Dominic Grieve was a worthy attorney-general whose career was helped by this magazine: nine years ago, he was named Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year, beneath the nose of David Cameron, then nearing the end of his successful campaign for the Conservative leadership. But Grieve’s remarks this week, in which he suggested that the Prime Minister would be seen to be as bad as Putin if he pursues proposals to give Parliament ultimate authority over laws in this country, underline why his position as a member of the government had become untenable.
One of the few redeeming features of David Cameron’s reshuffle is that it added a certain clarity to our position with the European Court of Human Rights. Its judges have become activists, trying to tell democratic governments (for example) that prisoners should have the vote. Only recently has the court tried to assert itself in this way, in defiance of the basic idea of a country deciding its own laws. Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, has a simple solution: a British Bill of Rights which would be senior to Strasbourg and protect this country from its more bizarre rulings. It is of course preposterous that such a sensible reform can lead to comparisons with Putin’s Russia.
Becoming a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights does not of itself turn a rogue state into a place of freedom and liberty. On the contrary, in Putin’s case it seems to be used as window-dressing. It enables him to claim to be on the side of human rights when, as last week’s atrocity in Ukraine demonstrates, he still behaves as the KGB officer he once was.
There is a subtle but enormous difference between the European Convention on Human Rights, on which the Strasbourg court bases its decisions, and on the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The latter states:
The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage.
The former states only that:
The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.
In other words, the European Convention respects the right to free and fair elections but does not demand that those elected respect the wishes of those who elected them, nor that a country’s legislature should be in ultimate charge. This has led to the situation in which a handful of judges at the ECHR can effectively overrule domestic law.
The European Convention is a product of its time. When it was written (by British lawyers) in 1950, many European leaders had a deep suspicion of democracy, blaming it for the rise of Hitler. The convention has been added to on many occasions, but no one has been brave enough to challenge the democratic deficiency at its heart.
After the government’s reforms, Britain would still be subject to judgments by the ECHR. Negative judgments would still stand as a stern warning not to trample on rights. The difference is that the ECHR’s judges would themselves be held to account, and that ultimately it would be the will of the people which would prevail.
In choosing this September for the Scottish referendum on independence, the SNP was presumably hoping Scots voters would be basking in the glory of a successful Commonwealth Games.
There is every reason to hope that the games, which opened in Glasgow this week, will emulate the London Olympics for organisational skill and, moreover, will help to sell an often-maligned city to the world. But why does it follow that Scotland needs to be independent of the UK to organise and enjoy such an event? If these games had been marred by pettifogging bureaucracy or financial constraints imposed by Whitehall, or if someone in London had trampled on Glasgow’s bid and put forward London or Birmingham instead, there would be every reason for Scots to feel aggrieved. Clearly none of those things happened.
These games, and every Commonwealth Games before them, demonstrate that it is possible for Scots to cheer on athletes wearing Scottish vests while remaining part of the UK. The same happens in every World Cup and Six Nations Championship. The issue facing Scots in September is not whether they want to be able to cheer on their own national sports teams, but whether they want to continue to enjoy the benefits of being a single economic and social system, where money, goods, people and ideas can flow uninterrupted backwards and forwards across the border.
We trust that Scottish voters will see through Alex Salmond’s narrow interpretation of patriotism and realise that there is no contradiction between cheering on Scotland and voting for the union.
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