Political Rights and Duties

Different political creeds have different approaches to questions of rights and entitlements. Conservatives talk more of duties than rights, and when talking of the latter are likely to place emphasis on freedom from state interference and rights of property. Liberal Democrats often talk of citizens, people who have rights by virtue of their membership of society; they are committed to the defence of civil liberties, and favour action to protect minority groups from various forms of discrimination.

Socialists have traditionally spoken of collective rights, of assembly, of industrial action and of welfare, among other things; they are less sympathetic to rights of property. In recent years, however, the Labour Party has placed a new emphasis upon the defence of rights, be they those of racial or other minorities or the civil liberties which they believe have been seriously eroded in the Thatcher years. In the Smith-Blair era, they have committed themselves to incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law.

Tony Blair has, however, done something unusual for a Labour leader; he has placed much more emphasis upon people's obligations towards society, and he frequently talks of duties and obligations, as well as entitlements. Implications of the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights (enshrined in the Human Rights Act, 1998) Labour, backed by the Liberal Democrats and various civil liberty groups, has incorporated. the European Convention into British law. The European Convention is a useful document which offers protection of many freedoms, And although it was devised nearly fifty years ago its broad clauses enable many complainants to get their case included within its provisions.

It is officially accepted by all parties, although some Conservatives (especially on the Right) have been increasingly perturbed by the Court's decisions. Britain has a particularly poor record in the Court, and has lost more cases at Strasbourg than almost any other nation. Incorporation should mean that people could obtain speedier justice (the current procedure can take five or six years to be completed), and that there would be less European-wide publicity when Britain loses a case in the Court – for many cases which currently reach Strasbourg could be handled back in Britain.

The document would be a useful addition to the armoury of weapons which citizens can use when they feel that their rights are threatened: at present there is no clear statement of basic rights to which they can refer. Many see the present basis tor rights as being inadequate, and the Convention would provide such a guarantee. But there are some who are uneasy about Incorporation, for they fear that power would be passed from Parliament to unelected judges whose role in interpreting the Strasbourg provisions would be crucial.

Traditionally, it was the British Left which was fearful of judges, seeing them as too comfortably off, of narrow background, too conservative by instinct and training, and unsympathetic to issues of civil liberty and the minority groups who seek to defend themselves. Nowadays, the argument about judicial power is often heard on the Right, for theirony of the Conservative years is the extent to which eminent members of the judiciary have lined up to attack Tory ministers.

A New Bill of Rights? A Bill of Rights is a legal document outlining a list of basis entitlements, freedoms and equalities. It may or may not be associated with a written constitution. We could have one without the other, and if we did have such a Bill it could be in a strong ('entrenched') form, or a less secure one. Those who favour such a Bill believe that the growing emphasis on law and order in the last decade or so, with increased police powers and stricter security measures in Northern Ireland,make it desirable that there should be some guarantee of the rights of individuals. This would impose legal limits on the extent of government action.

It would have an important educational value, on the one hand helping people to view themselves as citizens rather than subjects, and on the other encouraging those in authority to be careful in their decision-making to pay due regard to individual rights. Opponents of a Bill of rights wonder which rights it would include, and suggest that it would be difficult to reach consensus on what should be in the document; for instance, on the Left there would be a fear that property rights might be stressed more than collective ones.

They query what its status might be, and wonder also if it might make for excessive rigidity in our law-making; our present arrangements are flexible and the law can easily changed. Above all, there is the fear of judicial power, for as we have seen judges have often been viewed as unrepresentative and conservative. The existence of a Bill of Rights could place more power in their hands and make them more overtly political, whereas under our present system Parliament is allegedly sovereign.