Devizes MP Danny Kruger has written a chapter in a book by the Common Sense group
In recent years some members of the Conservative party seem to have a problem with the Human Rights Act and some would like to see it abolished. Far right newspapers typify the act as being a means by which terrorists, murderers and others escape justice because the act provides lawyers with a range of loopholes to get their clients off. They call it a ‘criminal’s charter’. Many of the stories, on closer examination, turn out not to be true or wanton exaggerations.
The current corpus of human rights law started life after the Second World War and there were a number of Conservative politicians who were active proponents, including Sir Winston Churchill and David Maxwell-Fyfe.
Since 2015, the tone has changed and in the manifesto of that year, David Cameron promised to scrap the act. Little happened and by the time of the 2019 manifesto, ‘scrap’ had gone and a review was promised. What is to be reviewed and how a new act would look and what it would contain has never been clear. At the time, the Salisbury group raised the matter with our MP Mr John Glen, but we were not much clearer what they wanted it replaced by. The review of the act is currently underway.
A new book has just been produced by a group of backbench Conservatives called Common Sense: Conservative Thinking For a Post-Liberal Age. In it, is a chapter written by the Devizes* MP Danny Kruger entitled Restoring rights: Reclaiming Liberty.
His chapter contains odd reasoning and some curious logic. His first claim is that the European Convention on Human Rights, drafted by British Lawyers after World War II [lawyers from other countries were involved so it is incorrect to say ‘British lawyers’] ‘sits uncomfortably with the English tradition of preventing tyranny’. This will come as something of a surprise to the millions of people who were enslaved and were worked to death in the sugar plantations or those who worked in fearful conditions in nineteenth century factories. The acquisition of Empire also has many horror stories. Quite where this ‘prevention of tyranny’ was taking place is not made clear.
Human rights are misnamed he claims. ‘The rights we really need, and the only ones we really have, derive from something higher and something lower than mankind. They derive from the idea of God, and from the fact of nations: from a Christian conception of law …’ It would be difficult to locate in the Bible many of the principles enshrined in the ECHR or HRA if only because these ideas and principles were a long way from a society colonised by the Romans and where practices like slavery were common. There are many favourable references to slavery in the Bible for example. The ‘lower than mankind’ element is not explained.
He quotes approvingly of the American author Patrick Deneen who wrote Why Liberalism Failed (2018). Many do not agree with Kruger’s admiration of Deneen’s book regarding his blame of a huge range of society’s ills on excessive liberalism to be odd not to say ridiculous.
His analysis seems to go seriously awry however with the following passage:
“And so, from an early stage we came to think of rights as the means by which we are set free from external pressure, set free from obligations to others; and from there it is a small step to the hypocritical assumption that rights confer obligations on others to satisfy us.” P49
It is incorrect to say that requiring the state to act in a lawful and reasonable way towards its subjects is in anyway hypocritical. What is hypocritical about requiring the State not to torture us? What is hypocritical about having a fair trial? Nor is it true to argue that rights set us free from external pressure. This seems to go to the heart of the objections raised by some Conservatives about the HRA, and the attempts to weave in duties. The argument seems to be you only deserve these rights in limited circumstances and in a conditional way.
This argument is further developed in this passage:
“This conception of rights must be rooted in the existence of a community – a real community, not the abstraction of ‘humankind’. A real community entails reciprocal duties, situated in institutions that can enforce them and mediated by the conventions of people who know each other and share a common culture. This is the nation. We derive our rights from our citizenship (or more properly, our subjectship)”. p52 (our italics)
The problem all along with the objections to the HRA is trying to tie them down to specifics. In an earlier Conservative document Protecting Human Rights in the UK, the examples seem to be stuck on deporting foreign criminals as an example of obligations.
The Human Rights Act, brought in following cross party consensus – and falsely characterised as ‘Labour’s Human Rights Act’ – represented a significant shift in power. Ever since the Norman conquest, power rested with the elites: the king, the barons and gradually the landowners and aristocracy. Concessions were drawn from them as a result of unrest, riots or events such as the Peterloo massacre. Magna Carta sought to restore some of the rights enjoyed during Saxon times. The ‘Glorious Revolution’ brought further changes. The Great Reform Act some more.
We were subjects not citizens. The HRA changed that and gave citizens a range of fundamental rights (some of which are conditional). It would appear that for a small number of Conservative backbenchers in the Common Sense group this is troubling. Yet Mr Kruger’s chapter never gives solid reasons for change, only rather nebulous arguments which crumble away on close reading.
*Devizes is a small town 25 miles north of Salisbury.