Can a ‘Good European’ support the Conservative view on the Human Rights Act?

Magna Carta

Magna Carta 1215

I suspect if you ask most Brits what they understood by Human Rights, they would be very clear in their answer. I also suspect most people regardless of their political view would be opposed to such practices as torture, being held without charge, fair trials, freedom of speech and the like.

It is also a commonly held view that Human Rights in the United Kingdom were somehow introduced by ‘requiring’ King John into signing the Magna Carta in 1215. Whilst that is one view of history, it isn’t entirely supported by the facts.

Magna Carter (the Great Charter) of 1215 could be seen as tackling Human Rights of its day. In particular, it dealt with protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown.

However, these rights were hardly universal – note it only protected Barons from illegal imprisonment and access to swift justice. The lesser known fact is that even this charter was restating existing rights which had existed from Norman times.

English Bill of Rights 1689

English Bill of Rights 1689

In recent weeks and months the focus of debate has settled on the protection of the Human Rights Act 1998 (ECHR) which incorporated the rights contained within the European Convention of Human Rights into UK Law.

Whatever your view on the ECHR it has sometimes been presented as if there had been no human rights in Britain prior to 1998. It also, in my opinion, overlooks the contribution to protecting the citizen made by the Bill of Rights 1689, the Petition of Rights, the Habeas Corpus Act 1679 and the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949. These taken in the round form the basis of the unwritten British constitution.

In fact, the English (as it then was) Bill of Rights is considered to have strongly influenced the United States Bill of Rights and the basis of the European Convention on Human Rights itself.

With the new conservative led government promising to replace the European Convention with a new British Bill of Rights, this whole area has become politically charged and wrapped up with views on Europe and Britain’s place (or not) in the European Union.

Whilst to some extent that connection is inevitable, is it possible to feel (as I do) that I am both British and European – albeit that my European identity is a geographic belonging above anything else. If so, can I still feel a good European and have some sympathy with the desire for national Courts to have the final say on some aspects of law, potentially including the definition of Human Rights?

One of the difficulties in discussing this whole area is the complexity of the various European Courts, their relationship with national Courts and how conventions fit within that framework. This rather etherial and in some senses technical miasma makes the rational discussion of options difficult to find.

Whilst I never thought I would be recommending Jacob Rees-Mogg (a member of Parliament recently described as a walking anachronism) as a clear and objective reference point, this is the position in which I find myself. Whether or not you agree with his arguments, this interview is the closest I have found to a rational outline of the available options. For those interested in the detail of the debate, Jacob Rees-Mogg discusses the possibilities here in a clip from the BBC’s Daily Politics.

So given the Gordian knot that is likely to be found in an attempt to amend the status quo, what exactly is wrong with the current state of affairs. Well, again that depends on your political and personal perspective on such matters as judicial accountability and the role of the nation state v. the European Union.

catThe most commonly cited example may be that of the half Bolivian cat. Although somewhat over-egged, it is an example used by those who think that ‘foreign’ judges have taken the concept of Human Rights a little too far. In this case (2009) a Bolivian found himself about to be deported. (It is unclear whether this was for a criminal matter or over staying his visa etc). However, he appealed his deportation on the basis that it breached his Human Rights – namely the right to a family life.

The case revolved around his relationship (of roughly six months). As part of this relationship, he had purchased a cat which was used as contributory evidence to prove that he had fully integrated into the country. Whilst the role of the cat is often over-stated, the relationship was found to be sufficient to prevent his deportation on Human Rights Grounds.

Others, of which I’m usually  but not consistently one, believe that a sovereign nation’s Supreme Court should be just that. For me it isn’t a question of ‘johnny foreigner’ having over-extended the legislation or not, it’s more a question of national sovereignty. I have no issue with eminently sensible conventions (including ECHR and those of the UN for example) being referenced and considered as required. I just happen to think that should be done by each Nation State.

starbucksIf the Convention on Human Rights was a little more focused I might take a different view. One might think, for example, that Human Rights applied to Humans – but they apply equally to bodies Corporate – so companies such as IBM, HSBC and Starbucks find themselves protected by Human Rights conventions.

Whilst I have no issue with robust legal protection for companies in terms of their intellectual property, copyright, trading etc, it is hard to see how I can impact on the Human RIghts of a corporate body.

What is clear, whether you make the national sovereignty argument, object to the ‘stretching’ of legal definitions or simply object to a supra-national Court this topic is set to dominate British politics over the next 3-4 months, As is often the case, you wait some time for a contentious Human Rights case and then three come along all at once.

Over the next few weeks, three high profile cases could provide further fuel to the fire and reinvigorate the calls (at least in the right wing of the Conservative party) to exit from the Court or the Convention or both.

The first case referred to the grand chamber involves three men who attempted to carry out suicide bombings in the London Underground. They received sentences of 40 years. However, during their arrest they were initially refused access to a lawyer to allow for an urgent interview (the ticking bomb interview). Initially, the Court held that they had not been prevented from having a fair trial. However, this is now being appealed to Strasbourg

The second matter relates to “whole-life tariffs” – life sentences, where the defendant is told they will never be released from Jail. In essence, the European Court will assess whether this sits well with the words of lord chief justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgieddwhen he said that “the law of England and Wales provides an offender hope, or the possibility of release, in exceptional circumstances” If they find this is not the case, this could end whole-life tariffs in their current form.

The final case relates to the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes by Metropolitan police officers in . Lawyers representing his family claim that the failure to prosecute individual officers for the shooting breached Menezes’s rights under article 2 of the human rights convention.

With such incendiary cases about to reach the Courts, Human Rights may again be next month’s political football, Given this, my qualms over wishing to see these decisions made at a national level can sit on the back burner until I see exactly which way the legal winds are blowing.

One thing is fairly certain – we better get used to the news being heavily focused on what we mean by and how we interpret Human Rights.

When the politics of greed falls silent.


Bill Gates

Love him or loath him William Henry “Bill” Gates III is a figure you would have to work very hard to avoid.

Whether you look at him as an entrepreneur, a technologist, self-made man, co-founder of Microsoft, philanthropist or social commentator he is often a figure who produces strong opinions.

According to Forbes, Bill Gates has a personal net wealth of $79.5 Billion. That in and of itself is enough to make him the subject of dislike, even hatred by some around the world. To put that figure in perspective, that is greater than the gross domestic product of countries including Luxemburg, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kenya, Panama and Bahrain.

Of course, whether any individual should have that much personal wealth is at least in part a function of your political beliefs. Whether you see this as an obscene example of untrammelled capitalism or the embodiment of the American dream is a matter for you. Personally, I take a rather more ambivalent and hopefully pragmatic view. For me, it depends in part on how that wealth was acquired and perhaps more importantly what the person who holds this wealth does with his or her riches.

Gates Foundation

Gates Foundation

So given that measuring stick, what has Bill Gates done with his undoubted fortune ?

I was one of those mildly sceptical in 2000 when I heard of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation being launched with a view to reduce poverty and sickness. I remember thinking the aims were rather motherhood and apple pie. However, I would  be the first to say I missed the simplicity of its aims.

The Foundation is now the biggest  in the world and has made significant inroads into the vaccination of some of the poorest communities in the world. Apart from this, it has made real progress towards not just the reduction but the near eradication of diseases such as Polio, elephantiasis and river blindness.
In 2008 Bill Gates announced that his fortune would be donated to charitable causes on his death rather than being passed to his children. He stated that he would rather make a lasting contribution to the world and not create another wealthy dynasty just for the sake of it.

Before looking at some of the outcomes (which I admit took me by surprise), here’s another statistic that puts the undoubted wealth of this individual into perspective. Over his lifetime, Gates has already given away $29.5 billion. Again, that is greater than the GDP of countries such as Bolivia, Cyprus or Jamaica. Put another way, he has given away more than fifty times the personal wealth of Queen Elizabeth II. – Some track record.


Better seed choice/research bring greater yields

When researching the results delivered by the Gates foundation (in close collaboration with UNICEF and the World Health Organisation) I was amazed at their successes so far. The number of children under five who die each year worldwide has been nearly cut in half, from a high of nearly 13 million to 6.5 million today.  Drought-tolerant seeds are dramatically increasing agricultural yields; economies in the once-desperate countries in sub-Saharan Africa are now matching the developed world in rate of annual growth.

“We’re already moving toward an HIV tipping point,” says Melinda Gates, “when the number of HIV-positive people in sub-Saharan Africa who are in treatment will exceed the number of people becoming newly infected.”

What surprises me is the relatively low profile of these efforts and achievements. It was only when watching an Episode of The Big Bang theory that I wondered how Ebola had been tackled in the recent west African outbreak.

In a recent interview, Bill Gates explained how his foundation has an eye to the future with his view of what poses the greatest threat to humanity over the next 50-100 years. His fear is not that some rogue scientist develops a killer pathogen (a la Big Bang). Instead, he believes that the risk is simply that something as innocuous as the flu virus could mutate by chance into something as aggressive as the Spanish flu of 1918.

This is where the scale of the donations made by the Gates took me by surprise. One the United States and the United Kingdom give more as countries to the eradication of health issues such as those the Foundation target. Whilst it may never overshadow the work in sub Saharan Africa, the foundation is also considering how we should plan and prepare for a major pandemic (whether natural or manufactured).

fighterWhat is worrying or rather depressing (at least to me) is that the World Health Organisation, UNICEF, Gates Foundation and similar organisations agree on one thing. We could probably tackle the issue of preparedness for outbreaks such as Ebola, SARS or similar pandemics if we had the political will.

In this case, the political will equates to the willingness to fund the resources and preparation. This would amount to just under 1% of the defence budgets of most western countries . Ironically, the largest standing armies, navies and air power will have zero impact on preventing any major pandemic.

I will admit to having been critical of multibillionaire figures such as Bill Gates in the past. I still hear many voices criticising his wealth and resulting carefree lifestyle. What I don’t often hear is any credit where it is due. It appears by any objective measure that hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives have been positively  impacted by the philanthropic side  to this wealthy individual. Far better than just stashing the cash in an offshore account.

So I for one will be following and supporting the continued work of this progressive and successful foundation and am not ashamed to say a big thank you to Bill Gates.

Politicians: Those we value most are least like those we say we want.


President John F Kennedy (1917 – 1963)

When I reflect on my childhood, I remember my parents (and those of their generation) talking of moments frozen in their collective memories. Perhaps unsurprisingly given my age, I couldn’t understand how such a wide and varied selection of individuals could share a singular point in time.

The most obvious and now cliched example cited by them was the fact that everyone knew where they were when they heard of the death of President Kennedy.

The first time I became aware of this linkage between location and passing was the death of Elvis Presley. I have no idea why  I was at Birmingham New Street station with my parents, but I know exactly which of the waiting rooms I was in when evening television was interrupted with the news of his death.

In common with most British nationals, I have a similar experience with hearing the news of the death of Diana Princess of Wales. She above all others, probably mirrors the American ‘frozen moment’ associated with Kennedy.

However, all three of these examples were leading figures on the world stage either through politics, celebrity or status. It is rare for our politicians to make such an impact.

John Smith (19??-1994)

John Smith (19??-1994)

Firstly, I should declare myself as being politically engaged rather than a follower or member of any political party. I often find my political views dotted across the traditional political spectrum.

However, I remember the sense of shock and huge loss when the sudden and unexpected death of John Smith (Labour leader in the mid 1990’s) was announced. For many supporters of the Labour party – and those like me of no particular party – he was perhaps the greatest Prime Minister we never had. Interestingly, he was far from the traditional politician of his day.

John Smith was religious at a time when secular MP’s were the norm, he had worked in ‘the real world’ becoming a QC before entering politics but came from a very traditional Scottish working class background. He was some distance from the ‘ideal’ often described by many of the public and most of the political selection committees of the time.

Then we come to today. In the United Kingdom, I sense the same sense of shock, loss and wasted opportunity with the death of a rare politician. Not JFK but CPK.

Charles Kennedy (19?? - 2015)

Charles Kennedy (1959 – 2015)

Charles (Peter) Kennedy was one of those unusual politicians with whom you could disagree strongly but still admire for their honesty and humanity.

His death was announced today and although he had recently lost his seat at the 2015 general election, the overwhelming sense I feel is one of huge loss and wasted potential.

Again, it struck me that Charles Kennedy was some distance from the ‘ideal’ MP we so often say we seek.

Perhaps the most obvious difference is life experience. The British public consistently say they want fewer ‘professional politicians’. We want our MP’s to have previous life experience on which to draw. Charles Kennedy was first elected to the House of Commons at the tender age of 23 having no signficant business or professional career. He was the youngest MP with his previous experience being university debating. However, this didn’t stop him being one of the most natural politicians in the house.

The tribute from the Speaker of the House of Commons is notable for a number of reasons. The speaker (whilst politically neutral in his role) is a conservative MP. He is clearly moved and gives a warm and glowing tribute to a former member of the House. This genuine and wide ranging praise was reflected across all parties and factions within Parliament.

Then we turn to Gravitas. How often do we cringe at our politicians and their attempts to get ‘down with the kids’ or gain ‘street cred’ by undertaking some form of political stunt? Kennedy ignored warnings of falling on his face even becoming known briefly as ‘Chat show Charlie’. He is probably the only politician to survive appearing on Have I got News for You.

As in this appearance on that programme, Kennedy often undertook these against advice and public expectation. However, almost uniquely he managed to pull off the trick of being seen as both a credible politician and a human being.

Then we turn to being a ‘middle Englander’. Not meant literally, this refers to a politician belonging to the middle ground. Charles Kennedy was far from this.

In a time where being a proud Scot can be problematic, Charles Kennedy was not only this, but more importantly a proud Highlander (a distinction missed by many in England). Nobody could have been more proudly Caledonian, yet, not unusually for such a thoughtful politician, he was staunchly pro the United Kingdom. He spoke out publically and actively against the move to independence for Scotland.

Anyone doubting his true roots only needs to watch his concession speach. The Sgian Dubh (skee n Doo) referenced in his speech is the knife worn along with the kilt as part of traditional highland dress. Anyone wishing to paint themselves as a man of the United Kingdom would be unlikely to start from here – yet he managed it with ease accepted, liked and respected on both sides of the border.

kendrinkThen the whole question of clean living. Arguably, we the great British public want a non drinking, non smoking, a-sexual athiest to represent us. At least that is the impression we often give.

In his tribute to the former Liberal Democrat leader, Ken Clarke described him as being the last politician to enjoy debate in smoke filled rooms. As a Scottish highlander, it should come as no surprise that he had been photographed enjoying a wee dram.

However, it was that battle against alcohol which cost him his leadership of the Liberal Democrats. Many well placed in the party believe he would still be leader had this been manageable or handled differently. It’s certainly one of those questions how different the UK would be today if that had been the case. Kennedy opposed  the coalition with the Conservatives; It is hard to imagine anything stronger than an offer of confidence and supply under his  leadership.

That said, I remember seeing the Question Time debate in which this most able of political commentators appeared to struggle with his demons.

It is certainly unfair to overstate this problem (and who doesn’t have problems in their lives). Indeed, his apparent difficulties may have more to do with his father suffering a fall shortly before going to air. Whatever the truth, there are reportedly lengthy periods where he wouldn’t drink and was far from the uncontrolled alcoholic. There is no suggestion that his death was alcohol related and in some ways, his public battle made him all the more human.

So given these apparent issues what made him such a compelling and popular politician. I can’t better the summary given by Harriot Harman MP – again not of his own party who summed up (at least for me) what Charles Kennedy brought to political life.

For myself, (as someone who is politicallly non-aligned) I will greatly miss this conviction politician. His staunch and unwavering critique of the Iraq war at a time when that was politically unpopular marked him out as a courageous and thoughtful politician. I for one wish we had more of these and were able to make more allowance for human frailties in all their forms.

Charles Kennedy divorced five years ago but remained a doting father to his son Donald. As someone who lost my father at a similarly young age, I know some of the challenges he may face. However, whatever the future may hold, Donald should always be increadibly proud of his fathers achievements and humanity.The cross party tributes to this popular politician show some of the reasons.