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The war between rights and responsibilities

Jack Straw’s new bill of rights is nothing like the Magna Carta: it would erode rather than enhance our liberty.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

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Would you like to have access to good healthcare and education? Would you rather live in material comfort than in poverty? Would you prefer clean air over environmental decay? Would you like your children to lead a good life?

Well, you might be in luck! Because the UK government is seeking to enshrine entitlements to welfare, healthcare, equal treatment, housing, children’s wellbeing and more in a proposed Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. The only clincher is that if you wish to benefit from such ‘rights’, you also have got to accept certain responsibilities.

The new rights are presented as entitlements and are tied to certain conditions, such as – in the case of the unemployed – looking for work in return for receiving benefits, or – in the case of parents – looking after one’s children properly in return for childcare benefits. The bill also says that, if we want our full entitlements, then we will have to live within certain ‘environmental limits’ – evidence, if any were needed, of the blackmailing, authoritarian impulse behind the environmentalist ethos. In short, the new bill looks less like a guarantor of civil liberties and individual rights, and more like a rulebook on how to conform to the government’s vision of what makes a good New Labourite citizen.

The proposed Bill of Rights and Responsibilities – the details of which were outlined in a green paper unveiled by justice secretary Jack Straw this week – aims to improve the existing Human Rights Act. This piece of legislation was passed a decade ago, incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. The government believes that the ‘human rights’ outlined in its new bill will complement ‘traditional freedoms’, such as free speech and trial by jury.

Opposition Conservative ministers have argued that making this new bill into law could potentially lead to bureaucratic nightmares. It might also, some argue, encourage individuals to take an array of personal grievances to court in the name of claiming their ‘human right’ to go on the dole, get accepted to university, have access to a recycling scheme, and so on.

Some have also warned that the bill represents an extension of the nanny state. Certainly, in formulating the new ‘rights’ as entitlements to be earned through conforming to certain government-dictated behaviour, and in combining entitlements with duties, such as showing loyalty to Britain, it looks like Straw and Co. are simply updating and extending the politics of behaviour and the petty authoritarianism that has characterised New Labour since its inception.

But the Conservative Party’s shrill cries of ‘nanny state gone mad’ belie their own unimpressive record of illiberal ‘liberty-granting’. New Labour’s proposed bill is simply the latest example of how, amongst the elite, ‘rights’ are looked upon as privileges. Historically, rights and freedoms have been demanded from below through popular struggle and democratic debate. Today, rights are more often constituted as something to be handed to us as gifts from above. This trend is epitomised in the International Declaration of Human Rights and New Labour’s Human Rights Act, as well as in the Conservatives’ proposed British Bill of Rights (which, in 2006, they suggested should replace the Human Rights Act), and now in the Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.

The government claims that in balancing rights with responsibilities the new bill counteracts the individual rights claims that the Human Rights Act has been accused of encouraging. Yet to constitute this ‘balancing act’ simply as a practical step to avoid overloading courts, or as a measure to encourage an attitude change (to move, as Straw put it, from a ‘me society’ to a ‘we society’), is to overlook the fundamental illiberal streaks that underpin it. If a right is constituted as an entitlement, and tied to certain conditions, then it is not a right at all, and will not be experienced as a liberty by individuals. Instead, these are privileges for those willing to abide by the rules of behaviour laid down by the government.

The ‘traditional freedoms’ that Straw believes the new ‘human rights’ can complement – such as free speech – were won through efforts to wrest power away from the authorities, to ensure individual liberties in the face of a potentially oppressive ruling elite. The new rights and duties that the government so generously wishes to grant us actually robs us of our liberties: the bill extends the power of the state to regulate our behaviour and to impose conditions on our freedom. The rights that Straw wants to enshrine would also solidify the welfare state without allowing a public debate on what its role is today.

Straw has likened the new bill’s potential impact to the 1215 Magna Carta and the 1689 Bill of Rights. He is deluded. Through the Magna Carta, the English legal charter which influenced the development of the common law and several constitutions (including in America), the King of England was forced to renounce some of his powers and to respect legal procedures, including habeas corpus, which allowed individuals to appeal against unlawful imprisonment. The Bill of Rights of 1689 granted individuals a series of liberties and rights, including freedom from royal interference with the law, freedom from excessive bail, and freedom from ‘cruel and unusual punishment’.

In other words, unlike the current government’s Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, both the Magna Carta and the 1689 Bill of Rights were the outcome of struggles to weaken the power of our rulers while strengthening the freedoms of the individual.

Today, it is reported that Straw might shelve the bill until after the next General Election. But that isn’t enough. It should be scrapped entirely. Perhaps we should all exercise our democratic right (while we still have it) to tell the government where to stick its bills.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume observed a rights kerfuffle. Jo Herlihy and Tim Black reviewed exhibitions about surveillance and liberty. Philip Hammond explained why human rights are wrong. Filmmaker Chris Atkins said ‘New Labour flushed liberty down the toilet’. Or read more at spiked issue Liberties.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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