Writing in the New Statesman, Labour Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan brazenly declares that the Liberal Democrat’s record in Government has left Labour as the party of civil liberties. This has kicked off predictable outrage from Lib Dem activists and in the comments, with most people citing the poor record of the last Labour government. Despite the Blair Government’s terrible approach to civil liberties and counter-terrorism, its wrong to call Khan a hypocrite. For starters, he was one of the Labour rebels who voted against Tony Blair’s 90-day detention policy, back in 2005. More recently, he has admitted the party’s mistakes on human rights and civil liberties. Part of his Charter 88 anniversary lecture was a scathing critique of the last Labour Government’s approach:
And I hold up my hands and admit that we did, on occasions, get the balance wrong. On 42 and 90 days, and on ID cards, where the balance was too far away from the rights of citizens… On top of this, we grew less and less comfortable with the constitutional reforms we ourselves had legislated for. On occasions checked by the very constitutional reforms we had brought in to protect people’s rights from being trampled on. But we saw the reforms as an inconvenience, forgetting that their very awkwardness is by design. A check and balance when our policies were deemed to infringe on citizens’ rights.
If an opposition spokesperson says this, I think they ward off the charge of hypocrisy when they subsequently criticise the civil liberties failings of the Governing coalition. We want political parties to admit their mistakes and reverse their policies, don’t we? Whether the voters believe Labour or not is another matter, but I think the fact that the spokesman is someone who was a Government rebel on 90 days, and who has been a target of surveillance himself, make Labour’s position that little bit more credible. Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, included similar nostra culpas in her Demos speech on security and surveillance. Continue reading “Are Human Rights a vote winner?”
Its great news that MPs voted for marriage equality yesterday. We should remember that the debate yesterday was only one of several stages in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. There will be other votes on this issue, and the arguments for and against the reforms will persist for a little while yet. The anti-family campaigners’ main argument is this: If we re-define marriage to include same-sex marriage, what is to stop a future parliament from re-defining the concept again, to allow polygamy, or inter-species marriage, &ct? The usual rebuttal to this is that marriage has often been redefined – The Liberal Democrat campaigner Mark Pack’s recent post on this topic is a great example of this argument. There is, however, another argument, that is admittedly less persuasive but worth an airing. It is this: If we acquiesce to the traditional, religious conception of marriage, what is to stop future parliaments making further reversions in the future? The religious books are pretty clear that the male has primacy in a marriage, and a religiously motivated politicians might seek to restore that inequality by redefining marriage. Likewise, the Bible has passages that warn against inter-faith marriage, such as 2 Corinthians 6:14:
Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?
Stern stuff. The Old Testament also endorses polygamy. So giving credence to anything proposed by the religious or social conservatives risks a similar if different ‘slippery slope’ argument. “Traditional Marriage Paves The Way For A Return To Polygamy”. This is a reminder that it is in the very nature of our political system that laws may be changed, and that any change to any law means that it could be further reformed in the future. This is not a bad thing (although those who see their values falling out of fashion tend to see it as such). Are there any immutable laws that are not open to revision by future parliaments? In times past, God’s Law performed this function. But this was a flawed system, not least because religious authorities seem happy to re-legislate the Word of God when it is convenient. Countries with a written constitution seek to encode some underlying laws that frame what legislators can and cannot do… but constitutions are open to amendment and repeal. In Britain, the European Convention on Human Rights can trump domestic law. Its incarnation in British law, the Human Rights Act, has a certain meta-status, governing what other laws can or cannot say. But even these laws are open to repeal or withdrawal by law-makers. There is no final arbiter that can prevent the slippery slope towards mad laws, dangerous and unethical laws, if a parliament wishes such things to be so. This is why the vigilance of the people is so important – to ensure that the law keeps pace with, but does not go beyond, our values. This seems to be happening in the case of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which reflects the new public consensus that marriage should be available to all.
Plenty of Sharp-bait in the media this morning. David Cameron will give a speech today criticising the European Court of Human Rights, for going against the laws and judicial decisions of Council of Europe countries. I’ve argued before, in a post on paedos and prisoners, that in the human rights framework, a judgement that frustrates the populist sentiment is a feature, not a bug. The case of Abu Qatada is cited as an example of a problem, but I see it as the system working well. The man (odious as he may be) hasn’t had a proper trial, and the European Court pointed this out. What’s wrong with that? The response from the reactionaries is “he doesn’t deserve a fair trial”. This implies a two-tier system of liberty and justice, an Us-and-Them approach which eventually dehumanises certain groups. We need an effective justice and security system to provide some protection against violence and extremism. But it has to apply a consistent set of rules and procedures if it ismto woeffort perky. And we also need an external court of human rights, to protect us from the careless elements in our own society, who are happy to dispense with due process whenever it is not to their taste. it’s a shame that our Prime Minister is pandering to these “careless elements” and I hope the other party leaders, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, do not follow suit.