Fighting for freedom? Conservatism, human rights and discrimination

Held on the 12th June 2018, Bright Blue’s human rights conference Fighting for freedom? Conservatism, human rights and discrimination, was the culmination of a major three-year project exploring human rights policy both here and abroad.

With guidance from some of the most well-respected experts and opinion formers, our efforts have resulted in the publication of three major reports accompanied by three essay collections. We have addressed some of the most pivotal issues surrounding human rights today, all while questioning how conservatives can approach human rights in a meaningful way that truly encompasses traditional conservative values of freedom and truth.

The conference

Fighting for freedom took place at the British Academy, kindly supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Global Dialogue. The conference began with a keynote speech by the Minister for Justice and Human Rights, Dr Phillip Lee MP, who made a critical assessment of the state of human rights in Britain. Reminding the audience of the pioneering role that the UK has played in ensuring the introduction of basic human rights in the last two centuries, he urged conservatives to continue “carrying the torch of human dignity, liberty and empowerment”.

However, Dr Lee criticised an increasing dissociation between conservatism and human rights in the public consciousness. He emphasised the importance of not losing sight of two vital traits; humanity and citizenship. And he stated, above all, the need to “reclaim the true conservatism of Shaftesbury and Disraeli and others and model Britain as a compassionate force for good.” Following this impassioned plea and citing irreconcilable differences over the handling of Brexit negotiations, Dr Lee unexpectedly announced his resignation as Justice Minister.

After Dr Lee’s speech, we hosted two panel discussions, the first on ‘Tackling discrimination in the UK’ and the second, ‘Championing human rights overseas’:

Tackling discrimination in the UK

Bright Blue’s Communications Manager Olivia Utley chaired our first panel. She was joined by The Rt Hon Maria Miller MP, Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, David Isaac, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Simon Woolley, Chair of the Government’s Race Disparity Audit Advisory Group and Sir Michael Tugendhat, former High Court Judge and author of Bright Blue’s Fighting for Freedom? to discuss ‘tackling discrimination in the UK’.

David Isaac began the discussion by emphasising the need to cut down on ‘rights inflation’ - a tendency to create more legislation before ensuring the protection of existing human rights policy.

Simon Wooley pinpointed racism as one of the most alarming disregards of human rights in this country today. Speaking of the discrimination felt by the black community, specifically how 40% of those incarcerated in UK prisons are young black men, he reminded the audience that “the race penalty is alive and kicking, and we must find ways to tackle it”. Regarding the targeting of drug use in cities, he also argued that current drug policies “disproportionately target black communities”.

Our third speaker, Sir Michael, Tugendhat, praised the role of the UK in driving forward human rights across Europe, however warned that we are now at risk of falling behind. He expressed worries about the absence of 'constitutionalised rights', leaving equalities open to parliamentary override. It is a critical time, he said, where the “future of the UK’s human rights protections depend entirely on the Government’s EU Withdrawal Bill”.

Finally, Maria Miller MP focused on sexual harassment, an issue that has been at the forefront of discussions in the past year, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo campaign. Pointing out that they are “more rules for companies to prevent money laundering than there are to protect employees against sexual harassment”, she emphasised the need to keep the momentum going in the fight for gender equality.

Championing human rights overseas

Our second panel was chaired by Anna Williams, former Head of BBC World News. To discuss ways of championing human rights overseas, we welcomed: the Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP, former Secretary of State for International Development; Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International; Benedict Rogers, Co-founder of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission; Anthony Smith, Chief Executive of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy; and Bright Blue’s Director, Ryan Shorthouse.

Benedict Rogers began by telling the audience, “It is in our national interest to promote and champion human rights around the world”. He insisted that he is a conservative because of his passion for human rights, not in spite of it. However, Anthony Smith expressed fears about the state of global leadership, explaining that many of the human rights issues we must tackle have been exacerbated as the link between democracy and prosperity gradually weakens.

Kate Allen argued that the only solution to improving human rights abroad is to ensure that the UK leads the discussion “from the top”. As Allen emphasised, ordinary people all over the world are fighting for human rights under impossible conditions, and it is our responsibility to provide education and support for those in need.

Our Director, Ryan Shorthouse, said that Bright Blue supported the Prime Minister’s vision for a ‘global Britain’, however this could only be possible if the correct funding was in place. With two thirds of Conservative voters supportive of the significant role for human rights in British foreign policy, he stated that “Post Brexit, we must remain a proud signatory on the EU commission of human rights - which is very different from the EU.” Through solidifying strong trade deals and moving away from antagonistic immigration policies, he argued, we can once again lead the way on global human rights policy. The Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP supported this point and said that to withdraw from the human rights convention would be absurd. “Britain should show some humility”, he concluded.

Conclusion

Through our Fighting for Freedom conference, Bright Blue provided a platform for some of the leading thinkers and supporters of human rights in this country, and abroad. Our panel discussions did not shy away from the troubles facing human rights today, but also reminded us of the historical role that Britain has played, and must continue to play, in ensuring that equality is achieved, and discrimination wiped out.