There is a strand in Liberalism stemming from the Utilitarians that is totally dismissive of the concept of human rights. Bentham called such rights ‘nonsense on stilts’. John Stuart Mill, often considered the founder of modern liberalism, viewed such rights as individuals were conceded to have as depending on what led to the greatest happiness of the greatest number at any one time. Rights could change as circumstances and individuals did.
Given that, it is perhaps surprising that Liberal Democrats seem to fear, almost as a knee-jerk reaction, any call for a review of Human Rights legislation. After all Schedule 1 of the Human Rights Act qualifies nearly every right it declares and anyone who has surveyed the field knows how difficult it is when one finds oneself in a complex situation where different and apparently conflicting rights are in play.
One can be very fundamentalist about it and claim that the legislation as framed is the full, final and wholly transparent revelation of the truth about human rights.
A more rational view (let’s exclude Daily Mail columnists here) is that looking at the operation of legislation is at least as interesting as its formulation, and should cause little alarm.
I happen to believe there is a coherent intellectual basis for human rights. However, avoiding a debate and assuming these matters are all self-evident and simple (as though people’s rights and their exercise is ever as evident as the nose on their face) is handing ammunition to those who implausibly suggest that all talk of human rights is a covert way of promoting some leftist ideology.
* John Pugh is Lib Dem MP for Southport.