Chapter 13

British Values: Shrinking into (Little) England

With ever-increasing hostility to the Human Rights Act the confident outward-looking British face retreats into an inward-looking English one, seeking as it does so to compensate for decline with tighter control over its (much-reduced) backyard. As was the case with the referendum on the European Union, the antagonists of the human rights status quo have drawn their energy from an incendiary combination of the negative with the nostalgic: negative about the world outside, in this case the Strasbourg judges who control us and the nasty foreigners at home whom we can’t expel on account of this law; nostalgic about a past time of social ease in Britain and dominance abroad, a period when human rights needed no tutor from far away but (as civil liberties) were a natural part of an Englishman’s birthright. It is this sense of loss that has produced in recent years a movement towards the legislative assertion of ‘British values’. Initially easily ignored, lampooned even, as another search for an irrecoverable (and in its adopted shape largely invented) past, this project has gathered pace in recent years, opening another front in the war on Europe and human rights and threatening further to destabilize England’s inclusive political culture. The move also tells us something about how, in the new order desired by these militant nostalgists, human rights are at risk of being reconceived as a cultural weapon rather than (as at present) a collection of enforceable legal rights.

In this chapter of the book I detail the start of the Prevent agenda under Labour and examine how it has grown under both the Coalition and – more recently – the Conservative government.

Now in this debate about values no explicit connection is made between distaste for human rights law and our growing enthusiasm for counter-extremism, yet the link is there to be made. All societies are naturally predisposed to defend themselves from internal as well as external threats, and democracies have been no exception. We saw some examples in Chapters 2 and 3 of the drive in twentieth-century Britain to prevent ideological opponents of parliamentary democracy from being able to deploy the openness of such a polity so as to achieve by argument an extinction that they could never have brought about by military means: there is something that rings true in a Home Secretary’s gibe from the 1920s that the Communists then being harried by the law were not engaged in ‘the right type of freedom of speech’ to warrant protection. In wartime the problem of ‘fifth columnists’ has always been acute, and in more peaceful times the challenge of counter-terrorism policy has been to defeat the violence of political subversives without in the process doing their destructive work for them. Inevitably such arguments expose the universalist inclinations of human rights to critique, the determination of human rights law to offer the equal protection of the law to all being construed as weakness in the face of existential danger. If we talk about ‘values’ and about countering ‘non-violent extremism’ we are inevitably dividing the community into different categories, those who do and those who do not ‘fit in’.

Now while remaining true to its egalitarian premise, human rights law has not insulated itself from the need for pragmatic protection. As we have seen in the course of this book, many of the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights can be legitimately departed from where this is ‘necessary in a democratic society’ and there is also the overarching article 17 which did for the Germany Communist Party in the 1950s: ‘Nothing in this Convention may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein or at their limitation to a greater extent than is provided for in the Convention.’ There are also derogations permitted under Art 15, and Reservations on occasion as well. But crucially none of this allows explicit attacks on our core human rights or entitles us to make invidious distinctions rooted in nationality. Human rights law prevails even when its rights are not being adhered to since the exceptions that are being allowed are achieved under cover (rather than in defiance) of that law.

There have been disturbing recent signs of a change of tack from the Strasbourg Court, of a shift from human rights as law to human rights as a cultural weapon, exactly the direction against which the Convention is supposed to protect us. In 2003, in Refah Partisi (The Welfare Party) v Turkey the European Court of Human Rights extended the defensive shield of the Convention to local actions taken to prohibit the political activism of a popular political party that was however judged by the authorities to be a threat to democracy. Then in 2014 in SAS v France the European Court actually went to a great deal of trouble to find a way of upholding France’s draconian Burqa ban, talking about the need ‘to live together’ as a legitimate basis for restricting individual rights. Such a move is at odds with what we have seen throughout this book, the deployment of human rights law to reach individuals in need of protection. This new sort of ‘human rights’ seems to find in human rights not a code of law but an accessory of western Judaeo-Christian civilization. British foreign policy is similarly repositioning itself, continuing to talk about human rights when it wants to criticize certain countries while removing ministerial obligations to have regard to international law and treaty obligations in the course of their work and downgrading human rights concerns internationally when business is judged to come first. Human rights without the kind of impartial enforcement that the law epitomizes become a set of merely pious declarations or a new weapon in international relations, or both.

Britain, Europe and Human Rights