Reflections ‘On Liberty’

On Liberty

This week I finished reading On Liberty[1. in sending you to GoodReads I realise I might be inadvertently suggesting that the book be purchased from Amazon! For the record, I strongly advocate buying your books from independent booksellers – I got mine from the wonderful Foyles] by Shami Chakrabarti, the scarily impressive Director at Liberty (National Council for Civil Liberties). A book ‘published with a purpose’ if ever there was, it arrives at a time when the UK’s Human Rights Act (HRA) is under threat from its own Government. Considering that it was written in May 2014, Chakrabarti’s prescience on post-election Britain is chilling.

I loved On Liberty, inevitably. Chakrabarti speaks to my own ‘liberal heart’ and reading it re-enthused me about universal human rights in a way I have not felt since being much younger and more idealistic. I cried reading the words quoted from Rachel North[2. p.53-54 (all page numbers refer to the paperback edition)], felt pride at the role my country played in the design of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and was endlessly “shocked but not surprised”[3. p.129] at the abuse of power and disintegration of our rights by our own representatives. Furthermore, she shone light on some crucial years of political history that I had missed while living outside the UK.

Chakrabarti is refreshing to read for a person of faith – it is surprisingly rare to find those talking about human rights bringing faith into the conversation in a sensitive and nuanced way[4. throughout, but esp. p117 onwards]; just as I expect that the opposite is becoming less frequent as well. Too often ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ viewpoints use human rights to bash each other rather than as a place to come together. I spend much of my working life advocating for more openness to bringing ‘religious values’ into conversations about ‘universal’ principles as a way to communicate better between the two. One of the most effective arguments in support of the HRA is along a similar bent – that the HRA is our indigenous, culturally specific, version of Human Rights. This is even before recalling that the ECHR was written with the explicit influence of British (Conservative, no less) lawyers[5. p.142].

The pages that resonated most with me was a confirmation of my own bias. On Liberty contains echo of my own views on the House of Lords, formulated through similar experience to Chakrabarti’s[6. p. 66 – 69]. She recalls being set questions at University as to whether the House of Lords was a good thing, much as I recall discussions on the topic during my early 20’s. While she argued ‘No’ (“or, for better grades, ‘Hell, No.’“) in written form, I pontificated on the importance of democracy and accountability whenever the topic would arise. She goes on:

But I have to say that my last two decades of work at the heart of the UK constitution – both from the inside and the outside – have given me pause for thought. It seems to me now that democracy, like any other piece of fine-tuned machinery, must have both fixed and moving parts… the fixed components – usually in the firm of independent referees or judges of ‘the rules of the game’ – are necessary too. In fact, in the absence of a written constitution and a Supreme Court with strike-down powers, they are vital… In the end, the Lords too have only delaying powers… but in a climate of fear and feverish party politics, such delay… can be important and enough to persuade the elected components of our constitution to think again. And this was precisely what happened with the forty-two-days bill.”[7. p66 – 67] 

So too was my experience. I arrived to work in the Houses of Parliament in early 2008, and when I began I was respectful of the Lords, but not convinced. Four years later I left with all the zealousness of a convert – I had seen first-hand the seriousness with which the majority of Lords members took their role, the depth of the scrutiny of legislation, and the time they took to undertake this scrutiny. While this is not to say that the Chamber is without flaws, nor that all Lords are necessarily equal in their commitment, but it was the delay of the Counter Terrorism Bill referred to by Chakrabarti that woke me up to how the Lords act as a needed check on political expediency. Subsequent Government defeats around Identity Cards and Control Orders solidified this view. The system may not be perfect, but currently I cannot see how we can do without it.

act-for-the-act-02The greatest issue we have with protecting Human Rights is learning how to communicate with those that disagree. On Liberty reads as a clarion call for the converted, but also as a missed opportunity. Yes, the personal journey may be the best transmitter of the human rights message when pressed for time, but I had already grown impatient for more philosophical rebuttals to anti-HRA arguments by the time they arrived in Chapter 5.

On Liberty will most likely swell the ranks of Liberty membership and signatories to the Act for the Act campaign, but I doubt that the text will change too many minds in and of itself. Coming to the end of the book I realised that this was what I had been hoping for all along – Mill‘s Essay for the modern day. This is, of course, unfair to Chakrabarti. Hence my reflection On Liberty is that it is a stand for the HRA, for our civil liberties, but also a call for something unintended – a new public philosophy to support these rights. Because support for the principles that underpin them are not as universal as we might hope.

I’m hoping that this is not the last version of On Liberty to come to our attention.

If reading the book isn’t for you, you can hear Shami Chakrabarti in conversation with Conor Gearty and audience @LSELaw via the LSE website



Categories: in pursuit of nuance, Miscellaneous

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