Chris Grayling’s absurd back-of-an-envelope proposals for a ‘British Bill of Rights’ to replace the Human Rights Act 1998 are an early sign of the Conservative Party playing fast and loose with Britain’s constitution. It is now open season for such meddling in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum, which used to be confined to the Liberal Democrats. I have commented before on the ‘Bill of Rights’ issue, which, apart from the fact that it recycles the name of a notoriously disingenuous piece of legislation (the 1689 Bill of Rights) is a step on the way to a written constitution. The original ‘Bill of Rights’ was a Williamite attempt to replace James II’s Declaration of Indulgence – but whereas James’s Declaration, promulgated by royal prerogative, promised real toleration and a vision of religious co-existence ahead of its time, William of Orange’s Bill of Rights enshrined the parochial English conception of ‘liberty’ that would come to dominate the 18th century: the ‘liberty’ that prolonged the slave trade, enabled the exploitation of the industrial revolution, and denied religious freedom to Catholics until 1829. For any piece of legislation to consciously echo the 1689 Bill of Rights would represent a highly selective reading of history, but one which the present coalition government seems to promote.
Conservative politicians bleat about the European Court infringing the sovereignty of Parliament – which, again, is a concept introduced in 1689 after the Revolution – demonstrating that they continue to embody the parochial libertarianism of the 18th-century Whigs, unable to bear the thought of something ‘foreign’ interfering in England’s national polity. Eurosceptic Tories and Nigel Farage’s UKIP are the true heirs of the unprincipled Whigs who made the Revolution and Hanoverian successi0n possible. England’s membership of the European Convention on Human Rights is a symbol of our participation in a wider European project that is far more important than the narrow ‘little Englander’ conception of ‘liberty’ treasured by Eurosceptic politicians. Instances in which the European Court of Human Rights has behaved unreasonably are insignificant in comparison with the good that the organisation is capable of doing, and as Ken Clarke has pointed out, it would be unreasonable for the government to make a profound decision regarding Britain’s future relationship with Europe on the basis of dissatisfaction with a few recent decisions. Furthermore, it is obvious that the Conservative Party considers the issue a vote-winner.
It is an embarrassing fact of English and Scottish history for the politicians of the present day that Stuart foreign policy consistently treated Britain as part of Europe: hence why the success of James I and VI’s foreign policy, or indeed Charles II’s, is usually skipped over in favour of the short-sighted isolationism of Elizabeth I’s so-called ‘golden age’. Yet Stuart policy endured for a lot longer than Elizabeth’s.