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The Tories Shouldn't Be Taking Tips From Alan Partridge On Human Rights

17/07/2017 14:55 BST | Updated 17/07/2017 14:55 BST
MATT DUNHAM via Getty Images

Rights Scepticism, namely the belief that human rights actors and institutions, foreign and domestic, are somehow bad for our interests is a curiously recent British obsession. Lowering human rights standards is not something you will hear much in mainland Europe, nor would you hear many Americans talk about repealing their beloved Bill of Rights.

Steve Coogan's character, Alan Partridge perhaps best summarised the normalisation of rights scepticism when he described British culture as "tutting when you see an ice-cream van selling hamburgers... a healthy suspicion of human rights... a Punch and Judy show having a giggle at a domestic incident...".

The problem with rights scepticism is it started as a relatively harmless contrarian stance but is now an unhealthy nihilistic obsession.

From Magna Carta to the English Bill of Rights through to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and latterly, the Human Rights Act, British political history is thread through with successive generations' battle to secure their rights.

By taking power away from monarchs and embedding them in Parliament, there has been substantial progress made in securing peace and prosperity over centuries. After the atrocities of the Second World War, Conservative politicians such as Winston Churchill and lawyers such as David Maxwell-Fyfe helped establish major rules-based orders that challenged countries to conform to a higher standard of conduct, both towards their citizens and to each other through an agreed set of laws and levers of accountability.

The current Conservative government has been pursuing an agenda on rights for years, firstly with promises to repeal the Human Rights Act and secondly through public fights with the European Court of Human Rights. Following the trigger of Article 50, attention has turned to the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Court of Justice.

Rights scepticism has been espoused in spite of the fact that human rights are politically and legally integral to both our unions, the UK and the EU. The Human Rights Act is written into the Good Friday Agreement which has maintained peace in Northern Ireland and the Charter of Fundamental Rights is written into the EU Treaties in order to maintain peace between European nations and ensure there isn't a slide back into the Fascism and Communism that scarred the twentieth century.

The UK's current crop of politicians seem strangely remote from this historical progress in Europe especially now for the sake of the perceived short term gain of Brexit. By abandoning a European consensus on human rights the UK is in danger of worsening the global instability that stalks contemporary politics be it via Trump, the MENA region, Putin or North Korea.

Before the General Election, Theresa May did in fact commit to staying in the European Convention on Human Rights, our most important international law on rights after campaigning by prominent Conservatives and groups such as Liberty and Amnesty UK.

Now the fight has stepped up to another level.

The Lib-Lab proposal to bring the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights into UK law in the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, published last week shows that there is an important vision of the UK emerging that protects and does not abandon our joint European legacy on rights and freedoms.

As 89up pointed out in our report, They're Your Rights: Fight for Them, which warned about the threat to human rights from Brexit, EU law has helped British people secure their rights in cases on same sex partnerships, air pollution, state surveillance and mistreatment of workers to great effect in recent times. If the UK wants a future relationship with the EU, and to protect jobs, the environment, data privacy and equality, we should accept the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

It's not just all about the rule of law either, human rights exist to ensure there is a real set of moral principles that underpin our society's values. A human rights framework that is equivalent to the EU should be guiding our trade and relations with other states which apart from being in our national economic interest, will also help to prevent global conflict.

For now, Brexit and how the UK complies with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights will affect how we as people and as a country will experience the effects of globalisation for many years to come. Theresa May, or the next Conservative Party leader, should resist the temptation to pander to their pollsters who insist on rhetoric to turn out rights sceptic voters. When it comes to human rights, it's time to speak, act and legislate on what everyone needs, not just on what Alan Partridge wants to hear.

89up is crowdfunding to take a bus to Brussels to make the case to the EU that human rights should be part of any future trade deal with the UK.