individual concerns and universal rights

Posted: 25 May 2015 in politics
Tags: ,

As the race* for the United States Presidential election of 2016 hots** up, it’s interesting*** to see how the potential candidates for their parties’ nomination frame their arguments and identify the most pressing issues of the moment.

* more of a canter, actually
** becomes slightly less tepid than it was a couple of months ago
*** no, actually, this one’s accurate

What are particularly of interest to me are the vast differences between the UK and the US, and I don’t just mean the old line about two countries seperated by a common language. There are things of great import in the US that simply don’t apply over here: the argument’s been won – or lost, depending upon your view – and the matter is effectively settled for a generation or more. It certainly won’t be part of any serious political discussion in the UK.

Let me take just three. I’m not going to go through the arguments for each ‘side’ and I’m certainly not going to make a case for one side or the other; I’ll merely point out that these matters are done, dusted and aren’t up for serious discussion. Sure, each of them have their amending adherents on each side, but those who demand a material change in the law are those on the fringes of serious political debate.

(1) Abortion.  There’s no-one of any seriousness suggesting that abortion should be made illegal in mainland Britain. There are debates every so often about how and when abortions should take place, but – and I do not in any way trivialise those arguments when I say this – every debate in parliament is about tinkering with the existing rules. No one serious is suggesing extending the right to everyone who wants one, say at 36 weeks, nor saying they should be banned at 6 weeks.

(2) Capital punishment. It’s gone. Done. Never to return. No matter what opinion polls suggest, no matter how ignorant the arguments made – on both ‘sides’, the UK will never allow capital punishment again. It’s done. No serious political party would ever have as a policy anything coming close to bringing back capital punishment. 

(3) The right to bear arms. The right of the general public to own and use guns. Never going to happen over here. Never. Going. To. Happen. It would be stupid to pretend that no-one has guns over here. Of course some do, and if you believe television drama, anyone with an ounce of common sense knows how to get one. Yeah, not true. We’ve never gone in for that. Some police are armed, but surprisingly – to an American, say – few. I’ve only ever seen ‘real working guns’ carried by police officers at airports and once outside a court during a terrorist trial in the 1980s.

These things are all current debates in the United States, both at a State level and for national discussion. And not one word was heard about them during the admittedly short, thankfully, official UK election campaigns during April and May this year.

While the NHS was discussed, no-one is talking about abolishing it. (Before you jump in to say that it’s being privatised by the Tories behind closed doors, I’m not going to go into that argument here, merely say that they’re not calling for its abolition.) 

Of course, one thing that the US has and we don’t is a single document entitled The Constitution. I’ve come to believe that we should have one as well; note that I don’t say that the US has a written consitution and we don’t. That’s just ignorant. Of course we have a written constitution: it’s just not in a single codified document entitled The British Constitution; instead it’s partly in various laws, partly in case law judgements, and partly unwritten. An example of the latter is the Salisbury Convention (unwritten) and The Parliament Acts (written). Together they tell the House of Lords what they can and can’t oppose when it comes to legislation proposed by a government and brought forward through the House of Commons. 

As a result – and inevitable consequence – of having that congle codified document, the Supreme Court of the United States spends, and has spent since the late 1700s – an extra-ordinary amount of time defining what the Constitution actually means, and since Marbury v Madison (1803) and then Martin v Hunter’s Lessee (1816), an awful lot of that time apportioning rights between the federal and state governments, and between the various branches of the executive and legislature.

Which is good. Which is right. A court should have the final say as to the interpretation of the law.

Which is why it remains astonishing to me that anyone on this side of the pond is against universal human rights, identified and promulgated by the European Convention of Human Rights, and interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights. I’ll have more to say about this as the government’s proposal to remove the UK from the convention and court, and replace it with a “British Bill Of Rights”. At the moment, I’m still in shock that any politician thinks this is a good idea. It isn’t. It’s a stupid, ill-conceived, ill-thought out piece of nonsense, and among the many things this government will do about which I’ll be ashamed in the next five years, this one will come near the top.


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