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The Conservative Party regards human rights as a ‘foreign’ imposition from Europe. Conservatives opposed Labour’s Human Rights Act (HRA) in 1998; recent manifestos have included proposals to replace it with a Britis­­­h bill of rights; and Conservative ministers have repeatedly attacked the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The tabloid press frequently portrays human rights as being ‘soft’ on criminals and immigrants.

But human rights have traditionally been the concern of all leading political parties in the UK, both right and left‐wing. What seems to have been forgotten is the fact that Conservative values lie at the heart of the centuries‐long development of human rights in the UK, helping to shape the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) 1948 and the European Convention on Human rights (ECHR) 1950.

Human rights and conservativism

As well as being committed to maintaining traditional institutions and values, Conservatives stand for the rights to liberty of the individual, and to a fair (but not an equal) share in social and economic goods, such as food, housing and education – as enshrined in Whig MP Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

Britain’s history of respect for human rights from Magna Carta until the present day is unique among nations. In fact, the purpose of UDHR was to encourage the signatory states to make these rights legally binding as, by the standards of the time, they already were in Britain. The UDHR is itself conservative in important respects. First, the rights spelt out are part of the kind of traditional values that conservatives seek to preserve. Second, the UDHR reflects the emphasis conservatives place on personal responsibility. The obligation to respect the rights set out is a moral obligation binding not just on states, but also upon ‘every individual and every organ of society’.

Human rights in the UK up to the nineteenth century

Almost all the rights in the UDHR were, at least to some extent, recognised in English common law by the end of the eighteenth century, although in many instances expressed more narrowly. For example, the free choice of work and employment (freedom from restraint of trade and monopolies, UDHR article 23) and, the right to subsistence (UDHR article 25) were amongst the social and economic rights recognised since the Middle Ages under common law. However, other rights were not respected adequately or at all before the nineteenth century, such as the right to freedom of religion (UDHR article 18).

Enforcing human rights in the UK continued in the nineteenth century. For example, Conservative Party politician Sir Robert Peel was responsible for Catholic Emancipation in 1829, albeit reluctantly, in the face of peaceful demands by the Irish for the right to vote and hold public office. Benjamin Disraeli enacted the Reform Act 1867, which extended the franchise to households in the towns, and his Conservative administration also advanced other human rights, including the rights of assembly, to education, and social and economic rights, with a series of trade union, education and other acts.

The twentieth century

Under Conservative governments, Parliament gave political freedom to Australia and the other Dominions, and it prepared the way for political freedom in India. In 1928, the Conservative government gave political liberty and equality to all British women, that is the right to vote.2 Between the two world wars, it introduced numerous measures giving effect to social and economic rights, and ratified international human rights treaties protecting women and children.

Sir Winston Churchill, the then Conservative Prime Minister, made the enthronement of human rights a war aim. This aim was achieved by the founding of the United Nations, by the UDHR and the ECHR, and by other human rights treaties, including those which give rights to refugees and prohibit torture. Conservatives also extended the provisions of the ECHR or the ICCPR to most British Overseas Territories after the war. They gave individuals rights to go to court to challenge government decisions about welfare benefits, education, immigration and much else.

From 1979 to 1997, and during the coalition from 2010, Parliament enacted several human rights statutes such as the Contempt of Court Act 1981 (promoting freedom of expression), the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (promoting rights to liberty and to a fair trial) and the Children Act 1989. Many more are listed in the longer version of this article.

Recent opposition to human rights

The Labour government elected in 1997 immediately introduced the Human Rights Bill, based on Quintin Hogg’s original idea and Margaret Thatcher’s 1978 proposed bill of rights for Scotland. But by that time support for the proposal amongst Conservatives had waned, and the party opposed it. Memories of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s had faded, and many Conservatives were confused as to what the ECtHR did, and what ECHR obligations meant.

Yet since 2010, Conservatives have continued to promote human rights legislation, including the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 (protecting privacy), the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, the Defamation Act 2013 (promoting freedom of expression) and the Modern Slavery Act 2014. The government has not pursued proposals for a British bill of rights to replace the HRA, and has expressed its commitment to respect the framework of the ECHR in the Draft Political Declaration setting out the framework for the UK’s future relationship with the EU (paragraph 7).

Conservative writers and politicians have been influential in the developing legal protection of human rights in the UK for over two centuries. The threats to democracy and liberty that motivated conservatives to promote human rights are beginning to emerge again today. Given the history outlined above, conservatives ought to be at the forefront of efforts to protect human rights and the values that helped to shape and inform the UDHR.

A longer version of this article originally appeared in the Political Quarterly journal. 

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