The Conservatives are trampling on Churchill’s legacy

Winston Churchill once said that the “mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country”. A “calm, dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused, and even of the convicted criminal” was a symbol of “the stored-up strength of a nation and sign and proof of the living virtue in it”.

Under this government, however, we as a nation are increasingly departing from the values espoused by Churchill, and enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which made Britain a leading light on a global scale in the field of civil liberties. The Conservative government’s attack on the Human Rights Act, its lack of conviction in defending our membership of both the European Union and the ECHR and the stance it has taken in the face of the current humanitarian crisis created by the flow of refugees into Europe all illustrate the deeply concerning path onto which this government is leading our country. All of these developments in the brief period since a new majority Conservative government was formed in May have demonstrated more clearly than ever why this country needs the Liberal Democrats.

The remarkable determination of the Conservative Party to repeal the Human Rights Act, and particularly the justification (or lack of it) provided for it, show just how far removed it has become from the convictions held by those, like Churchill, who many would say made Britain great. It appears to be motivated principally by arguments such as those put forward by the Daily Mail in favour of restricting the rights of criminals wherever possible, and by a desire to facilitate the passing of laws in response to the terrorist threat which we have seen can threaten the liberty of every one of us. Beyond the words of Churchill at the top of this piece, modern day voices which we must surely heed in this regard include those of the people who suffered under the apartheid regime in South Africa, and thus have an acute awareness of the significance of legal instruments protecting universal right. The plea of Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndongane, once imprisoned on Robben Island, to the government not to “extinguish the beacon” which the UK has been “for those striving for freedom elsewhere” cannot be ignored.

The current refugee crisis gives a further reflection of the worrying lack of importance which this government appears to attach to basic human rights.Its seemingly reluctant offer to accept 20,000 refugees over a period of five years was quite rightly described as “derisory” by Paddy Ashdown and will do precious little to alleviate the human suffering across not just Syria and the Middle East, but now also within our European Union and even on this country’s very doorstep in the port of Calais.

The Conservative party continues to appease its more right wing factions by prioritising its political and economic objectives over human compassion. And while Churchill’s statement concerned the treatment of criminals, I think there can be little doubt that he would have regarded a nation’s stance towards refugees as similarly indicative of its “stored up strength” and “virtue”. To my mind, this government is certainly in danger of leaving our nation as one of less virtue than we have seen for a long time. As the only party which can claim to have remained true to the values which made Britain great, it can only be hoped that the Liberal Democrats’ fightback continues to gather momentum.

* Dan Webster is a Lib Dem member and final-year law student at Durham University. He blogs on civil liberties here.

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  • This post highlights the general move in this country from its historic values to the modern day. The press are dominant in forming public perception and in David Cameron, we have a leader who bows to any pressure from wherever it comes. It has long been my view that Scotland will become seperate, Britain will leave the EU, all because we do not have a government which has any decency at its core. It acts in ways to keep internal criticism to a minimum and to appease those who can be described as “nasty tories”..That is why it is necessary for the civil rights issues to become a central theme where parties should join together. Tom Watson appears to want to fight Liberalism but where is the concern for the refugees and the drip,drip of invasive snooping by this government started by Labout. I hope some who post can offer a more hopeful scenario than that which I foresee

  • nigel hunter 1st Oct '15 - 11:04am

    One thought that has come to me. They are talking of banning smoking in prisons Smoking can reduce stress calm the nerves something that could help prevent trouble in Prisons Is this just another way of satisfying the Tory right to keep them happy and not split away? Is this a knee jerk reaction as in the books fiasco?

  • Richard Underhill 1st Oct '15 - 12:57pm

    The Human Rights Act is unfinished business which should be added to, with nothing subtracted.
    Article 1 of the Convention should be incorporated now, although initially the Lord Chancellor reportedly thought that “the lawyers would have too much fun”.
    Article 14 should be incorpoarated in the UK, as elesewhere. Iif an “effective remedy” exists it will be argued anyway.
    Article 3 is absolute, effectively making Articles 2 and 4 absolute as well, covering the prohibiton of torture, the right to life and the prohibition of slavery.
    Those quoting the other types of articles should also demonstrate that they know what type/s of article/s they are and therby avoid the clashes of absolute article that happens in the USA. An example of impossibilism in the UK happened in the 1980a. Mrs Thatcher conceded to Arthur Scargill before the 1983 general election, but opposed him after.

  • Shaun Cunningham 1st Oct '15 - 1:30pm

    If never surprises me how others can intertwine the present movement of humanity across Europe in their thought process. First many of the those crossing Europe are not refugees but economic migrants, it may hurt but there’s a difference. Have a look at the figures before allowing ones emotional wave to roll. 57% are men, 26% children and 18% women.

    I wonder what Churchill would have thought about men leaving their country to dark forces. There is another fact which is starting to play out. I am starting to hear it time and time again, people are starting to say NO to Europe, which is also reflected in the latest polls where the NO’s now have the momentum. It is time this party parked the emotional wave, looked at the real facts and started to listen not to ourselves but the people of this country because if we don’t the No vote in Europe will win the day. What a disaster that would be.

  • Richard Wingfield 1st Oct '15 - 1:39pm

    An excellent piece, Dan. I’ve been really pleased to see that it has been the Lib Dems who have most vocal in defending the Human Rights Act and it’s a battle that we must fight as hard as we can. It was Liberal Democrats who called for the Human Rights Act, long before Labour did, who defended it whilst in government, and we must continue to defend it in opposition. As Dan points out, the justifications put forward by the Conservatives for repealing the Act are purely ones of self-interest and echoed by the Daily Mail – stopping prisoners and those suspected of crime from being able to have their rights defended, making it easier for the government to pass and enforce draconion anti-terrorist legislation, and making it easier to ignore those pesky international obligations when they get in the way.

    A note to jedibeeftrix – the repeal of the Human Rights Act will have no effect on our relationship with the European Court of Human Rights. As signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights, we will still have an obligation to implement the Court’s judgments. The only way to end the “judicial activism” (and I would disagree that the judges are activist at all) would be to withdraw from the Convention and join Belarus as the only country in the continent not a signatory. How embarrassing that would be and how much it would diminish our influence and authority in Europe and worldwide on human rights (which is already much weaker than it ought to be given our deals with Saudi Arabia Jayne Mansfield has highlighted).

  • I don’t think Churchill would agree on the migrant crisis

  • Eddie Sammon 1st Oct '15 - 8:29pm

    I’m not a big fan of the European Court of Human Rights anymore. You can’t seem to do anything to terrorists without someone complaining that it is against their human rights. There was even a solicitor in Scotland releasing a statement condemning sanctions and travel bans against terrorists – not drones, but travel bans.

    We’ve got the Green Party trying to take Cameron to court over the drones too. Some people just want to tie the military and security services up in knots and we shouldn’t allow it.

  • Richard Underhill 2nd Oct '15 - 11:59am

    YouGov poll as of 1/10/2015 shows a 2 point gap between Leave EU and Remain EU. There is also a chart showing wide variations. Campaigns have begun and will need to continue up to polling day, whenever that is.

  • Wins ton churchill’s legacy on human rights includes force feeding suffragettes, wanting the Royal Navy to shell Belfast in 1914, sending in the army to Tonypandy ,wanting to take over the BBC in the General Strike in 1926 – not to mention his racist abuse of Mahatma Ghandi in the 1930’s. He also had to be restrained by Asquith for being too hot-headedly pro war in July 1914.

    Some legacy.

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