Theresa May promised to take the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) during her time as Home Secretary. That would follow repealing the UK’s own Human Rights Act (HRA). Both would then be replaced by a Bill of Rights. Toward the time of the 2015 general election the proposition appeared to have been either dropped or at least played down. Recently she has made it clear that her party will fight the 2020 election on plans to take Britain out of ECHR once Brexit is completed. There is no direct link with the EU, but there is malevolent method in her apparent madness.
A very British act
The ECHR in full is the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, 1950, which entered into force in 1953. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) exists since 1959. The UK was one of the founding members when the Council of Europe (CoE) came into existence in 1949. At present, only Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Vatican are not members of the CoE. There are 47 member nations in Europe through to Central Asia, including all EU member states. A group of UK lawyers was involved in drafting the ECHR, setting it up and enacting it with much of its foundations based in principles drawn from English common law. The CoE was to a greater extent the ‘brainchild’ of Winston Churchill who was determined never again to see a Europe in which concentration camps and many of the preventable aspects of the period between the late 1920s and 1945 could ever arise again.
There has been some talk about the UK leaving the CoE. Being a member does not specifically require states to accede to treaties, including the ECHR, nevertheless all founding states did accede and since it has been normal for all new members to do so. Nonetheless, the convention and court are considered the basis of human rights within the CoE. Each member country provides a single judge in order to ensure there is no bias, whereby he or she may not take part in any action involving their own state. Countries in dispute with each other are allowed to object to judges from either side being involved in judgements. In 2012, the 47 member states of the CoE unanimously voted to adopt a series of measures, known as the Brighton Declaration that aimed to reform the ECtHR. The CoE conference on human rights and the ECtHR was held in Brighton during April 2012, with Protocol 6 of the ECHR concerning the abolition of the death penalty as the first priority, then moving on to what have since become ongoing discussions on ECtHR reforms.
Joining a very exclusive club
It is very difficult for there to be any bias on the part of the court. It has happened, but appeals have been raised and submitted against those decisions successfully. At present, UK detention centres for refugees and illegal immigrants only just stand outside the ECHR definition. If May takes the UK out of the ECHR, that line may be crossed extremely easily without redress. It is May and the right wing of her party that oppose the convention and court. They are, in fact, the ones who are prejudiced. Leaving the ECHR would make the UK a pariah state in human rights terms along with Belarus and Kazakhstan, neither of which is a democracy and can justifiably be described as dictatorships. Being anti-ECHR is an obsession filled with malicious accusations of prejudicial decisions against the UK, regardless of there being absolutely no evidence that there ever was. That argument is largely based disingenuously on the case of Abu Qatada versus the UK that led to a 2012 judgment by the ECtHR which stated that under Article 6 of the ECHR the UK could not lawfully deport him to Jordan because of the risk of the use of evidence obtained by torture. He was eventually deported to face retrial in Jordan after agreement between the two countries that evidence obtained by use of torture for the original trial would be discarded. It was indeed discarded; however he was freed of all charges in September 2014. The Tory right was furious. The HRA that had allegedly prevented the UK from deporting Qatada was instantly pounced on and its origins in the UK accession to the ECHR was blamed and proposals for repeal of the law and membership were raised. The ECHR and court have nothing to do with the EU directly however the European Court of Justice (ECJ) protects civil rights in the 28 member states. Nonetheless, some of the right have been very artful in making them appear directly linked. Without the ECHR, ECtHR and ECJ to protect the human and civil rights of people in the UK, it would potentially be possible to intern anybody on any kind of suspicion of political or civil activism which could include peaceful demonstrations against government policy, environmental causes, protests about unfair treatment by employers, strikes and numerous other actions. Certainly detention centres for refugees and illegal immigrants would be fully legitimate and not bound by the present rules, in effect these could then be used as centres into which people could be anonymously consigned to face deportation to countries where there would be no protection, but without any right of representation, protection or appeal in the UK.
A personal grudge?
Mrs May, who served as home secretary from 2010 to 2016, spoke in the past of her desire to quit the ECHR, having been frustrated by them in her plans to extradite Qatada. She is quoted as having said: “The ECHR can bind the hands of Parliament, adds nothing to our prosperity, makes us less secure by preventing the deportation of dangerous foreign nationals and does nothing to change the attitudes of governments like Russia’s when it comes to human rights.” Yet she has now said Turkey must “uphold its international human rights obligations” after a meeting with President Erdoğan in Ankara. Turkey is a CoE and ECHR member, thus she is, and whether consciously doing so or not, reminding them of the commitment the ECHR membership entails.
Turkey, imprisoned tens of thousands of people after last year’s failed coup, but was nonetheless made a priority market by UK trade ministers through negotiations going as far back as 2009. Documents recently released under the Freedom of Information Act show that UK officials have made regular trips to Turkey to develop relations and have also invited Turkish military officials to major arms shows in the UK. The country thus ranks with other priority markets that include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates; all countries that have been criticised by human rights groups. A new £100 million deal for defence giant BAE Systems to develop new fighter jets for the Turkish military, leads to believe that May’s government is preparing for Brexit with an urgent need to expand trade agreements, thus appears more enthusiastic than Cameron’s government regarding the licensing of arms exports. Leaving the ECHR would give the UK freer licence to continue and expand this trade. Leaving the EU would allow them to also develop broader trade agreements that would include arms but also free them from censure over ignoring the client states’ human rights breaches. It now seems ironic that after Erdoğan signed the agreement she said: “Now it is important that Turkey sustains … democracy by maintaining the rule of law and upholding its international human rights obligations, as the government has undertaken to do.”
The 2020 general election campaign will introduce her proposals into the manifesto, thus the hope is that following Brexit this will encourage the electorate to return the Tories to power. The view is that a clean break is the best option, so that even Tory MPs who are not in favour of the idea will be forced to support it; the manifesto pledge also assuring that the Lords would eventually let it go through. The government would publish details of the Bill of Rights proposal before the 2020 election that would only be activated once the UK leaves the ECHR. A while ago the Attorney General stated that any such plans could only be addressed after Brexit, which if completed by March 2019 would be just over a year before the general election in May 2020. The HRA as it stands protects rights and any attempts by any government to undermine them.
In theory it could be used to challenge Brexit. Citizens of 53 countries were allowed to vote in the referendum in June 2016, that is to say commonwealth, including citizens of three EU nations, the UK, Cyprus and Malta, plus Ireland. Citizens of the other 24 EU nations were discriminated against on the basis of nationality despite legal residence and contributions to the economy, national insurance and taxation in the UK. The UK courts, eventually the ECJ could be a first resort in law, but there are legal arguments that claim that basic human rights were denied to people living in the UK that affect not only their status but their security and long term economic and social protections that fall within the remit of human rights. On that basis, the right is reinforcing its drive to take the UK out of the ECHR. Some continental commentators are saying that as a direct consequence of that action the UK should also leave the CoE since it would be a pariah within as much as outside the organisation.
That was where the UK stood before other events more or less played into their hands. The most useful one has been the election of Trump in the USA. Before her visit to President Erdoğan in Ankara May had been to see Trump in Washington. After only days in office he has begun to demolish human rights commitments in the USA, also despite his decrying elitism and implying he is the representative of the ‘common people’, he has begun to advance the cause of neo-liberal economics in an almost nationalist setting. The two go hand in hand, as the French sociologist Loïc Wacquant once said: “The invisible hand of the market and the iron fist of the state combine and complement each other to make the lower classes accept desocialised wage labour and the social instability it brings in its wake. After a long eclipse, the prison thus returns to the front line of institutions entrusted with maintaining the social order.”
The notion of ‘neo-liberal’ economics is a misappropriation of what is seen as a descendant of the classical liberal period during which Adam Smith, who was a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, laid the foundations of classical free market economic theory. By Smith’s definition, Margaret Thatcher, who said she always had a copy of his Wealth of Nations in her famous handbags, was an economic liberal. In as far as a Smith economic tradition is possible centuries on, when the discipline of economics has advanced exponentially and divided into many schools of thought, some vastly different to others, it is ultimately an absurdity. The notion that grab and run economics rather than a consolidated and cooperative form is ‘neo-liberal’ is tantamount to calling autocracy ‘neo-democratic’ because it picks and chooses what it wants in order to make an almost totalitarian society look free. It is, thus, jargon devised to disguise a less than noble and free disposition that favours a growing division between rich and poor. In that respect to evoke the Enlightenment in a contemporary context that includes the word ‘liberal’ at all is to reconstruct historical fact.
A corporate state
Brexit is part of the growing strength of neo-liberal economics that can be defined by the following principles. Firstly, the rule of and by the market that takes in almost absolute freedom for capital, goods and services, where the market is self-regulating allowing the ‘trickle down’ notion and illusion of wealth distribution also includes the de-unionisation of labour forces and removal of all impediments to capital mobility, such as financial regulations. There the parting with the ECJ is necessary. Secondly, freedom from the state, or government control, is also essential thus resulting in reductions of public expenditure for social services, including health, social security benefits and education by the government. Deregulation that allows market forces to act as a self-regulating mechanism and privatisation of public businesses through services that include transport, water, power supplies and clearly health, education and perhaps even the internet. Thirdly, it demands changing perceptions of public and community good, in other words disposing of the ‘social state’ to make way for individualism and individual responsibility, thus all amenities are available to purchase but not made ‘free’ by the state although taxation continues. Finally, tariffs within and between trading nations need to be abolished in order to favour trading enterprises. Regulations need to be reduced or even entirely abolished. In essence free trade agreements seem essential, however with universal privatisation it is inter-corporation trading rather than between countries or blocs of nations that takes precedence.
Certain standards such as laws, legislation and regulatory measures including statutory consumer protection are therewith disposed of and restrictions on capital flows and investment ended. What are now considered tax avoidance and evasion are factored in to favour capital growth and reinvestment, however labour costs and other expenditure on the workforce need to be reduced to ensure rising profits. Some of the benefits such as paid annual leave, maternity and paternity leave, minimum wages and workplace protections would go. Again the ECJ needs to be removed to aid those changes, a key aspect of Brexit.
In short, it is all part of a bigger picture that is anything but liberal, favours the wealthiest and does nothing for the poorest. David Harvey described neo-liberalism as a class project, designed to impose class on society through economic and social liberalism. In other words, so much for any notion of that being ‘liberal’, unless you just happen to be as rich as Croesus in which case none of the consequences matter much anyway. The impression the likes of Trump are projecting is that they are generating a contemporary version of Robert Owen’s blend of socialism and capitalism with a smattering of protectionism in order to make America great again. In fact, the young USA once had many flourishing examples of ‘Owenism’ that have since turned into some of the most greedy, avaricious corporations in the contemporary world. We can see that through models in Quaker founded enterprises in the UK such as Cadbury and Rowntree that began with the wellbeing of their workforce as their highest priority, using a similar approach to Owen. Comparable corporations exist worldwide, indeed look closely at Nestlé and find altruism and benevolence as part of the American Page brothers founding of its real ‘ancestor’ the Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Company in Cham in Switzerland. Henri Nestlé was anything but altruistic, but with Daniel Peter’s development of chocolate and then the merger with Anglo-Swiss to evolve into what we have today, those notions turned into what we now see as an ideal model of neo-liberal enterprise. Nestlé currently controls more than 70 of the world’s bottled water brands, among them Perrier, San Pellegrino and Vittel, however in 2013 their chairman and former CEO Peter Brabeck suggested that declaring water a human right is ‘extreme’ and declared that water is a foodstuff best valued and distributed by the free market, in other words must be bought. The answer to global water issues is therefore privatisation. Such corporate ideas may be malevolent in terms of the effects on people, but are loved by governments who embrace all ideologies and above all else can sell off their water rights from literally under their populations’ feet. The corporations and governments literally get away with ‘murder’ as, for instance, morally the water ownership issue may prove.
There is a survival of the fittest interjection into that arena that is a media invention, wherein divisions grow necessarily and that the attitude is that the fittest survive, or win, whilst a façade of egalitarianism in which everybody has equal access to wealth, nurtures blindness to the poverty of many in the eyes of the wealthy who dismiss altruism and generosity as weaknesses. Trump has been a very good example of that in the relatively recent past, has he not? Reducing and eliminating human rights works toward those ends by choosing who loses rights and who gains, when in reality behind the façade inevitably all but the elite lose out. The UK has chosen migrants to emphasise the Brexit rationale, which is an oxymoron, and have also used media in a way that justification of corporate interests helping workers is promoted to vilify EU citizens legitimately in the UK. Leaving the EU will achieve one step for the neo-liberal elite, but then leaving the ECHR will open the door to their benefit exclusively and to the loss of those who need protection most of all. The lessons of history are apparently never learned. Without making a scapegoat of Germany, some of the Second World War’s industrial giants benefited and grew in its wake, for instance Krupp, Bayer and Zylon-B producer IG Farben that survived until 2012 when it became part of the Bayer group, Daimler Benz and numerous others committed inexcusable human rights breaches yet have never been ‘punished’. Profits made then grew into the enormous value those companies have today. The UK may not resort to the extremes of national-socialism; however the interests of the powerful elite are being promoted over those of the most vulnerable who are being led to their fate by media that are owned by members of the same elite.
Theresa May is not simply ‘nationalising’ rights by proposing to withdraw from the ECHR, but allowing the societal divisions driven by economics to grow. Power will also devolve away from the state to allow the illiberal forces of neo-liberalism to dictate, thus rights must be reduced to enable disenfranchisement of those who do not conform. The EU referendum is almost a trial run for setting up the will of the minority over the majority by using methods that do not bear scrutiny in civil and human rights terms. In that sense there is great urgency if people are to use and win by using those very institutions in Europe that the UK is attempting to leave for their version of the greater good of all, especially those who at present believe what the right wing is telling them they should believe. They too stand only to lose in a neo-liberal world without rights. Meanwhile Mrs May visits countries where human rights are exemplary only by how they are abused or dismissed, preparing for the UK post Brexit.