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Britain did not sign up to the 1951 United Nations refugee convention by accident, nor was the country bamboozled into the European convention on human rights and cooperation with the Strasbourg court that enforces the convention. It was an architect of those institutions.
The ambition was to lay solid foundations of European cooperation for the establishment of a peaceful democratic order after the second world war. Winston Churchill was a leading advocate of that project.
The party of Churchill has decided to dispense with this part of his legacy. The decision is not explicit: Conservatives never disparage Britain’s most venerated prime minister. But the idea has taken hold in Tory ranks that human rights are an incumbrance and that the apparatus of international law that enforces them is a clunky hand-me-down from a bygone age.
In particular, a duty of asylum for refugees has come to be seen as a loophole that allows crooks to dump undeserving foreign freeloaders on British shores. The legal requirement to consider asylum seekers humanely is seen as an affront to national sovereignty by meddlesome foreign judges.
That view is expressed by the government’s illegal migration bill, the ostensible purpose of which is to stop the traffic in people crossing the Channel in small boats. Those journeys are already illegal, and there is no evidence that the passengers will be deterred by the deprivation of fundamental rights. The real function of the bill is performative. With a general election likely next year, Rishi Sunak needs to be seen to be doing something about the crossings, which aggravate an old public anxiety about open borders.
Brexit was meant to be the method by which control was reasserted. It failed, not because leaving the EU had no impact. Free movement of labour from the rest of the continent was ended. But fear of infiltration by foreigners is liquid and overruns any policy vessel designed to contain it, and cynical politicians are always on hand to channel the flow. Suella Braverman is one. The home secretary’s rhetoric demonstrates wilful relish in ramping up public anxiety. She has warned, preposterously, that “billions” are striving to land on British beaches. She has called it an “invasion”.
This is not practical policy but a campaign with a dual purpose. If it doesn’t get the Conservatives re-elected, it might bolster Ms Braverman’s position in the leadership contest after a defeat. Mr Sunak’s endorsement of the strategy suggests that he, too, thinks Britain has had enough of human rights; that they are an obsolete hangover from the mid-20th century.
That is not the image he presents to the rest of the world. His recent success in negotiating a deal with the EU over Northern Ireland was meant to demonstrate a collaborative, law-abiding spirit distinct from the maverick unilateralism extolled by Boris Johnson. In relations with the EU, Mr Sunak seeks reconciliation, in the spirit of solidarity and respect for postwar institutions that are despised by despots and xenophobes.
But a British government’s contempt for human rights law is succour to the enemies of democracy. The prime minister wants to be a responsible statesman abroad and a populist at home. There might be an electoral strategy somewhere in that combination, but there is no discernible point of principle.
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