The World Today
5 December 2014 , Volume 70, Number 6

The human rights barrister, broadcaster and Labour peer, tells us that Britain and its place in the world are under threat from Little Englanders


Alan Philps

Editor, The World Today


Photo: Jorge Herrera
Photo: Jorge Herrera


As a proud Scot and member of the Labour Party what do you think of the government’s handling of the independence issue after the No vote?
The issue certainly hasn’t gone away and the ferment is real. I too feel cross, although I was against independence and I would have been in the No camp if I’d had a vote. I’m a Scot of Irish origin. For my parents’ generation, nothing in the world would have made them think about voting for the Scottish Nationalists. We, the Catholics and the Jews, were the bulwark against nationalism because we were frightened of what nationalism would mean. We thought it would exclude people like us, who experienced quite serious discrimination. The Labour movement was very important for Catholics in Scotland, as a way of creating greater fairness. So the idea of Scottish nationalism was anathema to us.

What has changed?
Now a new generation of younger Scots Catholics isn’t burdened by that memory of discrimination and of feeling that nationalism would marginalize us. I think Alex Salmond, former First Minister, has played an important role in taking a very public stance against sectarianism. That’s one of the old bulwarks against nationalism that has been taken away. Another is the fact so many people are disappointed in the Labour Party. They couldn’t abide the decision to invade Iraq.

Even after more than a decade?
It’s still a running sore. The idea is held strongly in Scotland that a decision to go to war should not be made in order to keep Britain’s relationship with America strong. Also, the Scots are, by and large, more egalitarian. You cannot generalize, because the same is true in parts of northern England and Wales. Probably because of the Presbyterian tradition, Scots in general feel more of a responsibility to each other. In Britain we are creating a very hard society, a society where that caring is disappearing.

The Scots couldn’t stand Margaret Thatcher, but they now feel almost as vitriolic about Tony Blair, because they felt that he didn’t take the opportunity to end the culture of ‘we to me’, the move away from a sense of community and responsibility to each other.

So the issue at the referendum was not whether people would be richer or poorer as an independent state?
No, the Scots weren’t interested in that, though they were anxious about the idea of the Scots economy collapsing because of the banks and the businesses saying that they would withdraw their business. They don’t like the fact that the arc of history is not taking us towards more justice as Martin Luther King promised us, but to a society driven between a minority of superrich and many people suffering the consequences. They think, what kind of society are we creating where we denigrate teachers, nurses and doctors, where anybody who works in the civil service is considered incapable of surviving elsewhere? These things have their roots in Thatcherism and the Scots feel that Labour did not correct them. That’s the problem.

Is there going to be another referendum?
There is real concern about how David Cameron has elided the question of English devolution with the promises he made to the Scots during the referendum campaign. He is telling the Scots: ‘You’ve decided to stay in the Union, but we’re actually going to create a parliament where Scots MPs will have to troop out of the chamber while we get on with the business of running the major part of these isles.’ Scots No voters are very aggrieved, and I think it will have serious consequences.

So what’s next?
I can imagine a scenario where we could easily drift into a referendum on membership of the European Union, with the Conservative Party increasingly in hock to its own right wing and to UKIP, and where Labour has lost its Scottish seats. A Conservative government that has become so right wing cannot make a good case for staying in Europe, and the result is the UK sleep-walking out of Europe. In that case Scotland would say: ‘We need to be independent because we want to apply separately to become part of the European Union and to be a different kind of nation, an international outward-looking nation, not Little Englanders.’

My argument during the referendum was to say to the Scots, ‘There are lots of people in England and Wales who feel the same way as you do about what we’re doing to our nation.’ We’re tearing the heart out of the United Kingdom because we’re becoming so brittle. It’s the philosophy of Hayek – that the state is only there to lock up criminals.

Talking of locking up criminals, there is much discussion of ways to stop would-be jihadists from going to fight in Syria, or even depriving them of their passports. What do you think?
We take passports away from people on a temporary basis to stop them travelling when they are on bail. So if someone is intending to go and fight somewhere that we consider to be unlawful, the idea of taking their passport away as a preventative sanction does not seem wrong to me. It’s taking away their passport and their citizenship that is a matter of concern.

Are there any circumstances under which you think it would be okay to remove someone’s citizenship?
After the end of the Second World War, an international order was created with the United Nations, with many different conventions including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and serious attempts to deal with refugees, and to give people a sense of nationhood. Without nationhood, you don’t have rights.

Removing a passport from somebody who’s got another one – someone with dual nationality – may be fine as a way of sending a message. But it’s different when you’re removing a passport and rendering someone stateless, where they have nowhere to go. We have just passed a law that says that it’s possible to render somebody stateless. We’re prepared at the moment to take that step. I think it’s wrong.

This is not to say that I’m in any way sympathetic to the people who are involved in Islamic State. I just think that they should be put on trial and prosecuted for criminal offences and, if found guilty, jailed. That’s the responsibility of states, and the only way to have an order in the world is for states to do that.

British voters seem to have been convinced that human rights are something bad. Have lawyers lost the confidence of middle England?
Let’s be clear. The people who criticize the Human Rights Act are those who have bought into a tabloid presentation of the Human Rights Act and of our commitments to the European Convention on Human Rights. I sat on a commission that looked into whether we should have a British Bill of Rights.

Travelling round the country we found that large numbers of people think there’s a lot of benefit in having a Human Rights Act. It has empowered the victims of crime in a way that never existed under common law and cannot exist under common law. When you explain that to people, on the whole they realize what an important set of rights are created by, or emboldened by, the European Convention on Human Rights. Most people do not know that the convention was drafted by British Conservative lawyers back in 1950. It’s not some foreign concoction.

Is the tabloid press to blame?
No. There are plenty of politicians who don’t like it. And it’s Conservative politicians in particular who don’t like the idea that any sovereignty at all should be sacrificed to an international court. So they don’t like international courts. But do they not want international law? Do they not want to able to bring people to trial for crimes that are international or egregious in their nature?

After the Second World War, we thought a certain level of sacrifice of sovereignty was a price worth paying to achieve a Europe that was united in peace and justice. That was a high ideal at the time; our parents still had the sound of gunfire in their ears. If Britain pulls out of the European Convention on Human Rights, what does it say to Russia and Moldova and Bulgaria and other places where we are trying to raise standards? Do we want to be a moral authority in the world? Or do we want to become little Englanders?

This attitude is partly due to globalization. The process is so frightening that people want to retreat into smallness. They say, ‘How dare they tell us what to do?’ But occasionally we need to be rapped over the knuckles if we are not getting things right.

Isn’t it correct that people feel powerless in the face of globalization?
If they are worried about sovereignty, let them get agitated about what the corporates have taken away in terms of sovereignty. They should be worrying about the way in which our whole nation is held to ransom by people who are pocketing money and paying no taxes.

Don’t you see big companies being shamed into paying more tax?
But how do you enforce it? It’s a race to the bottom. Even in the discussions about the referendum in Scotland, Alex Salmond had indicated that he would compete with Britain on corporation tax. However low our corporation tax was, the Scottish government would make it lower.

I’m making a radio programme about the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. In 1215, Magna Carta established that everybody had to be answerable to law and nobody, not even the king, was above it.

What kind of Magna Carta would you create in the 21st century? Who needs to be reined in? The people who are currently above the law, or certainly out of step with normal practice inside societies, are international corporations and international finance.

Let’s talk about the Middle East. There are moves in Europe to recognize the Palestinian state. Is it too late?
I do regret that it’s happening as late as it is. I don’t want to believe it’s too late. We’ve seen the continued building of settlements on the West Bank, eroding by the day the land on which the Palestinian people can create a state, and you can’t help but think that this is a concerted effort. There are some people in Israel – I’m not suggesting it’s everybody – who have always wanted to create a greater Israel and make Palestinian nationhood impossible. That’s a great regret, but I know many Israelis who still believe that a two-state solution is the answer and who want to see the Palestinian people having their own land and their own nation. Therefore, I don’t think there’s anything ridiculous about our suggesting that Palestine should be recognized by the United Nations.

If the two-state solution will not work, what about a one-state for Jews and Arabs?
With Scotland wanting to be independent, why would we not imagine that Israelis and Palestinians want their entities to be distinct and separate?

Can you see any progress as a result of the Arab revolutions?
I still feel hopeful about Tunisia. I co-chair the International Bar Association’s Institute of Human Rights and we’ve just been involved in the training of 700 judges in Tunisia on human rights, the rule of law and on what it means to be independent as judges. I think if it’s going to come good anywhere, then Tunisia is our best hope.

What about the rest?
Libya is a basket case. NATO intervened in Libya and then declared victory, and yet nothing was done to help create institutions. There were no institutions that one could build on. It was a tabula rasa. But Egypt is different. There used to be a court structure. Now the courts are manned by placemen. We have had trials lasting 15 minutes with the death penalty being exacted on 500 or 600 people being tried at the same time. This is not the rule of law and yet the international community has not been sufficiently vociferous about it.

A British woman, Ghoncheh Ghavami, is on bail in Iran for trying to attend a men’s volleyball match. Is this a one-off case, or all too common?
It’s important that we raise cases that attract attention and put British people in contact with what’s happening in Iran. It’s hard for us to imagine that this was seen as something horrifying for a woman to do. But it highlights a much bigger issue. Women human rights lawyers in Iran have played a very important part in trying to challenge the legal system and the ways women and children are treated. Often those lawyers end up in jail. So this case opens a door into a much wider problem of abuse of women in prisons in Iran and abuse of human rights generally.

Saudi Arabia may be lifting its ban on women drivers, as long as they are over 35. What do you think?
The treatment of women in Saudi Arabia is, for me, horrifying. It’s an outrage to me that both the United States and Britain still maintain such a close connection with this country. They have exported their form of Islam around the world, yet we still entertain them.

The British legal system – both English and Scottish – is much admired around the world. What is its future in an era of cost cutting?
We are seeing the destruction of something very precious. We have great judges. We don’t have any judicial corruption. We’re one of the few places where you can look to that.

The independence of our judiciary is well established, but all of this is being eroded by cost cutting. I don’t want it to be self-serving about the legal profession. It’s also happening in education and we’re seeing the privatization of our health service.

It’s always the poorest who suffer, but eventually it will also be the middle classes. They won’t be able to afford to go to the law for redress, and a justice system is not worth its name if all do not have equal access to justice.

If a country can’t afford a Rolls-Royce legal system, what’s wrong with a cut-price Tesco version?
The lawyers will have to cut corners. You’ll start seeing a rise in corrupt practices. We have a system where people were trained alongside more senior lawyers. That will happen in the big, fancy firms. But in ordinary firms, at the poorest end, that won’t happen. Tesco is not going to be training its lawyers and showing what is the best kind of behaviour, professional behaviour and ethics.

What is your next big project?
I am raising money to establish the Institute of Human Rights at Oxford University. This is going to be built next year on land provided by Mansfield College. It is very important to have such an institute to anchor human rights at the centre of our national life.