Home > Commentary, UK General Election 2010 > UK General Election: Conservative Party Manifesto and Human Rights

UK General Election: Conservative Party Manifesto and Human Rights

Yesterday Liam highlighted the key human rights issues raised by the Labour Party Manifesto. Today we take a quick look at that offered by the Conservative Party. First, at a superficial level, it is worth noting that the phrase “human rights” appears in two sections of the manifesto. It appears once in a section on domestic political reform, under the title ‘Change Politics | Restore Our Civil Liberties’, but only as part of the title of the Human Rights Act (which the Conservative Party pledge to replace with a British Bill of Rights – more on that in a moment). It appears four times in the foreign policy section, titled ‘Promote Our National Interest | A Liberal Conservative Foreign Policy’. So does this mean four times as much human rights in foreign than in domestic policy? Not quite.

Looking to the home front first, the Conservative Party uses the language of ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ rather than ‘rights’. In once sense this is in keeping with the idea of negative rights (rather than the positive rights to be found in the Labour Party Manifesto) that is the mainstay of a libertarian approach to personal freedom. Thus, the Conservative Party’s policies are:

  • Replacing the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights;
  • Scrapping the National Identity Card;
  • Reforming Libel Laws;
  • Strengthening Privacy Laws, in particular Data Privacy;
  • Preventing abuse of Surveillance Powers;
  • Reforming DNA Data Retention;
  • Reforming Powers of Entry to Homes;
  • Reforming Child Protection Legislation (re: those working with children);
  • Offering a Free Vote on Repealing the Hunting Act.

This is a patchwork quilt of civil liberties policy sewn together with a populist thread. Many of the commitments are vague and unspecific – for example the Conservative Party pledge to “legislate to make sure that our DNA database is used primarily to store information about those who are guilty of committing crimes rather than those who are innocent” (emphasis added). Thus retention of DNA data of innocent persons is not ruled out, it is merely emphasised that retention of data on guilty persons should be the primary use of the database. A survey of red-top headlines is likely to yield hundreds of hits complaining of the various issues covered above: curbing excessive state surveillance, reforming child protection and repealing the Hunting Act have as their lowest common denomination the vitriol they inspire in tabloid sub-editors. Any claims the Conservatives might have about having a clear philosophy on human rights/civil liberties (ie the libertarian approach I suggested above) are undermined by the failure to articulate just what a British Bill of Rights would look like. (As an aside, there is no mention of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland).

Turning to foreign policy, the Conservative Party claims that “Britain must be open and engaged with the world, supporting human rights and championing the cause of democracy and the rule of law at every opportunity”. Their approach to foreign policy is “is based on a belief in freedom, human rights and democracy” but the Conservatives are “sceptical about grand utopian schemes to remake the world”. No grand utopian schemes, just a commitment to grand utopian principles. The third mention of human rights is similarly vague: “A Conservative government will always speak up for freedom and human rights”. However, it is followed up with a welcome repudiation of torture which is described as “unacceptable and abhorrent”. The final mention is in the idea that the Conservatives will “seek closer engagement with China while standing firm on human rights”. Several of the other foreign policy points could allow human rights inferences to be drawn – such as requiring new EU Member States are rigorously checked against the accession criteria. A further point of note in the post-Iraq Invasion world is the commitment to: “support humanitarian intervention when it is practical and necessary, while working with other countries to prevent conflict arising.” Anti-war campaigners could correctly point out that this effectively sums up Tony Blair’s position throughout his Premiership – but that is unsurprising, given that the Conservative Party helped carry the vote in favour of war in the House of Commons.

So – preliminary conclusions on the Conservative policy? So far, so Cameronian. There are broad statement genuflecting to undecided voters who think that human rights are A Good Thing, with the promise of repeal of the Human Rights Act counter-balancing this for those of the opposite persuasion. Underneath these umbrella statements are minimalist changes that are likely to attract broad support without greatly affecting a Government’s ability to do as it pleases.

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