We should all be very afraid. The Home Secretary’s assault on the Human Rights Act is a frightening example of short-term thinking, and a politically motivated Tory crowd-pleaser. As Theresa May sets her speechwriters to pillage the Daily Mail archives for scare stories framed in inaccuracies, the self-styled ‘common sense’ brigade marches on through our civil liberties.
In her party conference speech, May suggested that the Human Rights Act was getting in the way of her work to cut immigration. The thing is, that is exactly what Human Rights laws exist to do: get in the way. The laws were intended to get in the way of tyranny, unfairness, oppression and mistreatment. Human rights exist to protect the weakest precisely by getting in the way of the strongest.
What Ken Clarke terms “laughable, child-like” stories of manipulation of the Human Rights Act are dangerous. They obscure the daily good that these laws do. If we are bombarded by inaccurate and poorly explained stories of the pet cat variety, we will soon forget just what the Act stands for.
Conservatives believe they have a monopoly on what they call ‘common sense’. By painting other parties as namby-pamby, cautious and dithering, they hope to appear straight-talking and efficient. The problem is the argument for ‘common sense’ to replace Human Rights presupposes a lot of things that should never be left to supposition.
We are lucky. We live in a democratic, law-abiding, accountable society that has long valued fairness and freedom. However, no just society can afford to be complacent that things will always be so. The Human Rights Act isn’t in place to deal with the David Camerons and Theresa Mays of this world, but with the Saddam Husseins, the Hu Jintaos and the Kim Jong-ils.
Yes, the Act may sometimes be applied inappropriately, but isn’t that better than always erring on the side of the powerful? The Human Rights Act enshrines the freedoms of each one of us, from king to cleaner. Simply because we are human.
Real common sense would suggest some aspects of the Act need clarification in practice. But May is wrong to demand its abolition. It has been said that life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards. History shows us that future generations may rue the day we decided that freedom needed no protection.