Conservatism and human rights

Today, we’re launching this new website for our project on Conservatism and human rightsOver the next year, this website will be the home of ideas from a centre-right perspective on how human rights can be strengthened both in the UK and abroad.

We’ve established a commission of high-profile opinion formers and decision makers to gather evidence and brainstorm policy, which will ultimately lead to the publication of a final report with recommendations. We’ll invite the learned and the passionate to contribute essays. And our research team will summarise the latest trends and evidence on human rights through regular blogs. Next month, we’ll be publishing an essay collection and the former Attorney General, the Rt Hon Dominic Grieve QC MP, will be delivering a keynote speech.

Our project focuses on three key areas: ensuring the new British Bill of Rights strengthens human rights and is compatible with being a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR); advancing human rights in British foreign policy; and tackling discrimination - including gender, sexual, religious, disability and racial discrimination.

This is difficult territory, of course.  There is a growing scepticism towards human rights, especially among parliamentarians and activists within the Conservative Party. The Party is now officially committed to replacing the Human Rights Act (HRA). This is despite conservatives such as Jesse Norman MP and Peter Oborne arguing that it is an “exquisitely conservative document”. Indeed, the HRA is is silent on so-called rights to economic status, possession or material comfort – rather, it is about limiting state power against individuals. It incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into British law, a document that derives from English common law.

But note some positives: polling of Conservative voters, for example, finds that a majority support all ten of the key rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In general, Conservative scepticism towards human rights focuses on their application, not on the principles behind them. Indeed, throughout the twentieth century, protecting individual liberty was seen as an important Conservative principle. As Margaret Thatcher put it, “human rights did not begin with the French Revolution...England had 1688, our quiet revolution”. Furthermore, the Prime Minister - in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference in October 2015 - outlined his agenda for social reform over this parliament, highlighting in particular the need to tackle racial and gender discrimination in the UK.

The current majority Conservative government is pursuing fundamental reforms to social and foreign policy. So it is a critical time, especially with the upcoming publication of the draft British Bill of Rights, to ensure that human rights are protected and enhanced. But it is essential that any policy suggestions are rooted in the language and thinking of the centre-right to be compelling and impactful. That will be Bright Blue’s focus over the next year.

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue