There are reasons to fear a UK Bill of Rights, argues Megan Crawford
Brexit has troubling implications for the future of human rights and secularism in Scotland. At this time, the confusion of where the 1998 Human Rights Act (HRA), the European Charter of Human Rights (ECHR) and the EU Charter protect our rights is made none-the-clearer by the proposed autonomous post-Brexit British Bill of Rights. This Bill of Rights would be in line with Germany’s and America’s judicial systems, as a subsection of a written British Constitution. It would come complete with a Constitutional Court with the power to uphold and strike down any particular interpretation of the Bill of Rights as it sees fit.
Purposely vague laws open to a Constitutional Court’s final interpretive decision were a concern shared with the Scottish Secular Society by several citizens. Who will comprise this court, and how much will the Church infiltrate? Are we to be subjected to a judicial House of Lords? To address these concerns, the Scottish Secular Society held a public discussion at the Annie Besant Lodge. The event allowed citizens an opportunity to share their insights, ask their questions, and find some answers. The following is a summary of the main points from that discussion.
• To discuss human rights is to discuss every aspect of human life. Human rights arise in connection with economic, social and cultural rights, rights of the impoverished, disabled, family, student, working class, middle class, rights of your immigrant neighbour as well as yourself, even the right to rights. One attendee observed, “We’ve seen a working erosion of human rights not only in Scotland, but across the UK in general when you think of job seekers and food banks… The right to food is being eroded with food banks and peoples’ lack of ability to interact with [them].”
• A human rights researcher pointed out, “What we are losing, and what we have certainly lost at the moment, in terms of the social security system… is the right to have rights.” A social worker added, “You have to earn the right to have food. It is so much dehumanisation of people in poverty.”
• Concerns over our very identity with respect to our policy-makers was discussed. As one West End home owner observed, “We are being turned into these ‘units of capital’, and a unit of capital is not a human being.” A university lecturer further added, “It used to be that you educated to make people more educated and better people, now it’s all about targets.” These shifts in rights are reflected in the shifts in perspectives and language throughout the UK. An example given was the changing of the standard ‘Personnel Department’ to ‘Human Resources’. “The name says it all,” added a student.
• Alistair McBay of the National Secular Society offered his thoughts, “There’s a huge kick back against things like the HRA and the Equality Act.” These can be seen in Andrea Leadsom’s proposal to remove LGBTQ rights because of “the very clear hurt caused to many Christians”, Theresa May’s push to repeal the HRA, and heard in demands to get immigrants out of the country and ‘back to where they came from’. “It’s the march of The Right that’s brought this.”
• The Scottish Secular Society hold that secularism is a human right, and fully endorse the first Article of the EU Charter, upholding human dignity.
• Paul Braterman, Science Advisor to the Scottish Secular Society, pointed out that “the relationship between human rights and secularism is actually a bit more complicated than you would like to think… Some parents claim it is a human right to have their children educated in accord with their beliefs, whereas the public schooling system in a secular society education would not privilege any specific belief or non-belief.” This is not a trivial matter, and one that must be clearly addressed in Scotland’s future.
• What most concerned us was that current proposals to replace the HRA and our connection to the EU Courts by the UK’s own Bill of Rights and Constitutional Court would weaken existing rights, not strengthen them. In a room filled with people from all walks of life, one sentiment was clearly shared: “We’re afraid.”
• Megan Crawford is chair of the Scottish Secular Society