Andrew Thorpe-Apps is a trainee solicitor.
The Conservative Party has a proud tradition of defending liberty. Our natural aversion to centralised power, state interference and bureaucracy makes us natural defenders of civil liberties.
During the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke rallied against the threats posed to individual freedom by overbearing governments. Since then, Tories have consistently shone a spotlight on human rights abuses around the world. In opposition, Conservatives fought the repressive Blair and Brown governments. In 2008, David Davis resigned as Shadow Home Secretary, forcing a by-election over Gordon Brown’s proposal to detain terrorist suspects for 42 days without charge. In 2010, Conservatives blocked Labour’s dreaded ID Cards.
And yet, despite this great legacy, we have frequently allowed ourselves to be seen as ambivalent on the issue of human rights.
The debate over whether the Human Rights Act (HRA) should be scrapped and replaced with a British Bill of Rights is one that will continue to be played out in the party. Strong and passionate arguments continue to be made on both sides. Some would go further, and withdraw Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights altogether, although Theresa May has said that is off the table for now.
Whatever your views are on the HRA and the Convention, we should be careful to avoid giving the impression that we are lukewarm on human rights in general. If we fail in this, then Conservatives will struggle to seize the language of human rights from the Left.
Labour governments from Attlee to Brown have favoured a strong, centralised state. They were deeply suspicious of moves to protect and expand the rights of the individual. And yet Labour has consistently had the temerity to paint itself as the torchbearer of human rights.
This thinly-veiled hypocrisy has reached a nadir under Jeremy Corbyn. That Labour continues to claim to be the party of human rights when anti-Semitism and bullying are rife within its membership is farcical. We should also note Corbyn’s airbrushing of Fido Castro yesterday.
But it is not just the Labour Party which finds itself in this position. Other organisations, some of which remain respected in the field of civil liberties, have experienced unsavoury episodes brought on by their left-leaning memberships. A case in point is Amnesty International.
In April last year, I brought a resolution at Amnesty International’s annual conference which called on the organisation to gather evidence and campaign on the issue of growing anti-Semitism in the UK. When I drafted the motion, I had no clue how controversial it would prove. I had assumed, perhaps naively, that Amnesty International stood up for all groups, regardless of race, religion or creed. I had hoped that the question of Israel would not be dragged into the conversation I wanted to have about the treatment of British Jews.
How wrong I was. Mine was the only resolution to be defeated at that year’s conference. The question of antisemitism in the UK was brushed aside by angry voices determined to use the occasion as an anti-Israel platform. A couple of years previously, Amnesty’s annual conference voted overwhelmingly to campaign on the issue of Islamophobia in the UK. Yet when it came to antisemitism, there was no appetite for action.
The events of that weekend left a bitter taste. It proved to me that the whisperings I had heard were true. The language of human rights has been bastardised and co-opted by those on the Left who are determined to use it for political ends.
The Left’s real agenda has nothing to do with genuine human rights and freedoms. It is about circumventing the ballot box and seeking to bring about socio-economic change under the pretext of human rights. Whilst Conservatives subscribe to the rule of law, that all men and women must have equality under the law, the notion that this should be extended into the financial sphere is bizarre. Human rights has nothing to do with the redistribution of wealth.
Are we willing to let the Left get away with this? For too long, Conservatives have given up the cause of human rights under the misapprehension that it is not natural Tory territory. As I have tried to explain, the opposite is true. The issue of civil liberties is one of our party’s foundation stones and we should be proud of that. But if we continue to vacate this area, the Left will carry on pushing their political agenda.
I call on Conservatives who are interested in human rights, and I believe that many are, to join organisations such as Amnesty International and ensure that their voices are heard. It is incumbent upon us to do so. We have little right to complain that such groups are left-wing if we as Conservatives fail to get involved.
The Conservative Party Human Rights Commission has, for over a decade now, stood up against the abuses of dictatorships around the world. The MPs and activists involved in that organisation are doing terrific work. But much more needs to be done. Rather than bickering over the HRA, it is time to seize the initiative and become, once again, the true party of human rights and liberty.