By Matthew Barrett
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Earlier this month, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, revealed an open mind about Britain's possible withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). He told my colleague Paul Goodman:
"I'm not sure its necessarily necessary – and this is why I say that we shouldn't hold one view or another at this stage – to walk away from the convention. It may be that we have to address the issue of the way we interact in relation to the court: again, I'm not ruling it in or ruling it out at this stage."
Yet last month, the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, said that Britain would become a "pariah state", and any such withdrawal "would put us in a group of countries that would make very odd bedfellows", and, further still, we might "jeopardise" our international standing.
This view is disappointing, but not necessarily surprising. Much of Britain's legal and human rights establishment is far more Euro-centric than Anglo-centric. In other words, it thinks that we should attempt to align ourselves with developments, conventions and practices in Europe rather than the Commonwealth. The reasons for this are well-explored and don't need re-examining: the metropolitan left would simply prefer to associate itself with diverse, modern, multi-cultural Europe, rather than the imperialist, old-fashioned Commonwealth.
However, the view that being outside the European sphere of influence would make us some sort of notorious human rights abusers overnight is not a view any serious person could hold. A brief look at how Britain's family of nations overseas (Europeans are occasionally-good neighbours, but the Commonwealth is our family) chooses to organise its human rights legislation is instructive in how wrong-headed the ECHR-or-pariah view is.
Firstly, let's look at the case of Canada. It has the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, and similar bodies in each province. Canada has a well-established human rights system, and consistently scores highly in rankings of freedom, democracy and human rights. Canada passed the Civil Marriage Act, allowing gay marriage, in 2005. One of its few disputes with the United Nations is over the fact that Canada still allows segregated religious schools. Despite that, there is no doubt that Canada is a tolerant, free, liberal, democratic society with a well-established commitment to uphold human rights. It is not a pariah state, despite not having the benefit of the European Court of Human Rights' wisdom being passed down regularly.
But a country needn't be in the Commonwealth to have a comprehensive pro-human rights stance. Uruguay, for example, also regularly scores highly on assessments of democracy, rights, freedom and civil liberties. It regularly holds referendums, its people are staunch supporters of democracy, it values its transparent judiciary, and it scores a straight 10.00 on civil liberties from the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index – a better score than Britain. Is Uruguay a pariah state?
Mr Grieve, and fellow enthusiasts of the European style of rights legislation, often like to say Britain would join Belarus, Europe's last dictatorship, as being the only two European countries not to comply with the ECHR. But what is it about ECHR compliance that suddenly stops a country from being a pariah? Russia has ratified the European Convention on Human Rights. So have the Ukraine, Albania, Serbia and Turkey: countries with less than promising records on democracy and civil liberties. Are these countries not to be treated with scepticism over their rights and liberties policies?
Britain's civil liberties ranking on the Democracy Index is actually lower at present than those of Australia, New Zealand, Canada (all of whom, like Uruguay, get full marks). Those countries are not pariahs. Far from it – as Mr Grieve would agree. Mr Grieve would also agree that there is a genuine case for a number of those countries who comply with the ECHR to be described as pariahs. So why should Britain be so afraid of leaving the ECHR, other than because it might make us look bad in the liberal think-tanks and coffee houses of Europe.
Belarus, or the former Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, is a new country. It has been independent since Christmas Day 1991. Britain, and her predecessors, are not new countries. We live in one of the most stable, tolerant and free societies in the history of mankind. The political extremism and revolution of Europe failed to cross the English Channel. Surely no-one believes that, if Britain were to leave the ECHR, David Cameron would suddenly start abusing civil liberties. It's perfectly possible for a country like us to want to leave the ECHR without wicked acts and rights violations being around the corner, as Mr Grieve clearly fears may be the perception.
Indeed, it seems far more likely that a serious and thoughtful man like Chris Grayling would countenance the idea of leaving the ECHR because he wants to uphold our ancient liberties, rather than start chipping away at them. It is no surprise that Mr Grayling is not a lawyer, despite his Cabinet position (indeed, he is the first non-lawyer to be Lord Chancellor since 1558). He has brought to his job a mind more attuned to the sensible wishes of the British people than to the demands of the European intellectual and legal elite.