A British Bill of Rights?


David Cameron has said that the government will establish a commission to consider a ‘British bill of rights’, according to PoliticsHome. On the face of it that sounds like a good thing – after all, we could certainly do with a bit more protection from big, intrusive government, keen as it always is to restrict our liberties and interfere in our lives.

And while the US Bill of Rights may not have protected Americans from the massive expansion of the federal government, it has at least ensured that considerations about liberty are always part of the debate. How nice it would be to having something similar here.

But I’m skeptical of Cameron’s plans on two counts. Firstly, this idea seems to have been brought forward in response to the Supreme Court’s decision that sex offenders should be able to appeal against being kept on the sex offenders’ register for life, with Cameron saying, “I think it's about time we started making sure decisions are made in this parliament rather than in the courts.” So this Bill of Rights may be more a sop to the populist press than a binding, principled commitment to liberty and the rule of law.

On the other hand, there’s a real danger that any Bill of Rights drafted today would be hijacked by the left-wing human rights lobby, which is seemingly incapable of differentiating between genuine rights (which ensure one’s freedom from arbitrary, tyrannical government) and social entitlements (which demand that wealth be transferred from others to oneself). But as Jacob Mchangama pointed out in his excellent briefing paper, The War on Capitalism, there’s a huge difference:

The ideological bias in favour of central planning and against capitalism of much of the human rights movement is a serious impediment to the effective promotion and implementation of human rights. If human rights become part of partisan politics they lose their moral power as generally recognized norms, which serve to restrain governments from arbitrary and authoritarian practices and to shame governments that engage in such actions. That is precisely the function of freedom rights and is what makes these rights capable of judicial and universal application regardless of whether political power is held by social democrats or classical liberals.

Social rights, on the other hand, institutionalize a vision of society based on a specific political agenda, which excludes political pluralism and undermines the rule of law and separation of powers. Moreover, rather than restraining government action, social rights require governments to take prime responsibility for large parts of human life that would otherwise be left to the individual. Ultimately, therefore, social rights endanger the freedom secured by freedom rights. Such a development is unacceptable and represents a huge step backwards from the hard-won liberty enjoyed by many people all over the world. It is therefore high time that advocates of human rights resist their politicization and focus their energy on fighting for the right of everyone to live in freedom. To that end, freedom rights should be embraced and social rights rejected.

To sum up, a British Bill of Rights devoted to the protecting the individual against the state would be a very good thing. But a Bill of Rights designed to make political populism easier, or to constitutionally entrench the welfare state, would be a strike against liberty and very much a step in the wrong direction.