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.
The movement that lead to drive for equal rights, put an end to the notion that monarchs had absolute power. From the time of James I on, the belief that kings and queens had overwhelming power was diluted. In 1649, ‘citizens’ signed the death warrant of Charles I who was executed at Whitehall in January of that year. From this occurrence on, citizens rights became more obvious. In Britain these rights were held by the few, but they were a direct balance to absolute monarchical rule. The Restoration of Charles II in 1660 took place on Parliament’s terms.
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
respects those who have been handed authority by the people.
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.
For many centuries, people had few if any rights. Life for the poor was described as “nasty, brutal and short”. The growth of philosophy lead to this being challenged and in the seventeenth century, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes put forward the idea that people were born with rights. Hobbes believed that people had the right to life, liberty and happiness. John Locke, another seventeenth century philosopher, added to this list, that all had the right to property.
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.”
Any attempts to reduce peoples rights would be against nature according to Hobbes and Locke. Only an individual could volunteer to give up these rights – no-one else could forcibly limit them. Such beliefs put a strict limit on the ability of those in power to curtail these rights. Natural rights were seen as consisting of
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.
The document covers a vast range of rights; political, legal, economic and social. Politically, it states that all people have the right of free speech; all people have the right of freedom of movement and all have the right of freedom of association.
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.
Liberal politicians have always been associated with supporting human rights legislation. The current Liberal party want a Freedom of Information Act as found in America. As a party, it believes that Britain is far too secretive and that not enough has been done to liberalise our society. It has also campaigned for a written constitution in a document as brief and as compact as the American Constitution. The party believes that citizens in this country should know concisely what their rights are in an easily available document, written in clearly understood language etc.
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.