maim, kidnap or steal from people just because you don’t like them. Nor can you defecate on their lawn, damage their car or kill their pets. At its heart is a simple concept everyone can understand: live and let live.
Liberty – as articulated by the likes of John Locke, JS Mill and Thomas Jefferson – is the birthright of the English-speaking peoples. Classical liberals sought to restrain the power of the state by championing freedom of thought, free speech, a free press and constitutional government.
Human rights, by contrast, have their roots in the Napoleonic code and continental-style rule by decree, and seek to expand government power. They are ‘given’ to you by a benevolent state. The state in turn has a positive obligation to protect its citizens human rights.
Of course, as countless persecuted peoples throughout history can tell you what the state has granted it can easily take away.
In fact, the European Convention on Human Rights expressly provides for a whole host of circumstances where your ‘rights’ can be safely ignored by the authorities. Far from protecting freedoms, the ECHR includes so many qualifications that it renders them practically worthless.
For example, your right to free speech under Article 10 is “subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary”.
Compare this to the first amendment of the US Constitution. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”. No ‘ifs’. No ‘buts’.
The Human Rights Act was supposed to protect our rights by incorporating the Convention into UK law. It has failed on all counts.
The HRA did not stop New Labour from introducing control orders. It did not prevent 28 day detention. It did not prevent them from waging war on free speech by imposing hate crime legislation.
It has given authoritarian politicians a fig-leaf to hide behind whilst they take away our liberties. After all, none of their illiberal actions were ruled to be heretical by the church of human rights.
Meanwhile, activist judges have expanded the range of so-called ‘human rights’ so dramatically that the whole concept has become a mockery of itself. Welfare claimants claim a human right to benefits. Prisoners claim a human right to vote. Foreign criminals claim a human right to a family life to avoid being deported.
The role of judges is to interpret the law. Yet under the Human Rights Act, politics has become the preserve of ideologically motivated judges who do not hesitate to rule against laws they disapprove of.
Jurists used to argue that Magna Carta embodied the ancient rights of Englishmen. It became the battle standard of the English speaking peoples and their great ideal of freedom under the law. By embracing the concept of human rights, Labour rejected that ideal in favour of continental style human rights.
The Human Rights Act is not a continuation of Magna Carta. It is a betrayal of all it stands for.