As Home Secretary, Theresa May was all for withdrawing from the European Court on Human Rights, and incorporating the contents of the convention into our own law (a move she first hinted at during her speech to a ConservativeHome conference). As a Tory leadership candidate, she promptly dropped the aspiration – presumably mindful that, without a manifesto commitment to leave, the move would not get through Parliament.
Now it has been briefed that she will seek to write withdrawal into the next Conservative election manifesto. This may or may not be chaff to cover the postponement, if not the abandonment, of the British Bill of Rights promised in the last one.
The Bill of Rights would replace the Human Rights Act. Downing Street seems to think that there isn’t a majority for scrapping the latter in the Commons, let alone the Lords. It also appears to have concluded that there’s little point in abolishing the Act if Britain is still subject to the European Court.
If one is to have judge-made law at all, it makes sense to have our own judges draw it up, since they are more likely to be sensitive to British conditions and culture. So the Prime Minister has a point. But, as with so much else, the context for these considerations has been radically altered by June’s Brexit vote.
The European Convention on Human Rights is written into the text of the Belfast Agreement as a safeguard. It is true that the convention is not the same thing as the court. But as the recent report of Lords’ EU Committee put it, the Convention is “a crucial safeguard to the agreement”. Anything that touches on it could have knock-on effects on Northern Ireland’s stability, and possible ones for the independence debate in Scotland, too. May should proceed with care.