Cassie got up, threw her yoghurt pot in the bin and stared out the kitchen window for a moment.
“So what happened next?” she said.
“Well, within a few months, nearly all British government staff had been recalled with only a trade delegation remaining who signed an agreement very early on so the flow of goods and money wouldn’t be affected. But everything else was gone, any adherence to EU laws, any debate about the relationship with our neighbours, which became do it our way or we won’t deal with you. I’m not saying that everything about the EU was good and it certainly needed reform, but by today’s standards the majority of Britain’s people would be better off inside, if only because it safeguards some rights for workers and had begun to moderate the worst excesses of the banking industry that caused the recession which led to the unemployment and despondency that allowed anti-EU and immigration feeling to take hold. That led to the next predictable step, the repeal of the Human Rights Act, even though it had nothing to do with the EU.”
“We learnt about that in history, it was the act imposed by Europe that restricted the government from ruling in Britain’s interests.”
“Fascinating. In reality it was a British bill that enshrined some articles of the European Convention on Human Rights in UK law. It was brought in very early in Blair’s first term, one of the contradictions of Labour’s tenure given their attitude to civil liberties. I think the day that act was abolished was the day I knew we were finally on a self-destructive path that I’d never be able to agree with.”
“Why? What value did it add to our lives?”
“Nothing instantly recognisable but not everything needs to be used every day for it to be valuable. Some things are just good to have available should they be needed at some point. The Convention was created after World War Two to try and ensure that nothing like that could ever happen again by setting out the rights of individuals. I’ve told you before about the rise of Hitler, concentration camps, genocide and the outcome of the war. This document, created by the European Court of Human Rights, which almost every European country was part of, set out things like the equal rights of people regardless of ethnicity or religion, people’s right to privacy and also the principles of a free press as a way of holding government to account. The symbolic act of removing elements of it from our law book signalled an end to what had been a long running debate about whether we should even be recognising it anymore. For years politicians bitched about it and at one point a sympathetic judge even suggested it was only there as a guide for the purposes of political criticism rather than anything legally binding, the kind of commentary that by definition also devalued our rights. I mean, it had often been ignored but it did at least provide some principles which if you look at it in human terms is a good start. It’s in people’s nature to feel injustice, but often only relative to their position in the abuse chain, so those repealing the act were never going to suffer from its demise.
“Britain eventually and unsurprisingly stated it would no longer recognise the European Court as having jurisdiction over domestic decisions, which was popular internally in that isolationist way. That alone didn’t seem too sinister unless you knew the details, and most people didn’t. It was just a footnote in history by that time, and people have a tendency to forget the past if they have no personal connection to it, or they at least lose sight of its contemporary context after a couple of generations. Also, some of the media played it up as a poke in the eye for Europe and reclamation of British control over its own affairs. Not many questioned the value of effectively removing an individual’s access to the last possible challenge to government. Again, just like the European Union, not all its judgements were logical but as an institution it was nice to have around for our personal protection.”
I got up and started clearing dishes from the table and filling the dishwasher as Cassie fidgeted with the salt cellar.
“But wasn’t this just the idea that we should take back control of our country, that we shouldn’t have to answer to anyone outside our own borders?”
“It’s a bit more complicated than that. From a politician’s point of view, European law and the Human Rights Act had an effect on parliamentary sovereignty.”
“It was one of the constitutional conventions set out in the Bill of Rights that allowed Parliament to rule on behalf of the monarch so that all power wouldn’t be in the hands of an individual. It still exists as the de facto way the country is run today but the theory in the past was that MPs would legislate in the interests of the people and any bills passed by Parliament would be upheld by the courts because of that. However, not just the Convention on Human Rights but European Union legislation became law meaning the government had to abide by plenty of regulations it didn’t make. Some of those were good, some of them weren’t as happens with any legislative body, but more importantly I think some governments, or possibly just individuals, felt they’d lost some of the ability to implement their ideologies. At the same time the last hundred years saw the loss of an empire coupled with a reduction in stature internationally, as well as the slow determined devolution of power to Northern Ireland and Wales and the independence of Scotland, so the English Parliament no longer had the power it once had over countries, regions and people.
“And that’s not forgetting the judiciary. Parliament had to adjust to the fact that the courts could now rule against them because of European legislation, when historically they would only have had to interpret British law which could be created, modified or repealed by the ruling party. So when the opportunity came to regain some of the sovereignty they once exercised, politicians were quick to grasp it. Their loss of power could be seen as a factor in everything that happened after 2017, a series of declarations to disprove impotence.”
“I think I’m beginning to see where this tale is going.”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish