Mr Cameron goes to Strasbourg

24 January 2012 by

Updated | In the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, James Stewart plays a local Boy Rangers leader who becomes a US Senator and, against all odds, triumphs agains the corrupt bureaucrats in Washington. Tomorrow, according to The Sun, “battling” Prime Minister David Cameron will be travelling to Strasbourg in, it would seem, similar style to “tell Euro judges to stop meddling in British justice”.

Meanwhile, back in London, the British president of the European Court of Human Rights launched a preemptive strike on Mr Cameron’s speech in today’s Independent, arguing that the criticism from “senior British politicians” relating to the court’s interference is “simply not borne out by the facts“.

Bratza is right that the us-vs-them narrative is partly the result of mischievous human rights reporting by the press. Recent examples are the Daily Mail’s extravagant claim that the UK loses 3 out of 4 cases in Strasbourg, resting on a partial reading of the court’s statistics, and the Telegraph’s seemingly endless run of articles based on low-level immigration decisions, the latest being: Bigamist wins ‘family life’ human rights case. In that case, the original tribunal knew nothing about his alleged other marriages, so it is hard to see what it shows about human rights defences to deportation decisions, except that a claimant possibly lied in court, was found out and will probably now be deported.

However, blogger Carl Gardner rightly points out that the Strasbourg court may indeed have overstepped its remit, and therefore despite Bratza’s justifiably robust defence, “the facts do bear out the complaint that the court has sometimes been too interventionist.”

Wherever the blame lies, the debate over human rights law in the UK has become toxic. Senior politicians are terrified to defend human rights decisions, and the press have been steadily ratcheting up their demands over what should be done about human rights gone wrong. The Sun and Telegraph now mooting the possibility of a total or temporary UK withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights, an international instrument which was mainly drafted by UK lawyersand to which the UK was amongst the first signatories. As Lord Neuberger, the head of the Court of Appeal said in a speech last year, the terms of the current debate:

may tempt some into thinking that it is hardly worth maintaining the State’s inability to deny you a fair trial, to kill or torture you, and to preclude you enjoying freedom of expression.

Returning to Washington for a moment, the human rights debate has begun to resemble one of the ideological red line issues which now dominate US presidential elections. The ongoing Republican Presidential primaries have seen candidates falling over themselves to be the most anti-abortion, anti-universal health insurance (despite the frontrunner, Mitt Romney, having pioneered the policy) and anti-tax rises, at the expense of a sober debate about important issues. As Jeffrey Frank points out this week in the New Yorker, as early as 1959 then-Vice President Nixon saw the danger of such polarisation. He told the California Commonwealth Club:

“I think it would be a great tragedy . . . if we had our two major political parties divide on what we would call a conservative-liberal line.” He continued, “I think one of the attributes of our political system has been that we have avoided generally violent swings in Administrations from one extreme to the other. And the reason we have avoided that is that in both parties there has been room for a broad spectrum of opinion.” Therefore, “when your Administrations come to power, they will represent the whole people rather than just one segment of the people”.

The equivalent danger for these shores should be clear to the Prime Minister as he travels to Strasbourg. Pulling out of the Court or the European Convention because the public are concerned about immigration controls and prisoners voting would be to jettison, unnecessarily, everything which is good about the court and the UK’s role in developing international human rights standards. Bratza names but a few:

Freedom of religion has been established in many previously intolerant countries. Journalists no longer face criminal sanctions when they criticise politicians. Homosexuality has been decriminalised across Europe. The victims of domestic violence and trafficking are increasingly receiving enhanced protection.

In fact, it is unlikely that the Prime Minister will threaten withdrawal from the court or the Convention. He will be wary of being hoodwinked by anti-human rights rhetoric as the Home Secretary was when she repeated a now-famous cat-prevented-deportation tale at the Tory Party Conference. In any case, the UK’s policy was made clear by the Attorney General in his October speech, in which he set out the UK’s reform proposals which it is pushing strongly during its 6 months stewardship of the court. He also said:

There is no question of the United Kingdom withdrawing from the Convention. The United Kingdom signed the Convention on the first day it was open for signature on 4 November 1950. The United Kingdom was the first country to ratify the Convention the following year. The United Kingdom will not be the first country to leave the Convention

Grieve continued:

We need to challenge the myths, some of them ludicrous, that have grown up about human rights, particularly in some sections of the media and which I often get repeated to me by concerned constituents. We need to see our part, as a legal fraternity to be to make sure the law is understood.

So, whatever the dreams of the Eurosceptic press, the Prime Minister is likely to push for reform of the Court without threatening the nuclear option of withdrawal. There will no doubt be some strong rhetoric – probably involving the liberal use of word “sovereignty” – in order to maintain the “battling” image. But when Mr Cameron goes to Strasbourg, he should remember that, to paraphrase Richard Nixon, he represents the whole people rather than just one segment of the people.

Update, 25 January 2012 – The Prime Minister’s full speech has been published here.

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  1. David Lidington, the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, reinforced Grieve’s statements today (
    ““There is no question of the UK pulling out of the European convention or the court,”

  2. Hasn’t anyone briefed David Cameron that Sovereignty of Parliament is not recognised in European law?

  3. ObiterJ says:

    James Stewart – a very interesting and distinguished career:

    Even if those who argue that the E Ct HR has sometimes been too interventionist are right, the number of occasions are few. Those arguing this way usually only manage to cite Hirst No.2 (Prisoner voting) and some deportation cases (e.g. Abu Qatada). In fact, the Abu Qatada case recently gave the UK government what might be seen in some quarters as a “win” in that the court recognised that diplomatic assurances might work in some instances. Strange, is it not, that they bang on about the “bad bit” (can’t deport) but fail to mention the “good bit” (might be able to get an assurance).

    In fact, I think that it beggars belief that the UK would consider deporting anyone – however despicable the person – to a country where officially-sanctioned torture takes place. As a signatory to the UN Torture Convention we should do all that is possible to stamp out this evil practice and should do nothing to encourage it.

    In this debate, it is worth recalling that, when it suited them, British Ministers have been just as vocal about our own Supreme Court – e.g. Theresa May’s statement in Parliament:

    I am afraid that I see in this present government a distinctly illiberal trend which, in my opinion, needs to be countered. We see this in relation to legal aid, proposals to extend closed material procedure as well as outspoken attacks on decisions of the courts which they dislike.

  4. mike farrell says:

    If you want a more accurate comparison of Mr Camerons recent shenanigans try the song ‘My brain is hanging upside down (Bonzo goes to Bitburg)’ by the Ramones.
    As for newspapers like the Sun and the Mail (which prints some highly questionable blogs online by some highly questionable politicians) et all misinforming the public and pushing their own agenda RE Human Rights, you need not add two and two together to understand their motivation in doing so; very inconvenient not to be able to write whatever salacious inflammatory rubbish you want about whom you want without fear of comeback. Its just a pity that readers suck this stuff up and believe every word. And its not just the Sun, the Times and virtually every other newspaper is in on this now, in fact that Times in terms of objective reporting while never perfect before has slumped into the gutter over the last year and a half.
    The truth is it feels like we no longer have democracy, we have a newspaper media led country to which our elected representatives are enthralled, and to which all we can do is stand back and watch with no real say or choice over anything.

  5. […] the UK Human Rights blog Adam Wagner has written: Pulling out of the Court or the European Convention because the public are […]

  6. Stefano Genovese says:

    I agree with busybeebuzz. There is no comparison between the story line in Frank Capra’s, Mr Smith Goes to Washington and the current political hype. I suggest you all watch the film. The Strasbourg issue (Human Rights and EU) has very little to do with actual facts and more with British media propaganda.

    The people of Britain have for centuries been bullied from the top. A new breath freedom is sweeping across this Island some find unable to comprehend. The British people are slowly beginning to comprehend liberty under the law. And, that as a people with a right to free expression can change the law.

    Unfortunately, British poli-trixters with their media propagandist distort the facts into a xenophobic hysteria that may isolate this island in many ways and could cause international friction to the ruin of many. This was how Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Franco, Saddam and Osama Bin-liner used propaganda.

    The facts state that the EU and Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg, has been good for Britain. Hatred of immigrants is counter-productive. Immigration and constitutional Rights is good for any nation, because liberty will be found under the law made by its people. I am Italian-American (EU-USA). Immigration and a Bill of Rights (Strasbourg) across all of Europe is a good idea from my perspective.

    Pace e Bene (Peace and well-being)

    1. Adam Wagner says:

      Apologies to you and Busbeebuzz – I should have been clearer that I don’t consider the comparison is accurate, but rather one which has been put about by some of the press. I have made the first para a bit clearer…

      1. busybeebuzz says:

        I’ve done a Google search and can’t find any press connection between the film that you refer to and the fact that David Cameron is going to Strasbourg. I would be most grateful if you would please state which news articles originally made this connection.

        1. Adam Wagner says:

          No article made the analogy! I made the analogy, i.e. that is how it is being presented. Sorry if this was not clear

      2. busybeebuzz says:

        Please forgive me for being confused, but your statements don’t seem to be consistent! When you apologised to me and Stefano Genovese you said: “I should have been clearer that I don’t consider the comparison is accurate, but rather one which has been put about by some of the press.” Now you say: “No article made the analogy! I made the analogy”. You can’t have it both ways. Either the comparison was originally “put about by some of the press.” or [you] “…made the analogy”.

        1. Adam Wagner says:

          Yes I see that is not clear either – once and for all, I never said or meant to say the comparison had been used in the press (if I had, I would have linked to the offending article as I always try to do), but was suggesting that the PM was being presented (in the general sense – not by use of the particular analogy) as a Mr Smith type figure.

      3. busybeebuzz says:

        All writers who aspire to be great writers should remember that that truth is a powerful weapon for change. Dickens and Harper Lee knew this! In your article Freemen of the dangerous nonsense, you wrote: “As C. P. Scott’s phrase continues “… comment is free but facts are sacred“.” The link that you provided took me to:

  7. busybeebuzz says:

    I’m sorry, but I don’t see any similarity between the story line of Frank Capra’s film and the Strasbourg ‘story line’ or any similarity between the ethics of the character that James Stewart plays and the ethics of David Cameron. Have you forgotten that the Prime Minister was a very close friend of Rupert Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson?

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