Dr Phillip Lee MP: Bright Blue’s Fighting for Freedom? Conservatism, human rights and discrimination conference

It is a real pleasure to speak to you today. Because Conservatism and human rights are two things I ardently believe in and that drive my personal politics. They are why I am here as a Member of Parliament, Minister and a GP. And I see them as being inextricably linked. For me, the recognition of our human rights is what true conservatism is all about.

So I would like to take the opportunity to congratulate Bright Blue on this important discussion. We have a lot of good work to build on in the form of your Human Rights Project. I hope you will keep it up.

I need to say upfront that I am here under slightly false pretences. I am the minister for human rights – but I do not plan to talk much about that brief. Instead, I want to focus on the big strategic question that our Party faces…….
That is: how we advance human rights in the 21st century.
This is an important question.

To answer it, we have to understand how the world and our country are changing.

And we should build on our Conservative tradition of thinkers, politicians, lawyers and Governments who have worked tirelessly to advance human rights. So let me start with some historical perspective.

…We are the party of Edmund Burke, who advocated for the rights of peoples around the world like those in Ireland who were discriminated against because of religion.

…of Sir Robert Peel, our first Prime Minister, who committed to pursue “the correction of proved abuses and the redress of real grievances” in his Tamworth Manifesto that came to define Conservatism.
…We are the party of Benjamin Disraeli, who wrote that “Toryism will…bring back…liberty to the Subject”. His Government extended political, social and economic rights. He laid the foundations for today’s welfare state. His Conservatives hugely reduced the disparity in living conditions between rich and poor.

…of Lord Shaftesbury who ended child labour in mines and brought massive reform to factory working conditions.

…We are the party of Emmeline Pankhurst who was so instrumental in winning the right for women to vote.

…of Sir Winston Churchill who made the enthronement of human rights a British war aim in World War Two. His vision contributed to the founding of the United Nations; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and the European Convention of Human Rights. The last of these, of course, having been co-written by the Conservative MP and lawyer David Maxwell-Fyfe.
…And we are also the party of Margaret Thatcher, whose commitment to individual liberty against autocratic rule was instrumental in bringing down the tyranny of Communism in Eastern Europe – a warning of what Jeremy Corbyn’s hard left politics has to offer.

Into that great tradition steps Theresa May. Her inspiring words on the steps of Downing Street when she became Prime Minister in 2016 outlined today’s Conservative mission to fight the “burning injustices” in our own society. “That…..if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system…. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions… If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand. If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.”
At every stage in modern history, the Conservatives and conservatism have carried the torch of human liberty, dignity and empowerment. We have been at the heart of the development and protection of human rights. A legacy that Britain has bequeathed to the world.

So it upsets me that the Conservative Party and human rights are rarely associated in the public consciousness except in negative ways. And some in our party fuel this judgment. These are often the same people who promoted our leaving the EU – an institution that, despite its failings, has done more than any other in recent times to advance human rights in practical ways – and would have us ditch the Human Rights Act.

Those colleagues are wrong. It is not Theresa May…..it is not me…..it is not you who are out of step with Conservative philosophy. It is those who would turn back the tide. Our task is to turn this around. To define a conservative approach fit for the 21st century.
Because our world and our country are changing. This is no longer the world in which Magna Carta defined rights to bring peace to our country; or in which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights defined them to help bring about the post-war peace in 1948.

It is one in which humanity faces new challenges at home and abroad…..The rise of authoritarian regimes, abject poverty, the impact of climate change are all crippling people in other parts of the world. Populist policies, corrosive injustices, and insidious discrimination are pervasive and have taken root in many societies…….. And of course – I hesitate to introduce the subject but cannot ignore it – Brexit.

For me personally, the experiences I have had serving some of our country’s most challenging communities as a doctor and travelling in some of our world’s most troubled places have brought home what some of this means in practice…..

In Britain, this means the lack of social mobility, the dysfunctional families, the scourges of homelessness, drug addiction and criminality, the failure of integration, the decline in personal responsibility – the sheer absence of hope. I have seen all of these things up close and personal – how they corrode our society, how they erode cohesiveness, how they destroy people, families and communities.

In Syria, I saw the impact of absolute poverty, the terror of living under an authoritarian regime and the way good people are left vulnerable to extremism.

And those experiences among others are the foundation of my Conservatism…..

A Conservatism that… seeks to harness the forces that drive human behaviour – love for our fellow beings, and the pursuit of power – to create a secure and just society in which every person is able to get a chance in life – of health, education and employment. To create a society that is fair and free – but in which freedoms are earned because we value our country, our environment, our world. A society in which rights are balanced by responsibilities, for each other and for ourselves.

A Conservatism that… recognises that we must take care of the world we inherit – conserve it – so that we pass something better to our children. We must respect our riches, and each other, and care for our vulnerable. And we must recognise that humanity is the vital bond without which our society, globally and nationally, our communities and our families will disintegrate.

A Conservatism that… people can trust to govern well – in ways that advance us – as individuals, as a society and as a country.
This is a testing time. And our generation will be judged on how we respond. Because our response goes to the heart of the country we want to be…. What we value; how we look after our people; and how we engage in the world to care for our country and our planet.

A first test we face is to create a strong and positive vision for our country after Brexit.

We are rightly proud of our commitment to the rule of law and our strong legislative record to protect individuals’ rights and prevent abuses of power. And it is absolutely right that our Government committed to staying in the ECHR and keeping the Human Rights Act. We also need to look ahead and consider how our legislation – and its enforcement – needs to be strengthened.

We need to recalibrate what we value as a society and consider how we regulate our markets. Because if we let markets decide how society should be governed, human beings become commodities and human values are debased. Some in our Party would have us oversee massive deregulation. Stripping employment and environmental protections along with everything else. Setting up as many trade deals as possible to generate money. This would be an unfair and unjust foundation for our country’s future. And it is not the Conservative way.

Markets have their place. But we have to make sure that they serve humanity, enhance our liberty and dignity. Not the other way round.

We should be guided by the courage, determination and wisdom that Wilberforce showed to end slavery. And that Shaftesbury showed to end child exploitation. They had powerful opponents. Because the end of the slave trade meant the end of a very profitable market that damaged the economy in places like Bristol, Liverpool and the West Indies. The end of child labour and the introduction of compulsory education made life hard for families who relied on income from their children and for factory owners who faced expensive regulation. Tackling those injustices was not the free market choice, nor the profitable choice. But it was the right thing to do. It was the Conservative thing to do.

A second test is how we nurture good citizens. Because if we lose our own humanity, the most perfect systems and legislation are – at best – worth nothing.

Let me share two personal stories with you from my role at the Ministry of Justice.
The first is that of Darren and John. John was born into organised crime. His uncle carried out one of our most famous robberies and at 16 he owned a sawn-off shotgun, which he was pointing at security vans across London. But in prison, thanks to Darren, a prison officer who appreciated John as a person and did not write him off as a criminal, John found out that he could row. He broke the world indoor rowing record. And now he is a law-abiding, professional, Nike-sponsored, leading international triathlete.

The second is about the women who get caught up in our criminal justice system – many of them ending up in prison for relatively minor offences. Remarkably, a few of them each year, usually among the poorest, are there because they have not paid the TV licence. Over half of them come from abusive backgrounds and are victims of domestic violence. I do not want our society to be one that sends these women to prison. I want us to help these women become the valuable members of society that most of them would like to be.
And we will do this. Our women offenders’ strategy will be published soon. And although I would have wanted more money for it, and our society should find the money, I am confident that I have secured the right direction of travel. We will begin to establish a network of residential women’s centres across the country – a better form of detention. One that helps these women to become responsible citizens, supports their families, respects human dignity and protects the weak. It will transform the lives of those it touches. It will be a measure of our humanity.

And looking after our most vulnerable is not the job of Government alone. It is a way of life that every responsible citizen needs to embrace. As our society fractures and religion retreats, we need to reconsider what responsible citizenship means and how to inspire it in our people, our communities and our companies.

A third test is to look beyond our shores. We must be ambitious for our generation – seek to advance the whole of humanity and see clearly that the abuse of human rights is the global crisis of our times. We must be more globally engaged. Because in our interconnected world, our actions affect others and ignoring problems overseas quickly brings them to our own shores.

It is to our shame that we are presiding over the highest levels of global human displacement ever. That 65.6 million people have been forced from their homes. That over half of our 22.5 million refugees are children under 18. That 10 million people are denied basic rights because they are stateless. Each of the world’s refugee crises is the result of a failure to protect human rights.

We must deal with tyranny. Because tyranny only begets tyranny. And it is always those that least deserve it that suffer most.

But you cannot bring freedom, justice and peace with high-tech weaponry – and I have previously opposed that course of action in Syria in 2013. The right focus for our effort is human security. And that needs to be pursued by empowering people. Military intervention has its place. But it must be used to create – not destroy – human security.

And here we need to be honest about where we still fall short. The Universal Declaration declares “periodic and genuine elections…by universal and equal suffrage” to be a human right. And regimes in every corner of the globe make a point of holding elections. But just holding elections does not empower people. Votes need to be meaningful. People must have a real choice and be able to make a difference.

So we must make better use of the levers we have for effecting change and use all our ingenuity to create new ones. Many countries still look to Britain to show the way and we have a responsibility to step up.
To conclude….

We should not lose sight of the fact that human rights in this country have moved on immeasurably in the last 70 years. This touches us all – young and old, regardless of gender, age, religion, ethnic background. For we all have protections that were unimaginable when Churchill made the enthronement of human rights a British war aim. The very air we breathe is better because we now recognise clean air to be a basic human right.

But we must not be complacent. The challenges that our generation faces are no harder and no easier than those that previous generations have overcome. Britain used to lead the way in protecting and expanding human rights. That is no longer true today. The cause is too often twisted to serve other agendas or selectively applied to some groups and not to others…and this is as true in our own country as elsewhere.

For me, it is simple. Respect for humanity, human dignity and human rights should guide all of our policy – at home and abroad – and every aspect of how we govern. Not just because that is right. But because that is what brings the security, prosperity and human advancement – physical and spiritual – for which we all strive and that is the fundamental point of human existence.

Brexit offers us the chance as a nation and a Party to look at what sort of country we want to be. For me, the choice is clear: we must reclaim the true conservatism of Shaftesbury and Disraeli and others and model Britain as a compassionate force for good.

So the discussion that you have started is vital. We must embrace it and use it to map the future for our Party, our Government, our Country – and our world.

Let’s make sure we are on the right side of history in the finest Conservative tradition – leading the way on liberty, dignity and justice.

And so my challenge to you – to this conference – is to reclaim our Party’s title as a great global champion of human rights…. In fact, to be the greatest! That means standing up to those – particularly within our party – who want us to move away from that path.

Before I finish, I want to make one final point….

The essence of a conservative approach to human rights is the Burkean principle that our institutions guarantee those rights. Most important of all, a Government’s first responsibility is to protect its citizens. This is usually understood in military terms but I believe it applies more generally. It means that sometimes, when a majority of our people wants something that is against the good of society, Government and Parliament have a responsibility to protect us. This was the case with the death penalty when for decades politicians went against the majority view and refused to reinstate it. Now I believe it needs to be the case with Brexit.

I believe that the evidence now shows that the Brexit policy our Government is currently pursuing on the basis of the 2016 referendum is detrimental to the people we are elected to serve. Certainly, it now seems inevitable that the people, economy and culture of my own constituency will be affected negatively. And I cannot ignore that it is to them that I owe my first responsibility as their Member of Parliament.
Today, as many of you know, MPs are voting on the House of Lords’ amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill. In particular, there is one amendment which – if it is adopted – will empower Parliament to take back control of the process, if necessary rejecting a bad deal and directing the Government to re-enter discussions, extending or pausing negotiations which are being badly rushed because of the deadline that Article 50 imposes.

It is fundamentally important that Parliament should have a voice so it can influence the final outcome in the interests of the people it serves. A fake choice between a ‘bad deal’ and a cliff-edge ‘no deal’ – a vote between bad and worse – is not a meaningful choice. It would breach such fundamental principles of human rights and Parliamentary sovereignty that we would not recognise it as being valid in other countries. It is not one that our Parliament should accept.

If it comes to it, my Parliamentary colleagues and I will have to ask ourselves whether we can vote in our own Parliament – that bastion of liberty, freedom and human rights – in favour of something that we would rightly criticise elsewhere. For me, the answer will be….I cannot….

That is why I urge our Government to do the right thing and amend the legislation to ensure that Parliament is properly able to exercise its duty to our country and our constituents by ensuring we are not stuck with a bad deal or no deal.

It is hard to be part of a Government that would countenance the breach of such fundamental principles – and it is important that individual ministers and Parliamentarians should be able to speak up. But effective Government in our country also relies on the important principle of collective responsibility. So I am very sad to have to announce that I feel I must resign as a minister so that I can properly speak out for my country and my constituents……..

I really have finished now. I will be issuing a statement shortly. And so you will forgive me if I get on with the important work that is ahead and go straight back to Parliament to represent my constituents and my country. Thank you……