Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue and co-author of ‘Individual identity: understanding how conservatives think about human rights and discrimination’.
Especially since the implementation of the Human Rights Act (HRA) by the Labour Government in 1998, which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law, Conservative voters and politicians have been typically portrayed as being sceptical of many aspects of Britain’s current human rights legislation and institutions. Indeed, the Conservative Party has a longstanding pledge – first introduced in their 2010 manifesto – to repeal the HRA.
This apparent scepticism, however, needs to be reexamined. It was, after all, a Conservative MP – namely, Quintin Hogg – who first proposed to Parliament in 1968 a bill that would incorporate the ECHR into UK law. Britain is the home of human rights, with the introduction of Magna Carta in 1215 and the exporting of English common law to the rest of the Continent through the ECHR. And conservatives typically believe in the principles of personal freedom and a government limited by the rule of law. Faced with the real electoral threat of a nationalising, socialistic Labour Government, these principles should matter and be championed now more than ever.
Bright Blue has scrutinised the relationship between conservatism and human rights in great deal in its new report, Individual Identity. Through polling, we explore what most Conservative voters really think about the existence of and importance of human rights.
Our polling shows that, alongside voters of other parties, most Conservatives believe human rights exist and a fair trial is the most important human right. There is, admittedly, scepticism: just four per cent of Conservatives regard human rights as their top five election issues – a smaller proportion than all other political parties.
Still, Conservative voters are very enthusiastic about making human rights a major part of British foreign policy. Only six per cent state that “Britain should not promote human rights”. Approximately two-thirds of Conservatives support a significant role for human rights in British foreign policy.
So, after Brexit, the UK Government should not just be a global leader in free trade, but human rights too. We should should remain a proud signatory of the ECHR. The Government should ensure that trade deals, where possible, include obligations to improve human rights in the partner countries, as is the case with about three-quarters of all of the world’s trade deals. And human rights should be a new priority for British aid, including the Department for International Development match-funding the Foreign Office’s expenditure on overseas human rights projects through the Magna Carta Fund.
Discrimination is, like the abuse of human rights, an immoral and unjust barrier to individual freedom and flourishing. This is why mitigating the discrimination still faced by particular social groups should be at the heart of conservative thinking and policymaking. Indeed, in her first speech as Prime Minister, Theresa May outlined her mission to tackle the “burning injustices” which prevented people from different social groups – especially those from Black, Minority and Ethnic (BME) backgrounds, and women – achieving their full potential in Britain.
An overwhelming majority of all Conservatives believe that all types of discrimination we surveyed – racism, homophobia and transphobia, discrimination against religious people, sexism, and discrimination against disabled people – exist, and to a significant amount, in the UK. Fewer than three per cent of Conservatives believe that none of these types of discrimination ‘exist’ at all. Racism, according to Conservative voters, is the most prevalent form of discrimination with 95 per cent reporting it exists, while 69 per cent report a significant amount of it exists.
Conservative voters are prepared to support policies that tackle persistent discrimination, especially in improving employment outcomes for certain ‘minority’ groups such as women, BME people, and disabled people. While the majority of Conservatives are opposed to quotas for certain social groups and tax incentives for employers who hire individuals from such groups, only a small minority of 22 per cent of Conservatives oppose name-blind applications, which is where the name of a job applicant is hidden from the recruiter at the beginning of the application process. The Government is rolling-out name-blind applications to some civil service roles. We think it should apply to all roles in the civil service and in public sector agencies.
Conservatives should and do believe that the fair trial and fair treatment of all individuals are fundamental. Divisive and illiberal identity politics should be rejected and challenged: judgements on individuals should be made – following due process – on the basis of their actions, not their identity. The Conservative Party, with its long history of defending individual freedom, should ensure that all of us have adequate protection and redress from the abuse of power.