by Steve Beasant on 15 June, 2015
The following article was written by the Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale Tim Farron and published today on the Guardian Website.
The Human Rights Act is a direct descendant of that great charter. Tory plans to scrap it will destroy freedoms of which Britain should be proud.
Standing modestly in a solitary field in Runnymede is a commemoration to a moment when Britain became great. The sealing of the Magna Carta – “the Great Charter of the Liberties” – 800 years ago today, effectively ripped up the idea that monarchs have an invincible and divine right to rule, and established the contemporary powers of parliament and the laws that continue to protect and liberate us today. When our rights are infringed, when we seek justice, when we challenge things that are patently unfair… it is the Magna Carta we turn to.
It’s because of the Magna Carta that, in 2003, 3 million of us were able to come together to protest against the Iraq war. It’s the Magna Carta that means we can legally fight cases where a severely disabled person is confined to a single room because her local council has failed to provide suitable housing. And, ironically, it’s the Magna Carta that has ultimately allowed us to vote in a government that seems hell bent on destroying it.
Their attempt to do so is not only a cloak and dagger attack on our freedoms, but also our standing in the world. The year 1215 is not only a significant date in British history, but in the history of the world. When, in 1948, the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt expressed her hope that it would become “the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere”. And, in the shadow of the second world war and the Holocaust, it was the tenets of the Magna Carta that guided the hand of Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, a Conservative MP, as he drafted the European convention on human rights. The Human Rights Act 1998 enshrines that convention into UK law; an act which, if the Tories get their way, will soon be no more.
I am a Liberal Democrat because, all too often, I have seen the powerful exploit the powerless. The hideous abuses of human rights – false imprisonment, state-sponsored torture, organised paedophile rings – often grab the headlines. Though too often, they do not. But it’s also the everyday slights on our society that are no less an abuse of our ability to live a decent, human life: the child left without a school place, medical treatment denied, the woman forced to sign away her life to a marriage she doesn’t want.
For a party that purports to be the defenders of the individual and advocates for a small state, the Tories have a funny way of showing it. They would seem much more interested in listening to our emails, telephone calls and text messages than listening to our cries for freedom. When we were in government, we stopped them introducing the snoopers’ charter. Now we are gone, it is back on the table.
The Human Rights Act helps us all fight for the justice and fairness that keeps our society ticking along. It helped to secure the Mid Staffordshire NHS inquiry and the conviction of an employer practising modern-day slavery. There will, unfortunately, be many more times we will need to call upon it.
Now the Tories wants to repeal it. Their sales pitch is about sovereignty – Britain’s over Europe, parliament’s over the courts. Don’t fall for it. You are being duped. Our Human Rights Act specifically preserves the power of British judges to disagree with the Strasbourg court – a power they use. And it preserves parliamentary sovereignty, allowing the courts to only declare legislation “incompatible” with human rights, not strike it down. If David Cameron really cares about these things, he should be championing the act, not trying to scrap it.
Instead, the Tories’ plan will weaken our ability to enforce our rights and freedoms – rights which many of our most vulnerable citizens are already seeing brazenly destroyed before their eyes. It would trigger a retreat from our position at the heart of Europe, with all the commercial consequences that will have for small and medium businesses. And it would place further strain on our domestic union. The Scottish and Welsh governments have very clearly stated their opposition to scrapping the Human Rights Act, and in Northern Ireland it would represent a breach of the Good Friday agreement.
It is no coincidence that, a short stroll up the hill from the Magna Carta commemoration in Runnymede, sits another mark to history – the Kennedy Memorial. When the early colonists arrived in America, they brought with them the principles of the Magna Carta, and enshrined them into their constitution. Indelibly etched on to the Kennedy Memorial are words that are as relevant today as they were 800 years ago, and ones we now find ourselves fighting for all over again. “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend or oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
Liberty – it was something worth fighting for 800 years ago, it was something worth fighting for in 1945, and we must fight for it now.
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