December 02 2023

Slaying the Tory dragons: first the EU, then its human rights

Slaying the Tory dragons: first the EU, then its human rights

Union Jack. Pic by Dave King (Flickr, creative comms)

There is often a strong connection between economic policy and human rights. Policies such as the bedroom tax and legal aid cuts pursue economic efficiency, but usually with the understanding that the harm done to rights is an unintentional part of doing business, an unfortunate, but necessary consequence. This convention may have just been departed from, with the promotion of three libertarian ideologues to the great offices of state likely to lead to the intentional defenestration of rights.

Javid, Raab and Patel, the Chancellor, Foreign and Home Secretary, respectively, are all found on the libertarian right of the Tory party, a section of the party that is all too sceptical about human rights and the role of the courts. The elevation of this clique raises the concerning prospect that post-Brexit, the government will turn its fire on the Human Rights Act and the UK’s membership of the European Convention on Human Rights, fundamentally altering the structure of Britain’s economic and constitutional frameworks.

Should Johnson successfully achieve a no-deal Brexit, it is not unreasonable to expect a general election to follow shortly after, and for this to restore the Tory government to a working majority. The sheer relief at having achieved Brexit (provided the election takes place before the economic hit does), coupled with Johnson’s supposed campaigning prowess makes this, while perhaps not likely, at least conceivable.

A Conservative government, adrift from the economic support structure of the EU, will need to invigorate the economy substantially to mitigate the effects of a hard Brexit. One likely avenue to be pursued is through a wholesale reform of domestic regulations and standards, with a common ambition of some Brexiters being the re-invention of Britain in the image of a former colony, becoming ‘Singapore-Upon-Thames’.

If Johnson chooses to go down this deregulatory route, and even should he not, he is likely to need a scapegoat for the inevitable difficulties the UK is going to encounter. The previous dragon, the EU, will have been slain, with the next most obvious target being the European Convention on Human Rights. The groundwork here has already been put in place, with right-wing papers frequently amalgamating the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) with the European Union’s Court of Justice (CJEU), and with the ECHR comes with the already toxic label of ‘European’.

Nonetheless, should a Singapore-style economy be the model, departure from the ECHR is likely to be a pressing aim. Whilst the ECtHR has tended to recoil from most socio-economic issues, it is possible that the bonfire of regulations that Johnson would need to set would meet resistance in the domestic and European courts. The case law of the ECtHR suggests, for instance, that a reduction of environmental standards for manufacturing would have an difficult time surviving judicial scrutiny. In addition, this resistance from the courts would be fertile ground for a new culture war, with those currently in favour of Brexit likely to take a dim view of such interference, viewing the courts as upholding the values of the elites, and preventing ‘democracy’ from running its course.

Bringing rights home
This rights-sceptic approach fits particularly well with the background of at least two of Johnson’s lead ministers. Raab has long had the ECHR in his sights, contributing to a draft of a re-imagined British Bill of Rights, whilst Patel, the Home Secretary, has supported the death penalty and called for Parliament to reject ECtHR judgments that ‘undermine the sovereignty of our Parliament’.

Whilst they may paint the issue as being one of ‘bringing rights home’ and of national sovereignty, this argument looks painfully thin now, with Raab a leading advocate for proroguing parliament, should it interfere with the government’s authoritarian desires. A curious way of returning sovereignty, to say the least.

The slash and burn economic model, moreover, coalesces with the economic tendencies of much of the other members of Cabinet. Liz Truss, she of the ‘uber-riding freedom fighters’ spiel, is now International Trade Secretary, giving her the opportunity to pursue her long desired ‘economic liberalisation’. Free-market zealots like Truss look longingly at America, viewing it as a haven free from meddling politicians and unelected bureaucrats, and it is likely that any ‘economic liberalisation’ will prioritise an American trade deal.

Such a trade would likely strike at matters ranging from food standards, access to pharmaceuticals and privacy. All of these issues, whilst dry and economic at first glance, would run rampant over our domestic rights, particularly in terms of access to effective (and cost-effective) healthcare, and individuals’ ability to hold corporations to account. Trump’s hostile response to France’s taxation of social media companies based in the USA is a clear demonstration of how we would be fettered from holding such companies to account in the future.

Doubtless there will be resistance to such libertarian policies. There is no public desire for a trade deal with America, with it rightly perceived as being a fundamental threat to the NHS, whilst the political inclinations of the Brexit-voters are not necessarily supportive of such an ardent free-market ideology. This, coupled with the fact that most of the cabinet are intellectual and political lightweights, with the real heavyweights now on the backbenches, means that there are numerous hurdles to be surmounted for such a free-market dystopia to come to pass.

This does not, however, mean we should be relaxed. The normalising of a ‘no-deal Brexit’ shows how the public can be manipulated to actively desire something that was viewed only recently as beyond the pale, and although the public-facing ministers may look like Plato’s ship of fools, the effectiveness behind the scenes of political operators like Dominic Cummings should not be discounted.

The threat to the ECHR is multifaceted, coming from both free-market ideologues and rights-sceptics. Brexit is representative of the culture war currently ravaging the west, and it is unlikely that its proponents will be satisfied to leave any threads hanging. The abolition of the HRA and the departure from the ECHR would move Britain closer towards the founding of UK Plc, prioritising corporate interests above human rights and values. Those who value our social democracy should be prepared for this next assault.