Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Cameron, constitutionalism and confusion

Tories pledge ‘cheap, meaningless stunt’, otherwise known as David Cameron continuing to ride the civil liberties bandwaggon with the promise of a “US-style” Bill of Rights for the UK in place of the Human Rights Act.

There are a fair few problems with this plan – aside from the fact that Britain already has a Bill of Rights (even though the 1689 version has been amended countless times, promised Protestants the right to bear arms and banned Catholics from all sorts of stuff, hardly making it the bastion of toleration and liberty its fans would have us believe).

The major one, however, is that the reason the US Bill of Rights has actually guaranteed certain freedoms for our American cousins is that it was merged with the near-sacred US Constitution as the first ten amendments. To amend the Constitution is a major, major thing; even amending an amendment can cause some serious kerfuffle – witness National Rifle Association’s vehement defence of the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms”.

The UK has no equivalent to the US Constitution. No piece of British legislation is sacrosanct in the same way, because the single fundamental of the British constitutional system (logically, as well as through legal convention) is that no parliament can bind another.

Without a US-style constitution – with so many checks and protections surrounding it that any amendments are incredibly hard to pass – any British Bill of Rights would, once passed into law, have no more chance of surviving and guaranteeing our rights than any other piece of paper passed by both Houses and rubber-stamped by Her Majesty. Remember the Human Rights Act, the failure of which has prompted this little PR exercise? Passed in 1998 and already both main parties are lined up in opposition to it, ensuring it will soon die a death. The same could (and probably would) happen to Cameron’s proposed Bill of Rights as soon as it got in the way.

In other words, without a fundamental overhaul of the entire British constitution, there is no way that anything can be legally guaranteed for more than the lifetime of a single parliament. Even then, there can be no legal bind on any politician to stick to a particular policy position, so all we would have to go on is their word…

In other words, Cameron’s “Bill of Rights” idea is meaningless window-dressing. All he actually needs to do is amend the Human Rights Act – a process which would take far less time and cost far less money than the lengthy consultations and parliamentary debates the passing of an entirely new Act of Parliament would necessitate. (A process, in fact, that would take little more than an afternoon, should Labour manage to pass the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill…)

Does Cameron genuinely believe in the whole civil liberties thing? Yep, I think he probably does – as long as he remains in opposition, at any rate. Is he approaching the problem in the right way? Not so far. Bells, whistles and shiny baubles are all very well and good, but no matter how pretty your ideas may look and sound, they have to actually WORK.

Sadly, however, Cameron is not yet in a position to propose the one route that would allow the UK to come closer than it ever has to giving its citizens inviolable rights (something no British subject has ever really had) – because that route is via binding international treaties, and most easily achievable through the European Union, adding an EU layer on top of the Council of Europe’s European Convention on Human Rights. But, aside from the generally anti-EU stance of most Conservatives, the likelihood of Cameron being able to achieve anything in Europe if he continues with his apparent plan to move Tory MEPs out of the European Parliament’s largest grouping is minimal to say the least. Still, perhaps he has a plan there too (.pdf).

What IS Cameron’s game? He’s been knocking around long enough now that I should have a definite take on the guy, but I simply can’t work him out.