he rights agenda in the UK at the beginning of 2003 does
not appear to be in such a great state. Whether presented
as civil, social, economic, democratic, or, the more modern
and contemporary form of human rights, set-backs abound across
the board. The government has the abolition of trial by jury
in its sights as well as measures to further constrain the
independence and discretion of the judiciary. Trade unions
and trade unionists fare badly in the face of increasing
measures of deregulation.
The reform of governmental institutions – from
the electoral system through to the House of Lords – remains
stalled. The state takes on increasing powers and develops
new mechanisms of surveillance and control over individuals
and civil society with the monitoring of personal communications – particularly
e-mails – and the proposed new citizen’s ‘entitlement’ card.
And asylum seekers, formerly guaranteed the right of support
at least at minimal subsistence levels by the legal effect
of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights,
will see this scrapped as the year goes on.
And yet the promise of greater emphasis on the human rights
of all individuals resident in Britain was one of the key
promises of the Labour government after its election in 1997.
The core of Blair’s promise of a style of politics
which was to be both radical and centrist at the same time,
the agenda promised by the 1998 Human Rights Act appears
to have collapsed into empty rhetoric.
The left did not anticipate
this catastrophic collapse in the main plank of New Labour’s
reform programme. Whether avidly in support of the idea,
or agnostic, or even opposed to the abstractions and mystifications
of the concept, the presumption had been that the human rights
revolution would continue in some form and the rights of
individuals would be increasingly strengthened against the
arbitrary power of the state. What had not been foreseen
was the implicit renunciation of huge swathes of the human
rights agenda in favour of a return to the untrammelled authority
of the national state. But that is where we are today; and
it is important to know how we got here.
It might be possible to argue that the 180-degree reversal
of government commitments arose from a weak commitment to
the human rights agenda in the first place. This seems implausible.
The new Labour leadership belongs to a milieu that has been
immersed in discussion and advocacy of the virtues of human
rights for much of the last two decades. Blair’s wife
is a dominant light as a QC in the leading human rights legal
chambers in England and Wales. The architect of the Human
Rights Act, Jack Straw, is one of a dozen lawyers in the
government who are undoubtedly committed to a strong human
rights dimension in the legal system.
There seems little point in casting aspersions on the government’s
commitment to human rights when seeking an explanation for
the recent turn in direction towards decisively authoritarian
policies. On the contrary, it seems that the place of human
rights in the government’s agenda is similar to that
of the withering away of the state in the programme of Lenin’s
Bolshevik party. In both cases, the road to the good society,
of necessity, seems to lead through the valley of intolerance
The language and practice of human rights, quite distinctively
from earlier libertarian movements associated with the
American and French revolutions and the Industrial Revolution,
not rooted in mass social movements mobilised around grievances
against the exercise of arbitrary power by the local national
state. For the American and French declarations of the
Rights of Man to triumph, monarchical power had to be overthrown.
For the civil libertarian movements of later years to play
their role in the progressive reformation of society in
industrialised nations, the power of domestic ruling elites
had to be challenged and pushed back. In contradistinction,
the Human Rights movement, which has its genesis in the
post-war polity of the cold war, the language of human rights
the language of the state, speaking on its own behalf,
in opposition to the methods of governance of other states.
At the time of its inception, no popular mass social movement
was associated with the global assertion of ‘human
rights’. The most important movements for liberation
in the post war years – the colonial liberation movements
(including the anti-apartheid struggle), the drive for civil
rights and equality on the part of American blacks in the
civil rights movement, and the movement for women’s
liberation across the world – though occasionally borrowing
the rhetoric of human rights, could not function in any natural
way as partners of the leading proponents of human rights,
because their sectional politics placed them in an ambiguous
position in relation to the key cold war issues – i.e.
the pro-free market Atlantic alliance versus the Soviet menace.
But of course, human rights were more than a political
stance taken against opponents in the global struggle for
When the leaders of the West asserted that ‘they hate
us because they hate our free way of life’ they were
actually referring to something that existed as a reality
in their portions of the world, as opposed to that governed
by their opponents. The operation of free markets is largely
contingent on the freedom of citizens to enter into agreements
and contracts with each other in the civil and economic realms
of society in pursuit of their perceptions of self-interest.
The sheer volume and range of the agreements which might
concern such individual citizens must of necessity stretch
the system well beyond the range of what can be overseen
and directed by the organs of the state with any degree of
efficiency. For the sake of its own working, capitalism is
obliged to assume that its citizens are quite capable of
exercising their autonomy and capacity for self-determination
in a rational manner without the need for the arbitration
or direction of the state over each and every detail.
The legal systems of the industrial nations conceded these
issues during the course of the 19th century as civil society
in liberal capitalism took on its distinct forms. Whilst
scarcely reflected on during these stages as having anything
particularly human about their fundamental principles,
when gathered up and pitched against the great Soviet rival,
programmatic form of liberal capitalist liberties was suggested,
and eventually expressed in such international conventions
as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European
Convention on Human Rights, and, in the final stages of
the Cold War conflict, the Helsinki Accords.
In all these instances the dominant form of politics was
an appeal, within the terms of the narrow self-interest of
the states themselves, to human rights as a method for maintaining
the social order of liberal capitalism. As the Universal
Declaration put the matter in its preamble, “[…]
it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse,
as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression,
that human rights should be protected by the rule of law
[…]”. In the language of the revolutionary American
Declaration of Independence, the “self-evident truths” 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” was held to justify
rebellion against autocratic power.
A mass politics of human rights?
Of course, it is possible that the politics of human rights,
though commencing on the terrain of the defence and maintenance
of capitalist interests, might under certain conditions,
be subverted by a more radical, democratic political movement.
There have been enough efforts to do this in recent years.
A model was provided in the late 1970s with the formation
of ‘Helsinki Groups’ across Europe which operated
with the intention of ensuring that national governments
were held to the commitments offered up in the Helsinki Accords
The most effective work of these civil society organisations
took place in the countries of central and Eastern Europe
and in some countries they contributed a powerful impetus
to the ‘velvet’ revolutions which eventually
overthrew the region’s communist regimes. They continue
to function in a number of countries, and play an important
role in monitoring civil liberties and democratic rights.
But the situation in Western Europe has to be contrasted
with the post-communist regimes, where anxiety about the
possibility of a reversion to authoritarian forms of government
remains high amongst wide sections of the population. In
mature capitalist states, the national authorities have
developed an abundance of mechanisms which extend outwards
society, which provide the institutions of the state with
greater opportunities for arguing that the defence of human
rights is a role properly and naturally assumed by the
exercise of traditional authority.
The centre-left maintains the hope that developments arising
from the Human Rights Act will promote a new ‘culture
of human rights’, which extends outwards to civil society
and has the prospect of flourishing in a constructive relationship
with the government.
Arguments of this sort have been most thoroughly developed
by the Institute for Public Policy Research, and others supporting
the establishing of a ‘Human Rights Commission’-type
quango.But the arguments against the construction of a progressive
alliance between government and civil society in support
of human rights are mounting up. The evidence suggests that
civil liberties face their biggest threat in a generation
from a growing volume of government measures which are designed
to increase the control powers of the state . It might just
be that the left will have to face up to the fact that the
entrenchment of five decades of the human rights discourse
within a liberal capitalist framework will become redundant.
In doing so, we may find it fruitful to look further back
to the traditions of anti-state resistance, developed ironically
in, amongst other places, the earliest phase of the American
revolution, as well as a civil rights tradition which sought,
not a partnership with the powers-that-be, but their outright