On 23 June 2016 the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. Turnout was high, 72.2% and the result close but decisive: 51.9% for Leave as against 48.1% for Remain. The Prime Minister immediately announced his resignation, to take effect just as soon as his successor could be chosen. The Labour opposition was thrown into disarray, members of the Parliamentary party seeking to remove their own leader Jeremy Corbyn but finding themselves prevented by Party rules from being able to do so. Scotland – which had voted to remain – began immediate planning to distance itself from the rest of the UK. On the Saturday immediately following the result, foreign ministers of the founding member countries of the European Union came together to consider what actions to take, and in the days that followed a series of debates, discussions and emergency sessions were held in Brussels, Luxembourg and across the capitals of Europe. As Europe debated, markets wiped millions off the value of shares, and the pound Sterling fell to lows not seen for a generation. On the Monday after the Thursday result an anxious House of Commons reflected on the implications of what the people had decided.

The architects of the Out, or BREXIT, vote, meanwhile, were nowhere to be seen. After a short vague statement Conservatives Boris Johnson and Michael Gove disappeared almost entirely from public view, giving no interviews, issuing no plan – or even suggestion of a plan – of how to proceed, and not even engaging in the parliamentary discussion on what was to happen next. Within days it became disconcertingly clear that neither these mainstream campaigners for BREXIT nor their allies had the slightest idea of what to do next. Nor did the government. The result being wholly unexpected, no plan B had been put in place. After a few days of policy-immobility, a sort of provisional answer appeared in the form of the Conservative politician Oliver Letwin, whose enormous responsibility it suddenly became to execute the people’s wishes to depart from the market on which so much of British trade depended.

This book is about a fantasy island which thinks it can go it alone so far as human rights are concerned, which has fooled itself to believe that while with the poet John Donne no man is an island, a country as great as the UK can indeed be exactly that in a metaphorical as well as a geographic sense: a place of safety and separateness, one that is immune to the pressures of the outside world, and onto whose shores the waves of globalisation never break. The same instinct to celebrate the lonely courage of an ancient island people is behind the BREXIT vote. Time and again during the referendum campaign, rational arguments about risk were met with a grand contempt for the very idea that expertise could matter in a struggle as great as this for the restoration of ancient British freedom. Migration would finally be brought irrefutably under control and (it was implied) sharply reduced. The beloved National Health Service would receive an infusion of cash – previously bound for the hated Brussels bureaucrats – that would take it out of intensive care and restore it to rude good health. Trade deals with the world would roll in as nation states reacted to the opportunities afforded by a free Britain for a renewal of old commercial ties and the development of new ones. The European Union itself would quickly come round, acknowledging that the specialness of the UK warranted access to its single market without the disciplines required of every one of its other members. All those who said otherwise – world leaders like the US president Barrack Obama; governors of banks around the world; the leaders of global financial institutions – were simply being made to parrot the views of the British political establishment so as to help this ‘elite’ win a referendum that would, if they had their way, merely confirm the country’s ongoing subjugation to ‘abroad’. The vote was not about dreary economic facts: it was about ‘taking back control’, about ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’.

As I write the consequences of this collision between fact and fantasy are being played out not only in the shocks being delivered to trade, the currency and the stock market but also on the streets where a rise in racially-motivated hate crime has been reported. The next target being sized up for destruction is also coming into view, the Human Rights Act and (quite possibly in the new climate) the European Convention on Human Rights on which that measure is based. Here the topic of this book connects directly with the events I have just been describing. For years human rights law has been the object of scorn among a wide range of Right-leaning politicians, and their supporters in the traditional print media. The arguments against the law have been broadly the same as those that have ended up driving the UK decision to leave the European Union; this book analyses these in no little detail in the pages that follow. Now that the larger European entanglement has been successfully seen off, the time has come for finishing the unfinished business of human rights destruction. The driver is UK domestic politics, in particular the needs of the pretenders to the prime ministership so abruptly vacated by David Cameron. The electorate here is not now the people, but rather Conservative MPs initially and thereafter the Conservative Party membership generally. Neither community is enthusiastic about human rights in general or the Human Rights Act in particular. Here is another example of foreign intrusion, an alien contamination that needs now to be washed away altogether so that Great Britain’s fresh start can be properly made. Much of this book is taken up with showing how wrong-headed this critique of the Human Rights Act is (‘fantasy’ is a polite way of putting it) and how impossible it is to step out of the world in this way.

How has the UK reached the point that it has, where invented versions of a golden past are being allowed drive the country into an (in every sense) impoverished future? The answer is the same so far as both the EU and human rights are concerned. A country’s political leadership cannot spend decades attacking an idea and the set of institutions behind that idea and then expect the electorate to follow it when it suddenly changes tack and asks voters to support that which had been previously derided and abused. This is exactly what Mr Cameron and his colleagues asked so far as the European Union was concerned. No political leader in the UK has had an unqualifiedly good word to say about Europe since Edward Heath, and he left office in 1974. Even Tony Blair’s enthusiasm was tempered by a perceived need to fall in with rather than work to change the anti-European prejudice that had become normal in the long period of conservative hegemony from 1979 to 1997. This was why the Remain campaign was so negative, so rooted in what became known as Project Fear: a sudden conversion to the value of the EU would have looked ridiculous to an electorate brought up on a cross-party consensus (ostensibly shared even by closet pro-Europeans) about how awful Europe really was.

It is the same with human rights. As chapter one of this book shows, the Human Rights Act has been friendless from the moment of its enactment, unsupported by the government that created it, attacked by the Conservative opposition, savaged by the newspapers, and eventually now facing repeal – victim of the same forces that have swept the UK out of Europe.

Or have they? In the days after the referendum result, much attention has focused on turning the fantasy of British independence into reality. When they are victorious, even fantasists cannot avoid facts forever. However hard they try to hide, Messrs Johnson and Gove and their gang of Brexiteers will eventually have to explain what they plan to do. It was their desperation to avoid this that led them to be so anxious that the prime minister they had destroyed should stay on to do their work for them, so that he could engage in the detailed work of extrication that is so far beneath men so wedded to the abstract big picture as these philosopher-journalists (an invitation Mr Cameron rightly declined). There is now talk of delaying pulling the trigger on the exit discussions. Conservatives so keen on exit last week seem intent on hanging around in the cloakroom for years before finally retrieving their sovereign clothes and marching off into the dark night of freedom.

Things are not as easy as they look when fantasy collides with fact. The Human Rights Act may yet survive. The UK’s membership of the European Union might even as well. After the Roman Empire had converted to Christianity one emperor stood out against the change, seeking to turn back the clock to the old pagan ways. Julian lasted just three years, and Christianity came back stronger than ever. Maybe as prime minister one or other of the Brexiteers is fated to play the role of King Canute, whose wisdom in showing that he could not resist the tides has long been misunderstood as stupidity.

Conor Gearty
29 June 2016

Britain, Europe and Human Rights