Fighting for Freedom: Conservatism, human rights and discrimination

Today Bright Blue hosts its latest human rights conference, Fighting for Freedom: Conservatism, human rights and discrimination. The conference includes a keynote speech by the Minister for human rights, Dr Phillip Lee MP, and two panel sessions panel events with high-profile centre-right speakers such as Maria Miller MP and Andrew Mitchell MP.

The conference is the culmination of a major project exploring how conservatives can approach human rights issues in a thoughtful way, while encompassing traditional conservative values of individual freedom and empowerment. Throughout the project, Bright Blue has published reports and essay collections addressing some of the pivotal human rights debates in the UK and abroad.

We have taken a broad view of human rights. We have sought to understand and improve domestic and international human rights legislation. But we have also focused closely on the issue of tackling discrimination. Discrimination is, like the abuse of human rights, an unjustified barrier to individual freedom..

Our motivation

Our work in this area was particularly motivated by a desire to understand conservative scepticism towards Britain’s current human rights framework. Bright Blue began its work on human rights in late 2015. At that time, the Government was expected to shortly announce plans to repeal the Human Rights Act (HRA), and legislate for a new British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities (BBRR).

But, conservative scepticism towards our human rights framework was not just apparent among conservative decision makers and opinion formers. There was also strong evidence that Conservative voters were similarly sceptical. Opinion polls suggested Conservative voters were unconvinced of the merits of the HRA and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), for instance.

Yet, for us, there seemed no inherent reason why conservatives should be sceptical of human rights as a whole. Conservatives typically believe in the principles of personal freedom and a government limited by the rule of law. Human rights codify these fundamental conservative principles to protect individuals from an overreaching state and undue power.

In addition to the philosophical link between conservatism and human rights, there is a strong tradition of Conservative politicians championing the development and protection of human rights. The ECHR was drafted and championed by Conservative politicians after World War Two. As revealed in one of Bright Blue’s human rights reports, it was actually a Conservative MP – Quintin Hogg – who first advocated a bill to incorporate the ECHR into UK law.

As we continued our work into human rights it also became apparent how crucial the idea of tackling discrimination was to a conservative understanding of human rights. Central to conservative ideology is the concept that unfair barriers that prevent humans from flourishing should be removed to allow everyone to reach their full potential.

This belief has been strongly held by the two most recent Conservative Prime Ministers. David Cameron talked of ‘life chances’ and how his Government could transform the lives of the poorest in Britain. While Theresa May has railed against the ‘burning injustices’ which prevent certain people from reaching their full potential.

Our research

Our first major report on human rights was Britain breaking barriers. The report was published following a year long inquiry, led by a high-profile commission that included three former cabinet ministers. The report recommended 68 policies to strengthen human rights and tackle all forms of discrimination following a call for written evidence, an oral evidence session, and several site visits. High-profile recommendations included a call for Britain to remain a signatory of the ECHR and a proposal for new trade deals, after Brexit, to include obligations to improve human rights in partner countries.

Shortly afterwards we published Individual Identity which analysed why Conservative voters are often considered to be sceptical of the concept of human rights and their views on tackling discrimination. The report included a poll of 6,530 British adults which included 2,240 Conservative voters. The report unearthed some scepticism towards human rights among Conservative voters, but also found that Conservative voters do believe that discrimination exists in the UK and support policies which ‘level the playing ground’ for certain groups who experience discrimination.

Perhaps our most detailed appraisal of human rights legislation in Britain and its history can be found in Fighting for Freedom? In the report, Sir Michael Tugendhat, former High Court Judge and report author, explores the relationship between conservatism and human rights, the meaning and history of human rights in England, and assesses Britain's contemporary human rights framework. Tugendhat concludes by exploring a number of possible future reforms to Britain’s human rights legislation before arguing in favour of the HRA rather than a new BBRR.

During the project, we also published three essay collections. Conservatism and human rights, explored ways to tackle discrimination in Britain, the role of human rights in British foreign policy, and the significance of possible reform to Britain’s human rights framework. Burning Britain? sought to highlight some of Britain’s ‘burning injustices’, and provide solutions to help address them. While A sense of belonging evaluated the potential avenues to ensure integration and opportunity in modern Britain, specifically in isolated and deprived communities.  

Conclusion

Today’s conference, supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Global Dialogue, brings together some of the leading voices on human rights in Britain and beyond. Through two panel sessions, one on tackling discrimination in the UK, and the other discussing the importance of championing human rights overseas, we hope to further expand and inform the discussion on human rights, particularly at what is a critical time for policymaking in the UK.

Amabel Scott is a research assistant at Bright Blue