Between Christmas and New Year, the prime minister, Theresa May, announced that the Tories would fight the 2020 General Election on a pledge to repeal the Human Rights Act (HRA). She said she hoped to ‘lift and shift’ the rights bestowed by the European Convention on Human Rights, giving the Supreme Court the final say on how these rights are applied.
This isn’t the first time the Tories have made this pledge. In fact, it’s starting to feel like they would be unable to fight an election if they actually succeeded in repealing the HRA. The Tory Party first promised to repeal it in 2005, then again in 2010. This was later supplemented with a promise to replace it with a British Bill of Rights. In 2015, the Tories promised to repeal and replace the act within 100 days of winning a majority. Over a year later, nothing has happened.
At the time, almost everyone thought the 2015 pledge was laughable. Repealing the HRA raised constitutional questions that would be hard to resolve in six months, let alone 100 days. May’s critics were right to say that the Supreme Court does, in reality, have the final say over how these rights are applied. The act only obliges the court to take European decisions into account, rather than binding the court’s own decision. Nonetheless, following the Tory victory at the 2015 General Election, Michael Gove was appointed justice secretary with a mandate to repeal it. But after a disastrous appearance at a select committee in 2016, he appeared to put his plans off until later in the year.
Then came the Brexit vote. Gove was sent to the backbenches and replaced by a new justice secretary, Liz Truss. Few people thought Truss was up to the challenge of repealing the HRA, and, after another disastrous select committee appearance later in 2016, it appeared that the repeal plans would be put off yet again.
But while the Tories’ political cowardice is laughable, the reaction from the left has been bizarre. Many left-wing commentators seem to think that the HRA is the only thing standing between us and despotism. Martha Spurrier, director of human-rights campaign group Liberty, says defending the HRA is the ‘struggle of our generation’. Liberty’s website claims that repealing it would ‘weaken everyone’s rights – leaving politicians to decide when our fundamental freedoms should apply’. One commentator suggested that repealing it would leave UK citizens ‘deprived of rights or the means to enforce them before the courts’. Another said that it would mean the UK state could ‘pick and choose which rights it granted, much like Russia’. One piece even suggested that leaving the remit of the European Convention on Human Rights would lessen our influence over countries like Russia and Turkey. These critics truly believe that repealing the HRA would propel us into an age of despotism and international chaos.