The roll-back of rights.
Our liberties are under threat on both sides of the Atlantic
The most common misconception is that human rights only go in one direction. Natural justice demands that things always improve, equality grows, and the world becomes more fair, tolerant and progressive. Unfortunately, it’s a lie.
There is no human reason or divine commandment that rights and progress should always accumulate. Throughout history, they have come and gone. In medieval times peasants had more holidays than working people have now. The 18th century was more sexually permissive than the mid-20th. And historians have demonstrated that abortion was, in fact, entirely legal in 18th-century America and even deployed as a metaphor for freedom.
Just about the only thing that always advances in human society is technology – and over the centuries that has been used to clamp down on people’s rights or to kill them.
There is nothing intrinsically benevolent about human power and no reason at all why everyone at the top of the tree would wish to help those lower down
We should, therefore, not be too surprised by the starkly authoritarian turn of events on either side of the Atlantic. In the United States, a 49-year constitutional right to abortion has vanished overnight, forcing potentially millions of women to now deliver babies against their will. The Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has indicated that the Constitution similarly offers no right to equal marriage, contraception or even gay sex, which it compelled all states to legalise only in 2003. What the Court gives, the Court can take away.
The situation is hardly better over here. We have not imported the American culture wars of guns and abortion – yet – but our politicians are determined to crack down on rights they consider inconvenient. Recent bills have severely hampered the right to free protest, the right to claim asylum and, through the neutering of the Electoral Commission, the right to elections that are free from government interference. Brexit, meanwhile, eliminated our freedom of movement, with the unencumbered right to study, work or retire in 26 other countries around Europe. (Free movement with Ireland was retained.) Brexit, of course, now threatens the Good Friday Agreement, with its rights for two communities in Northern Ireland to participate in Irish or British society, or both. And now the government has announced its plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a new Bill of Rights, weakening the power of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Effectively, replacing rights with sovereignty. In the wake of the ECtHR’s ruling on the Rwanda deportations, ministers have touted the possibility of withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights altogether – the body which gives power to the Court and was set up by, among others, Winston Churchill.
This is happening because we let it. We assumed that once we had gained a right, we could pocket it for good and no longer need to consider it. The direct opposite was the truth. We have always had to fight to keep rights as hard as we fought to win them.
There is nothing intrinsically benevolent about human power and no reason at all why everyone at the top of the tree would wish to help those lower down. For some of the people granted the privileges of society’s hierarchy, rights have always represented a zero-sum game. Workers winning the ability to unionise, strike and enjoy weekends and bank holidays meant less profit for their bosses. Women winning the vote meant less political power for the men already in charge. Ethnic minority groups gaining protection against discrimination meant fewer unfair advantages and opportunities for white people, who had occupied elite positions not on merit but race.
Certainly, not everyone in positions of power has followed the theory of a zero-sum game. Throughout history, men, white and straight people – though not a lot of bosses – have fought for the rights of their counterparts with lower social status, even if a redistribution of power entailed less automatic privilege for those activists afterwards.
Many of them did so because they believed in equality and it was self-evidently the right course of action. Many of them recognised that a society which valued the lives and happiness of women, ethnic minorities and LGBT people would be a happier society for everyone. The patriarchy also harms men and a segregated society also harms white people.
The problem is that those people are not currently in power.
Of course, we have gained more rights over time, and not all of them are under threat. Black people are no longer segregated, or legally denied employment or access to services. Women are no longer considered chattels in law or barred from voting. Gay people – in Britain at least – are not fined or sent to prison for having sex.
But there is nothing essentially keeping even that low bar, or even, in extremis, removing such rights altogether. American politics has demonstrated repeatedly that the Supreme Court does not represent an objective interpretation of constitutional freedom; it does not even want freedom. Rather, it is a nakedly partisan body which uses the Constitution as a vehicle for delivering political goals, even those which confiscate people’s rights, and override the wishes of both the public and their elected representatives.
In the UK, meanwhile, we have no absolute rights at all. Literally everything is in the gift of parliament, the source of British sovereignty, and that parliament can legislate to grant or repeal anything it wishes. Nothing guarantees it will remain benign except a misguided belief in British virtue and exceptionalism.
If we don’t know our rights, value them and fight for them, it becomes much easier for others to take them away. Nothing is forever. Our complacency must end.
Jonathan Lis is a political journalist and commentator. He has written for publications including the Guardian, Prospect and Washington Post, and regularly broadcasts on television and radio