Can a ‘Good European’ support the Conservative view on the Human Rights Act?

Magna Carta

Magna Carta 1215

I suspect if you ask most Brits what they understood by Human Rights, they would be very clear in their answer. I also suspect most people regardless of their political view would be opposed to such practices as torture, being held without charge, fair trials, freedom of speech and the like.

It is also a commonly held view that Human Rights in the United Kingdom were somehow introduced by ‘requiring’ King John into signing the Magna Carta in 1215. Whilst that is one view of history, it isn’t entirely supported by the facts.

Magna Carter (the Great Charter) of 1215 could be seen as tackling Human Rights of its day. In particular, it dealt with protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown.

However, these rights were hardly universal – note it only protected Barons from illegal imprisonment and access to swift justice. The lesser known fact is that even this charter was restating existing rights which had existed from Norman times.

English Bill of Rights 1689

English Bill of Rights 1689

In recent weeks and months the focus of debate has settled on the protection of the Human Rights Act 1998 (ECHR) which incorporated the rights contained within the European Convention of Human Rights into UK Law.

Whatever your view on the ECHR it has sometimes been presented as if there had been no human rights in Britain prior to 1998. It also, in my opinion, overlooks the contribution to protecting the citizen made by the Bill of Rights 1689, the Petition of Rights, the Habeas Corpus Act 1679 and the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949. These taken in the round form the basis of the unwritten British constitution.

In fact, the English (as it then was) Bill of Rights is considered to have strongly influenced the United States Bill of Rights and the basis of the European Convention on Human Rights itself.

With the new conservative led government promising to replace the European Convention with a new British Bill of Rights, this whole area has become politically charged and wrapped up with views on Europe and Britain’s place (or not) in the European Union.

Whilst to some extent that connection is inevitable, is it possible to feel (as I do) that I am both British and European – albeit that my European identity is a geographic belonging above anything else. If so, can I still feel a good European and have some sympathy with the desire for national Courts to have the final say on some aspects of law, potentially including the definition of Human Rights?

One of the difficulties in discussing this whole area is the complexity of the various European Courts, their relationship with national Courts and how conventions fit within that framework. This rather etherial and in some senses technical miasma makes the rational discussion of options difficult to find.

Whilst I never thought I would be recommending Jacob Rees-Mogg (a member of Parliament recently described as a walking anachronism) as a clear and objective reference point, this is the position in which I find myself. Whether or not you agree with his arguments, this interview is the closest I have found to a rational outline of the available options. For those interested in the detail of the debate, Jacob Rees-Mogg discusses the possibilities here in a clip from the BBC’s Daily Politics.

So given the Gordian knot that is likely to be found in an attempt to amend the status quo, what exactly is wrong with the current state of affairs. Well, again that depends on your political and personal perspective on such matters as judicial accountability and the role of the nation state v. the European Union.

catThe most commonly cited example may be that of the half Bolivian cat. Although somewhat over-egged, it is an example used by those who think that ‘foreign’ judges have taken the concept of Human Rights a little too far. In this case (2009) a Bolivian found himself about to be deported. (It is unclear whether this was for a criminal matter or over staying his visa etc). However, he appealed his deportation on the basis that it breached his Human Rights – namely the right to a family life.

The case revolved around his relationship (of roughly six months). As part of this relationship, he had purchased a cat which was used as contributory evidence to prove that he had fully integrated into the country. Whilst the role of the cat is often over-stated, the relationship was found to be sufficient to prevent his deportation on Human Rights Grounds.

Others, of which I’m usually  but not consistently one, believe that a sovereign nation’s Supreme Court should be just that. For me it isn’t a question of ‘johnny foreigner’ having over-extended the legislation or not, it’s more a question of national sovereignty. I have no issue with eminently sensible conventions (including ECHR and those of the UN for example) being referenced and considered as required. I just happen to think that should be done by each Nation State.

starbucksIf the Convention on Human Rights was a little more focused I might take a different view. One might think, for example, that Human Rights applied to Humans – but they apply equally to bodies Corporate – so companies such as IBM, HSBC and Starbucks find themselves protected by Human Rights conventions.

Whilst I have no issue with robust legal protection for companies in terms of their intellectual property, copyright, trading etc, it is hard to see how I can impact on the Human RIghts of a corporate body.

What is clear, whether you make the national sovereignty argument, object to the ‘stretching’ of legal definitions or simply object to a supra-national Court this topic is set to dominate British politics over the next 3-4 months, As is often the case, you wait some time for a contentious Human Rights case and then three come along all at once.

Over the next few weeks, three high profile cases could provide further fuel to the fire and reinvigorate the calls (at least in the right wing of the Conservative party) to exit from the Court or the Convention or both.

The first case referred to the grand chamber involves three men who attempted to carry out suicide bombings in the London Underground. They received sentences of 40 years. However, during their arrest they were initially refused access to a lawyer to allow for an urgent interview (the ticking bomb interview). Initially, the Court held that they had not been prevented from having a fair trial. However, this is now being appealed to Strasbourg

The second matter relates to “whole-life tariffs” – life sentences, where the defendant is told they will never be released from Jail. In essence, the European Court will assess whether this sits well with the words of lord chief justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgieddwhen he said that “the law of England and Wales provides an offender hope, or the possibility of release, in exceptional circumstances” If they find this is not the case, this could end whole-life tariffs in their current form.

The final case relates to the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes by Metropolitan police officers in . Lawyers representing his family claim that the failure to prosecute individual officers for the shooting breached Menezes’s rights under article 2 of the human rights convention.

With such incendiary cases about to reach the Courts, Human Rights may again be next month’s political football, Given this, my qualms over wishing to see these decisions made at a national level can sit on the back burner until I see exactly which way the legal winds are blowing.

One thing is fairly certain – we better get used to the news being heavily focused on what we mean by and how we interpret Human Rights.

Has traditional Government run its natural course?

Palace_of_Westminster,_London_-_Feb_2007

Much has changed in the 170 years since Charles Barry was successful with his competition entry to redesign the Houses of Parliament. The current buildings replaced the previous Parliamentary structures destroyed by fire in 1834.

The subsequent reconstruction of the embankments in the Victorian era may have done much to improve the tidal flow, flooding risk and sanitation of Westminster. However, it has done little to solidify the very ground on which the Palace of Westminster was built. Subsidence is already a known risk within parts of Parliament square, so much so that Big Ben is already leaning 18 inches from the perpendicular. The £1 billion pound bill likely to save the building could keep the Palace standing, however, it may be a metaphor for some of the deeper challenges facing the institution of Government itself.

Wolfie

Wolfie Smith: Power to the people

For those who can remember uk tv comedies of the 1970’s, one political war cry probably stands out above any other, that of Citizen (Wolfie) Smith with his promise of ‘Power to the People’. A rather harmless and underwhelming anarchist type who felt power should be returned from Central Governments (of all colours) and vested in the local man on the street.

At the time the the British Government was drawn from one of the two dominant parties swapping between Conservative and Labour. Devolution of any kind to Scotland and Wales was wishful thinking at best. Given this, it was hardly surprising that the rise of people power and localism against national governments was seen as little more than an unattainable pipe dream.

In the intervening years, significant changes to the structures and manner of government have taken place. In the  1970’s Britain was part of what was then the European Economic Community (EEC). At the time, the EEC was a smaller body consisting of nine member states. It’s focus was at that time the formation of a ‘common market’ across its members. Putting the political merits of ever closer union to one side, the EEC of the 1970 had few aspirations to undertake supra-national governance. The weight of EU directives (whether you agree with them or not) simply wasn’t of the same scale in the mid 70’s. Regardless of how well it did them, the role of Parliament and the job of government was wider at that time.

Add to this the introduction of unitary authorities in the 1980’s and some of the responsibilities exercised by ministers and whitehall have left Parliament to their respective local authorities. On top of this significant powers have been passed to the Scottish government and Welsh Assembly. All in all, this represents a significant shift of ownership from the days of 1970’s central ministry control.

Ballot Paper

Ballot Paper

One electoral and representational mechanism has also seen a rise in popularity (certainly in parts of Europe) over the same period. The rise of the referendum has been quite noticable in the UK, a jurisdiction where referenda was traditionally seen as something of a failure in Parliamentary democracy by some.

In recent years, referenda have been held to consider subjects as varied as further devolution, and the voting system for general elections. Further promises have been made to take the public view on continued membership of the European  Union and the possibility of a futher devolution powers referendum in Wales.

Of course, the more referendums are held, the more the voting public get used to them and expect their voice to win sway on the most significant issues. Many European countries (including the UK) have legislative requirement for a referendum if changes to the existing European Union treaties are necessary. Similarly, the republic of Ireland has recently put the question of gay marriage to the popular vote.

Politicians who have regularly opposed referenda felt this introduction could pose a significant risk to the representational model used in the British Parliament. Traditionally, members of Parliament don’t feel compelled to echo the popular views of their constituency (unless it is high profile or their majority is wafer thin). Instead, the constituency elects an MP to make value judgements on their behalf. Some believe the growth of referenda may subtly change this emphasis and in doing so change the nature of Parliament and how Government works.

Digital Voting?

Digital Voting?

Perhaps one of the largest changes over the past thirty years has been the introduction of new technology along with its constant evolution. Surprisingly, one of the few areas it has addressed is elections and the counting of votes. However, serious money is being spent to test the viability of digital voting both for UK General elections and to encourage wider participation in the political process.

Digital voting has already been introduced for high profile events such as the Oscars as well as a number of US state elections. So far the results have been encouraging with results being almost instantaneously available with no issues over security of voting having been raised to date.

Campaign group WebRoots Democracy recenlt published a report in which they found that the introduction of online voting could boost turnout in a UK general election by nine million. Even if that is only half right that would be an unsurpassed achievement in improving political engagement.

The report also found that online voting in the UK could reduce the cost per vote by a third, saving taxpayers around £12.8m per general election. This would also significantly reducing the number of accidentally spoilt ballots, speed up the counting process, and enabling vision-impaired voters to cast a secret ballot for the first time. The report has been supported by the newly elected government who are proposing trials with a view to moving to digital elections as soon as practicable.

devolutionTodays Queens speach promised further devolution for Wales and demands for further powers to be granted to the Scottish Parliament soon followed. Whatever is decided in those debates what is clear is that the House of Commons is far from the powerhouse of democracy it was in the pre-war era.

Whilst no serious commentator would suggest that government is unecessary, what is increasingly clear is that the system and structures currently in place in the UK are becoming increasingly unfit for purpose having been overtaken by events.

It seems inevitable that some fairly major changes are likely to the way the component parts of the UK relate to each other. This is bound to have an impact on the style and feel of government. The current flavour of the month is a federal model of types with the Houses of Parliament being the Federal legislature dealing with UK wide issues such as defence and foreign policy. What seems to be certain is that the current status quo is likely to be a short term holding position.

 

 

 

 

 

 

European Union: Is the UK’s exit inevitable?

Regardless of your views of the merits of the European Union, the current political make-up of the United Kingdom government, the rise of independence parties and the actions of European bureaucrats themselves must have increased the likelihood of a UK exit.

Is the exit already ajar?

Is the exit already ajar?

Given the divisions within the Conservative party, it is unlikely that the euro-sceptic wing of the party will lessen the pressure on the party. Their calls to address issues such as EU membership, immigration and sovereignty are unlikely to reduce, particularly as the influence of coalition partners reduces as the election comes closer.

Putting the natural reduction in cohesion aside, the rise of parties such as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Scottish Nationalists (SNP) are likely to raise the priority of these issues. This is in part due to electoral boundary changes and the increasing number of marginal seats across both Labour and Conservative MP’s.

Regardless of whether you agree with the anti-European position, many polls indicate this is reflecting a large percentage of the wider electorate. Indeed, as long as this is the case, the battle to out-UKIP UKIP is likely to be taken on by all parties to a greater or lesser extent.

If this wasn’t enough. Prime Minster David Cameron has set himself a deadline of the New Year before which he must provide an indication of how he will limit EU immigration as part of a wider renegotiation of EU membership. It would be hard to think of a less contentious and more difficult area of policy to change. Given this, he has set himself an almost impossible challenge.

José Manuel Barroso

José Manuel Barroso

If this wasn’t complex enough, President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso has made it clear that any move to reduce free movement of people within the EU would (in his view) be contrary to European Union law.

Whilst acting within his European role, Mr Barroso may have misread the British nature – at last that of those who are more naturally Eurosceptic. His public statement may have served only in reinforcing the position of UKIP and Conservative sceptics. Indeed, it may have similarly convinced the more moderate members of both Conservative and Labour parties that any meaningful renegotiation is impossible.

So, it appears that the Prime Minister finds himself searching for a middle ground. However, his problem is clear. Any solution likely to find support with European colleagues is highly unlikely to be ‘strong’ enough for his own parties euro-sceptic let alone UKIP. Equally, anything likely to gain their support is unlikely to gather any support within the wider European community.

As if this wasn’t making the case for continued European Union membership difficult enough, the past week has seen a demand from Brussels for a further £1.2 billion pounds to be paid by 1st December 2014. Cross party rejection of the demand has done little but paint the EU as acting unreasonably and without appropriate governance. However, Brussels response has been to threaten the UK with fines of £275,000 per day along with withholding the UK rebate. This has done nothing other than secure support from all parties for Mr Cameron’s position of refusing to pay the latest demand.

Given these pressures, no party is taking the pro-European position. Indeed, increasingly the political classes are using phrases such as ‘ultimately this will be a choice for the British people’. It certainly feels to me that many of the parties are thinking what would previously have been unthinkable. At what point does EU membership become an electoral liability?

What is clear is that this is a question which will form a major plank of party electoral positions in 2015. Recent polls show a hung parliament in 2015 is the most likely outcome.  Some show such strong fragmentation that no two parties could form a government. If this is the case, the balance of power would appear to move to the euro-sceptic parties.

Perhaps Mr Barroso’s intervention is not as ill-considered as it appears. Certainly, he would be aware of this likelihood. Perhaps he is merely bringing the issue to a head. It appears that the UK relationship with Europe is going to be a hot topic for the next six months in the run up to the election.

 

Round 2 of the Euro crisis ?

The Euro domino effect

The Euro domino effect

Regardless of your view of the merits (or disadvantages) of the European Union, we must all be painfully aware of the risks of a crisis in the Eurozone. The potential consequences of a major euro using country entering a further round of financial crisis or worse still default can probably not be under-estimated.

Today’s quiet and surprising news of a further reduction in central European bank interest rates could be the latest indication of renewed stresses within the Eurozone area. Certainly, the reduction in interest rates can only be seen as an effort to encourage spending, investment and therefore bring growth to the member states using the Euro.

Greece has been far quieter in recent months, but has already indicated that the social pressures caused by austerity measures (unfairly seen as being imposed by Germany) are continuing to cause political and economic instability in the country. So far these have not caused repayment schedules to be amended but many believe these Greek words of caution may be testing the waters for a revised repayment plan. So is there any other evidence to support the prospect of a further Euro crisis ?

Italy: Triple dip recession

Italy: Triple dip recession

Perhaps the most obvious and worrying example is the deflation impacting on parts of the Eurozone, making debt (or at least the real value of debt) more challenging for those trying to pay off debts. There is an argument that this deflation hitting countries such as Italy could lead to a deflationary spiral such as that seen in the US in the 20’s.

Italy’s trade and GDP figures show it has entered a triple dip recession and staggeringly only two countries (Haiti and Zimbabwe) have grown less than Italy over the past 25 years. With Greece’s economy best described as fragile, the last thing needed would be a problem with the significantly bigger Italian economy.

Many economists and academics (such as Marianna Mazzucato – University of Essex) believe these faltering economies are evidence of a more fundamental issue. She (and others) argue that the diagnosis of economic malaise is flawed so consequently the medicine being prescribed is also equally flawed.

Several leading economic figures argue that productivity simply cant mean the same in Germany, France or the UK as it does in Greece and Italy. They believe that German productivity has been based around bidding the best product at a reasonable (not the cheapest) price based on demand for those products/services as a result of very significant investment in their economies. This is the very investment that Greece and Italy can no longer afford or attract in part due to their heavy repayment schedules. Default and crisis ensues; don’t default and crisis may be delayed but will ultimately break.

A further round of Quantitative easing may be on the cards from the European Central Bank – but that depends on whether the additional demands placed on the ECB by the Ukrainian crisis leaves sufficient fiscal room for manoeuvre.  Even if further QE is scheduled to assist the Greek and Italian economies not all observers believe it will have a meaningful effect. Martin Wolfe (Chief Economist for Financial Times) points out that the US has now achieved 3% growth but only after $4 trillion quantitative easing and a matching fiscal injection for investment into key business sectors – something the EU simply couldn’t replicate.

uro2Perhaps more telling and ultimately more important is the fact that the lion’s share of any bail out has (and probably will) fallen to Germany to fund.

Recent German media and social commentaries have shown a grudging willingness to provide support to Greece in order to prevent a further financial crisis. However, similar soundings of the German population now noticing tighter purse strings as a result of the support come closer to the view ‘this far and no further’

It is unclear, at least to me whether the obvious and consistent desire to make the European Union work effectively is seen as worth the cost by the general population of Germany.

So for me, a watching brief on the Eurozone at present – but the indications aren’t too positive in my view. Despite my personal views on the sense of a currency zone the size of Europe, I wouldn’t wish a further crisis on any of us. Here’s hoping my reading of the early indications are wrong.