By Graham Vanbergen: You may not have thought about it before but in reality the reason why we have civil liberties and human rights in the first place in Britain, is to protect individuals from the state itself. The state does not offer them because they are good and nice, they were fought for and forced upon government. This is crucial to your understanding of how they were won in the first place and how they are being slowly eroded today. The government has to be challenged every step of their recent campaign to free themselves and the corporations of these important freedoms in search of more ways to exploit ordinary people in pursuit of power and profit.
George Monbiot makes an important point about our government who promises to rip up so-called red-tape: “Ripping down such public protections means freedom for billionaires and corporations from the constraints of democracy. The freedom we were promised is the freedom of the very rich to exploit us.”
Civil liberties and rights are underpinned by our legal system and you may not have noticed just how much legislation has arrived, especially since 2000, that in essence attacks those basic freedoms granted to our citizens in generations before us. Our liberties and rights are designed to prevent the government abusing their powers and curb interference into our lives. Recent legislation goes counter to these principles, such as these few of many examples:
The Investigatory Powers Act – putting all citizens under an intense new spying regime by our own government.
The Justice and Security Act – that expands the use of secret courts to tilt justice in favour of the government.
The Trade Union Act – a repressive strategy of de-democratisation, undermining political resistance and stifling dissent in the democratic process.
Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) – The use of terror laws to threaten press freedom and the civil liberties of everyone.
Proposed Espionage Act -proposed law attempts to ban reporting of future data leaks or scandals such as MP’s expenses by jailing journalists and whistleblowers for up to 14 years and treating them in the same way as foreign spies.
“You are dealing with an unrepresentative clique of power-consumed sociopathic liars who will falsify their feelings, give their word and then break it with equal insouciance. They will show you zero respect and only offer counterfeit sympathy and are devoid of decency. They represent drug-money launderers and fall meekly in line with war-mongering geopoliticians, perverting the rule of law and prosecute those trying to restore it in the many pusillanimous causes of their paymasters.“
These are the words of John Whitehead an American constitutional attorney describing the American government as it is today. These words hold true for Britain as well. Britain’s democracy, civil liberties and human rights are under threat by government who are increasingly emboldened by a lack of response by a largely innocent and unsuspecting citizenry.
An explanation of how Civil Liberty and Human Rights was won in the first place is best described by the organisation – Liberty. Founded in 1934, Liberty is a membership organisation at the heart of the movement for fundamental rights and freedoms in the UK.
In Britain the idea that human beings possess a set of inherent and inalienable rights has deep roots which can be traced back over centuries.
Here are some of the key dates in the history of human rights in the UK:
1186: The earliest ancestor of contemporary human rights protection was the Assize of Clarendon, passed by Henry II in 1166. A precursor to trial by jury, the Assize paved the way for the abolition of trial by combat and trial by ordeal.
1215: Another of the earliest and most commonly cited milestones in the history of human rights in the UK is the Magna Carta – an English Charter issued in 1215 which contained the writ of habeas corpus, allowing people to appeal against imprisonment without trial.
1647: The next milestone in the development of a set of protected rights came in the autumn of 1647, when a group of English political activists, the ‘Levellers’, produced “An Agreement of the People”, which set forth a collection of constitutional principles discussed at the famous Putney debates. The Levellers called for liberty of conscience in matters of religion, freedom from conscription and asked that laws “apply equally to everyone: there must be no discrimination on grounds of tenure, estate, charter, degree, birth or place”.
1689: While the demands of the Levellers were not immediately met, the next landmark is one of the most important documents in the political history of Britain: the Bill of Rights (1689), which put the notion of inalienable rights beyond doubt. An Act of Parliament after the ‘Glorious Revolution’, the Bill included: the freedom to petition the Monarch (a precursor to political protest rights); the freedom from cruel and unusual punishments (the forerunner to the ban on torture contained in our Human Rights Act) and the freedom from being fined without trial.
1774: In a victory for public information and the free press the Parliamentary Register was launched in 1774, following campaigning by Radical MP John Wilkes and others. The Register reported the details of parliamentary debates which had previously been restricted.
1832/3: The 1832 Reform Act increased the electorate from around 366,000 to 650,000 people, about 18 per cent of the total adult-male population in England and Wales. It excluded women and working class men, and votes were still cast in public, but it was a landmark on the road towards universal suffrage. Another important law in the history of human rights was passed in 1833: the Slavery Abolition Act, which outlawed the slave trade throughout the British Empire.
1918: At the end of the First World War the Representation of the People Act gave the vote to all women over 30, enfranchising over eight million women. Shortly afterwards women were also allowed to stand for Parliament, although it took another decade for the vote to be extended to all adult women.
1934: Liberty was founded, as the National Council for Civil Liberties, and 80 years later we’re still going strong.
1948: As the world reeled from the horrors of the Second World War, there came an important realisation that although fundamental rights should be respected as a matter of course, without formal protection human rights concepts are of little use to those facing persecution. The result was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the most important agreements in the history of human rights.
1950: The European Convention on Human Rights was agreed in the aftermath of the Second World War. British lawyers played an instrumental role in the development of the Convention, and the UK signed up in 1951. Find out more about international laws protecting human rights.
1957: The Wolfenden Report was published, marking a turning point in official attitudes towards homosexuality in Western countries. Male homosexuality was finally decriminalised a decade later in the Sexual Offences Act.
1975/6: In 1975 and 1976 respectively the Sex Discrimination Act and the Race Relations Act made it illegal to discriminate against anyone on grounds of their gender or ethnicity, and introduced the concept of indirect discrimination.
1998: Enacted by a youthful Labour Government in 1998, the Human Rights Act (HRA) contains a set of civil and political rights considered fundamental to any liberal democracy. Since it came into force, the HRA has been used as a political football as the Government and the Opposition engage in political positioning, both seeking to seem the toughest on crime and terror by creating a false distinction between liberty and security. But the Human Rights Act is rooted in British culture and history and, as you can see, it has a proud, 800 year old family tree.
At the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the historic foundation of our democratic rights, Amnesty International’s head of policy and government affairs, Allan Hogarth, said of David Cameron’s use of the anniversary of Magna Carta to justify scrapping the Human Rights Act “will have those 13th-century barons spinning in their highly ornate, lead-lined coffins.”
“Any move to scrap the Act would be a real blow for human rights in this country and around the world.”
Under Theresa May, the push to repeal the Human Rights Act has become ever more shrill with cries to ‘scrap it’ at the first opportunity.
Human rights are not there for government to dispense with when it’s politically and economically convenient for them and their corporate funders. They are there in the first place to protect ordinary citizens and uphold the basic standards of a civilised society.
Without these protections, the rich and powerful are let off a restraining leash that will see toxic legislation and policies that enhances their own agenda whilst poisoning local communities with discrimination and division, which you may have noticed is already on the rise.