Taking Liberty

Hot on the heels of the Tories taking a swipe at the Human Rights Act, comes the inevitable attack on Political Correctness. The reason for doing so is obvious, and absolutely in keeping with the populist bandwagon jumping of the party under Michael Howard. These are issues guaranteed to elicit the support of the Daily Mail and stereotypical Middle Englanders. But why are both these issues such obvious targets for the Tories?

The dislike of Political correctness is to an extent understandable. Even though its basic concept – that one does not use words which are likely to cause offence – seems to me to be about politeness and respect for others, there are enough stories, mainly anecdotal urban myths, which do seem ridiculous. Why these stories of “Baa-Baa Green Sheep” and the like inspire anger rather than laughter has always slightly confused me, but few people I think are likely to fight tooth and nail for the cause of political correctness itself. The very term itself means nothing; it is a useless phrase unless the individual places an objective value judgment upon it.

But Human Rights, and its sister phrase Civil Liberties. Why should these be a fruitful battleground for the Tories? What have people got against these issues?

The Tories state their only real target is the Human Rights Act itself, but well before it was incorporated into British Law (and of course it has always been accessible to British Citizens via the European Court) Conservative politicians and commentators would regularly roll their eyes metaphorically whenever the likes of Liberty commented on any issue related to civil liberties or human rights. Human Rights appeared to be the domain of lefties, wishy-washy do-gooders and, of course, the politically correct.

To an extent Liberty had themselves to blame. Even though I passionately believe in the work they do, I would often cringe when the previous director John Wadham appeared on Television. The issues he raised were correct and laudable, but there often seemed to be an absence of a wider understanding of peoples concerns. His arguments often had the feel of a lawyers argument, and I guess that is understandable as he originally joined Liberty as its Legal Officer.

What I am trying to say I suppose is that when your house has been burgled, the human rights of the burglar are pretty far from your mind. Of course our rights and civil liberties are vitally important; they are an absolute, and should apply to burglars as well as the rest of us. But while Wadham covered his brief of defending Civil Liberties well, there often appeared little concern for the issues of victims of crime. Now, I don’t for one minute believe that he is less concerned about victims than any reasonable person would be, but I feel it was an impression that was sometimes created; as such it played right into the hands of those who think that Liberty and their ilk are more concerned with the rights of criminals than the rights of victims.

When John Wadham left to head the new Independent Police Complaints Commission his place in the Media was taken by Mark Littlewood and Shami Chakrabarti. Without compromising Liberty’s firm line on Human Rights, what has been noticeable is that they both seem anxious to show their understanding of ordinary peoples real concerns and fears. In doing so they more effectively show how Civil Liberties are not an airy-fairy notion to be discussed at a swish Dinner Party, but important issues which impact directly on all our everyday lives, which defend the freedoms we so cherish and shape the sort of society we all live in.

I hope that this will continue; that Liberty are able to broaden their appeal so that the Tories tactics fall of deaf ears, and that people no longer see Human Rights and Civil Liberties as dirty words.