Understanding conservatism and human rights

There is, of course, dispute about the meaning and scope of all political terms, but ‘human rights’ and ‘conservatism’ both seem particularly problematic. 

A serious problem with the former relates to overuse. It’s a truism to state that human rights are important, yet, contrary to increasingly popular opinion, this doesn’t mean that everything of importance is an issue of human rights. First, not all of our interests as humans are rights-related. Second, not all rights are human rights; human rights are a subset of rights we have by dint of being human, including — to follow the opening of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — the rights to life, liberty, and security of person, and the rights not to be enslaved or tortured. And third, in that rights need realisation, while all rights have correlative obligations, not all obligations correlate with rights. 

So, although human rights are a particularly important set of rights, they aren’t exhaustive in terms of covering all the protections and opportunities we want, need, or deserve as humans in a good society. The modern obsession with diluting the language of human rights through its over-application is not only lazy, it’s dangerous. 

‘Conservatism’, on the other hand, seems an underused term. This is unsurprising, as it’s trickier to pin down than the other classic political ‘isms’, not least when considering what adhering to such a position entails. To my mind, this is because conservatism is inherently situational and non-ideological. It is responsive and reactive, rather than driven by a set of codified principles or positions. And it depends on time and place. (Just compare conservative ideas across the world today.) Sure, there are certain general things we tend to associate with such a standpoint in the UK, or even more widely — such as fiscal restraint, an appreciation of tradition, and support for long-standing institutions and the environment. But, again, those things usually relate to sustaining what has, over the long term, tended to work in a society (though, of course, that leads to arguments about what ‘tended to work’ can mean on a non-ideological point of view). 

Nonetheless, when people here think about conservatism, they tend to think about the Conservative Party. Much of the reason the term seems underused or under-applied is because it’s the party’s actions, rather than the theoretical notion, that are often actually referred to in discussions of ‘conservatism’. Not all conservatives are Conservatives, however, and not all Conservatives are conservative. Indeed, over the past century or so, alongside strands of ‘real’ conservatism, the Conservative Party has mostly been led either by those of a traditionally liberal outlook, or those of a more paternalistic bent. It’s a famously broad church, which is unsurprising for a party sharing a name with a responsive non-ideological philosophy. 

So how might these terms relate? What is the philosophical and historical relationship between conservatism and human rights? One might start by recognising that UK Conservatives have often been at the forefront of increasing rights provision: Disraeli and the franchise, Churchill and the founding of the UN, Cameron and equal marriage, and so on. Considering our nation’s proud habeas-corpus human-rights history, it’s unsurprising that a UK party based on situational traditionalism might show support for such an ideal. (Again, just compare with the positions of conservatives abroad, through time.) 

But, regardless of historical explanations, a list of Conservative achievements in the realm of human rights seems insufficient for proving any relationship between conservatism and human rights, even if all those Conservatives were driven by conservatism. This is not least because lasting changes to legislation, institutions, and norms tend to owe much more to long-fought battles by activists, than to the colour of any contemporary governing party. 

Moreover, it’s tempting to say that support for fundamental human-rights provision shouldn’t really be seen as ideological or party political, at all. Surely, in an advanced modern society, we’d expect any decent party or person to be in favour of ensuring such rights. Ok, that returns us to the nature and scope of human rights. And yes, it’s probably accurate to assume conservatives might be less likely to apply the term ‘human right’ as widely as those of a more ‘progressive’ persuasion. It’s probably also accurate to say that Conservatives have been more focused on rights under their phases of more (classically) liberal leadership. Nonetheless, for those who accept there are such things as fundamental human rights, rather than just legal or political constructs, then that acceptance largely transcends partisan allegiances — although it may well inform one’s overall understanding and views of the world. 

All that said, our rights are primarily afforded and protected by the country in which we live, led by the Government of the day. Believing in universal human rights is easier than envisaging a world in which they are universally respected; the nation state remains at the heart of human-rights provision. And questions about such provision pervade political discourse not only abroad, but also at home. Brexit will provoke inevitable debates about the UK’s continuing participation in the European Convention on Human Rights, and it will be essential to address this pragmatically and sensibly — both key conservative traits, which remain much in need. 

Rebecca Lowe is director of Freer and a columnist for Conservative Home