Geoffrey Robertson QC makes case for a British Bill of Rights

1 June 2010 by

We have been following the debate on whether Britain will opt to supplement the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights. In a wide-ranging article published today, Geoffrey Robertson QC, a barrister specialising in human rights, has advocated “moving on from the Euro Convention – building on it, but not abandoning it.”

In the article, he concludes:

Despite these inadequacies, there is ample evidence that the Human Rights Act has measurably improved the level of dignity and decency accorded by the state to its most-vulnerable citizens, and for that relief much thanks to the Blair government which enacted it with cross-party support in 1998. But it has not, as its proponents hoped, conduced to a “culture of liberty”….

This is where the case for a British Bill of Rights becomes overwhelming. Not as an updated improvement on the Euro Convention but as a powerful symbol of British identity. A reminder to our children – and to our immigrants and indeed ourselves, of the struggles in this country to achieve democracy and its accoutrements – parliamentary sovereignty, judicial independence, press freedom, habeas corpus, trial by jury and so forth. We teach our children nothing about Lilburne and Milton and Wilkes, or about the Petition of Right or the 1689 Bill, or about Tom Paine and the brave booksellers who died in prison for selling The Age of Reason, or about Erskine and Bentham and the Tolpuddle Martyrs. The present GCSE syllabus pretends that the struggle for civil rights began in Mississippi in 1964, and not 320 years earlier at Naseby. What is needed is a Declaration that proudly recites our heritage and history of liberty, which will be immutable and enforceable.

David Cameron’s offer of such a Bill was left out of the coalition compromise, and has now been referred to a committee. One that should include historians and authors and poets, as well as the inevitable lawyers and MPs. If they can put together a credible and inspiring draft, the Prime Minister should summon a national convention to debate it, followed by a referendum in which the people of this country could decide to entrench it as the first building block of a written constitution – unalterable except by a further referendum or a two-thirds vote in the Commons. If Messrs Clegg and Cameron can produce that kind of real change, they will truly have lived up to their campaign rhetoric.

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