Euan McColm: Human rights aren’t manifesto pledges

IN THE political battle over Scotland’s constitutional future, we struggle to find any common ground on which opposing sides might meet.

IN THE political battle over Scotland’s constitutional future, we struggle to find any common ground on which opposing sides might meet.

From matters of currency and welfare to – in a new low in the debate – the price of groceries, the Yes and No campaigns disagree, violently. Our politics has never been more tribal.

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But I think we can safely say we find unanimity on the issue of human rights. Unionist and nationalist politicians agree on the importance of freedoms afforded to each of us. They do not clash over the basics: our right to life; to liberty; to privacy; to worship as we see fit; to a fair trial. For 60 years, the European Convention on Human Rights has been at the basis of our civilised society.

The Scottish Government, however, doesn’t think the ECHR goes far enough. In an independent Scotland, we could have even more human rights.

This week, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon spoke in support of the work of the Scottish Human Rights Commission which has developed a “National Action Plan for Human Rights”. She described the plan as an “important milestone in our journey to create a Scotland which acts as a beacon of progress internationally”. The DFM’s remarks were carefully choreographed to precede a Scottish Government debate on the issue, which was led by community safety minister Roseanna Cunningham.

All well and good, of course. Human rights are the very thing and we have all a vested interest in their protection. To have more of them would be a good thing, surely?

If the Scottish National Party has its way, we will. Sturgeon and Cunningham were not simply expressing support for fairness and equality. Rather, they were attempting to build momentum behind their party’s desire to see a new written constitution for an independent Scotland. And what could be wrong with that?

Cunningham’s remarks in the Scottish Parliament are worth close examination. During the debate – which neatly followed a round of parliamentary tributes to Nelson Mandela – Cunningham spoke of the way the principles of the ECHR resonated with Scotland’s deeply held values of fairness, social justice and communitarian spirit.

But, she added, an independent Scotland could do more. Human rights, having been secured within a codified constitution, would ensure that Scotland became a “beacon of progressive opinion, in keeping with the importance that we have long attached to human dignity, equality and fairness, and the pursuit of social justice”. This was bang on the SNP’s message that we Scots are (except for Scandinavians) more compassionate than other human beings, that our atoms have assembled in such a way that we’re naturally kinder.

If we allow ourselves for a moment to believe that palpable nonsense (and ignore inconvenient truths like support for welfare reform being more or less identical in Scotland and England), what might our new human rights be? To hear Cunningham, it seems they might include things that don’t appear to fit the description. On Tuesday, she told MSPs that the full range of human rights, both long established and brand new, could be considered by a constitutional convention. Then she cited examples of the sorts of things that the Scottish Government had done already to protect the rights of citizens. These measures included the abolition of university tuition fees.

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A free university education is a marvellous thing and popular with voters, but a human right?

What about the teenagers who don’t get the grades? Would we really tell them that they didn’t deserve the same human right as their smarter – or more studious – classmates? Or would we ensure their human rights were protected by giving them the cash equivalent of an honours degree’s worth of teaching and bunging 24 grand in their bank accounts?

Cunningham reminded colleagues that First Minister Alex Salmond has spoken of how an independent Scotland would be able to go further than the ECHR and might embed economic, social and cultural rights within a written constitution.

This raises the prospect that policies the SNP opposes – the bedroom tax, for example – might be made illegal for ever more. It’s an appealing prospect but it’s hardly a human right not to have to accept benefit reforms.

The Scottish Government says everything is up for discussion and that all parties – indeed, anyone with a proposal – would be welcome to bring their ideas to a convention.

The SNP (barring whatever the Greens and almost nonexistent SSP might suggest) has, for now, a free run at this. Until the referendum is over, opponents to the break-up of the UK are not going to pitch ideas for how an independent Scotland might look.

Just as the SNP has won two consecutive elections on manifestos which gave most to the best-off (and most politically engaged) in society, so might they shift the referendum battle in their favour with the offer of a constitution that set in stone free this and free that.

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And if those new human rights, whether they be free tuition or freedom from welfare cuts, proved to be unaffordable in years to come, well that would just be tough and something else would have to be cut.

We should jealously guard the rights that we have. The ECHR guarantees freedoms we expect, and parliaments north and south of the Border can – and have – built on its bedrock, most recently by extending the right to marriage to same-sex couples.

But we should be careful that the campaign for a constitution isn’t allowed to turn populist manifesto pledges and examples of cheap retail politics into human rights. «

Twitter: @euanmccolm