Politics and personal rights has been a major issue in British politics for a number of years. To expand our rights, in 1997, the Labour Government promised a Freedom of Information Act similar to the one in America. Many were disappointed with what they saw as a watered down version once one was introduced. Others believe that we have a right in Britain to a written constitution and a Bill of Rights to counter the encroachment of central government especially after September 11th, 2001. The main argument against a national identity card in Britain is that it infringes our ‘rights’, though the cost of introducing such a card has also become a major issue.
In bygone years, all people in this country – with the exception of monarchs – were known as subjects. This meant that they were subject to the power of the Crown and as the Crown was all but at the head of the country’s legal system, the people were subject to the strict legal structure of the nation. Citizens ‘power’ as might have been found in Ancient Greece or Rome, did not exist. Everyone in England was subject to the absolute authority of the monarch.
Citizenship implies that everybody has access to the same rights. Historically this did not happen as up to 1918, women did not have the right to vote in Britain. Now, the word is used to describe a society where everybody has an equal entitlement to rights.
In Britain we are both citizens and subjects. We all, as citizens, have access to the same rights. We all are protected by the same laws. We are also still subjects. Not to monarchical power but to the law of the land. In theory, citizens have to accept that they have obligations under the law of the land. A failure to respect these obligations, must question that person’s acceptance of the widely accepted view of citizenship. A good citizen
obeys the law
When Britain felt threatened as a nation from 1939 to 1945 and during the 1950’s (the Cold War), people were obligated to serve their nation to protect it from aggressors. This would be an obligation but one many felt that they had to do.
These ideas, though born in England, were first taken up in America and France. Part of the American Declaration of Independence states :
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.”
government by consent
individual personal liberty
After the horrors or World War Two, the newly formed United Nations wanted to produce a document that clearly stated what rights individuals had wherever they lived in the world. In 1948 the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights was signed by all members of the UN.
Though these rights are not always maintained, they set a benchmark by which all political systems can be measured.
Within Europe, there is a European Convention of Human Rights. It has its own court in Strasbourg and many of the nations in the E.U. accept its authority and rulings. The United Kingdom accepted the European Human Rights Act of 1998 in October 2000.
A written or codified constitution effectively sets out the rights citizens have and they are legally guaranteed. Essentially these are civil rights.
Political parties in Britain have differed in their support for what one might deem civil or human rights. Traditionally, the Conservative Party have viewed all embracing human rights with suspicion. That these rights are written down and codified, ties the hands of politicians as time moves on and society advances. What happens to these rights as society changes and they become redundant or need to be changed? What might be suitable human right legislation for one nation might not be appropriate for another. The obvious example is in America where the right to carry a firearm is jealously guarded as a civil right not to be tampered with. Such a ‘right’ does not exist in Britain and is never likely to. Therefore, traditionally, the Conservative Party have been wary of blanket human rights legislation as it feels that they are far too sweeping for all nations and that it is wrong to impose them on a society that might not need them constrained in a certain guise.
The Labour Party historically has also championed human rights. This socialist stance should not be muddled with the ‘socialist’ label of the old Eastern European bloc. The Labour Party was the party that pushed for the franchise for women; a free health service to equalise peoples access to medicine so that medical treatment was not dependent on wealth – i.e. good health was a right; the welfare state to look after individuals from the ‘cradle to the grave’ etc. Such developments were seen as being vital to a person’s right to have a minumum standard of living. The current Labour Party has somewhat tarnished its support for human rights by selling weapons to overseas governments that have poor human rights records, Burma, for example, despite its claim that it would follow an “ethical” foreign policy.