Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants “Global Britain” to be seen as a superpower once again. While his Conservative government doesn’t seem quite certain how to manage this, it argued in a landmark policy paper last year that, in one area at least, the goal had already been achieved: The United Kingdom was a “soft-power superpower.”
According to the government, this strength is “rooted in who we are as a country: our values and way of life, and the vibrancy and diversity of our Union.” It’s odd, then, that Johnson and his ministers are at the same time assiduously working to diminish Britain’s soft power along almost every dimension.
The policy paper noted that “the BBC is the most trusted broadcaster worldwide, reaching 478 million people every week, in 42 languages.” The Tories’ culture secretary wants to defund it. The paper also boasted that the UK was a “a global leader in diplomacy and development.” Yet Johnson and his chancellor have abandoned a longstanding bipartisan pledge to maintain aid spending at 0.7% of gross national income through good times and bad.
Now the government appears to be trying to redefine “British values” to exclude human rights as understood for over two decades.
Earlier this month, the Queens’s Speech — which is used by governments to outline their proposed legislative agenda — revealed that a “Bill of Rights” would be introduced to replace the 1998 Human Rights Act and “restore the balance of power between the legislature and the courts.”
The HRA protects certain basic rights — including the rights to life, freedom of speech, privacy and property, among others — and bans discrimination, torture and forced labor. Parliament doesn’t seem to think its power has been constrained: A joint committee of the UK’s two legislative chambers concluded last year that the act “was designed to maintain parliamentary sovereignty” and that “there is no case for changing the Human Rights Act on the basis of the impact on the separation of powers in the UK.” The Bar Council agrees that “the central machinery of the HRA … has operated well and stood the test of time.”
The real problem for the Tories is that the Human Rights Act is irredeemably European. It essentially allows British courts to enforce rights guaranteed under the European Convention of Human Rights, designed in 1949 by the Council of Europe. Ironically, the UK was the first country to ratify the Convention — in 1951, urged on by the presiding officer of the first Congress of Europe, Winston Churchill, and his description of “a charter of human rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law.”
Clearly, the Council of Europe is not in any way the same as the European Union. But Tory Europhobia is unfathomably deep and unimaginably wide. To stick it to Europe, the British government has already been perfectly willing to restrict its own people’s rights — to free movement, for example.
Johnson’s government is clearly hoping to open one more vote-winning front against “Europe” and “wokery,” even at the expense of the soft power it claims to prize. We know this because Justice Secretary Dominic Raab told the Daily Mail (naturally) that the purpose of the new law would be to prevent debate from being “whittled away” by “wokery and political correctness.”
This is just odd. In reality, the Human Rights Act is typically used by, to take just one example, pensioners demanding proper treatment from local authorities. How preventing vulnerable Britons from using rights-based legislation to hold the state to account defeats political correctness is unclear.
Depending on how the bill is written, what it could do is reduce the state’s legal requirement to respect citizens’ rights. In the past, it is through rights-based challenges that patients have forced reform in British hospitals accused of poor care and the families of soldiers killed in Iraq have held the government accountable. Without the act, legislative and administrative violations of basic rights in the UK will almost certainly increase.
If none of that moves Johnson, the cost to Britain’s reputation should give him pause. Are the marginal benefits of declaring that he’s gotten rid of another European imposition really worth being seen as another government flouting the values of the Council of Europe? (Russia was expelled earlier this year.)
British soft power, as the government’s own review argued, rests on “shared values that are fundamental to our national identity, democracy and way of life,” primarily “a commitment to universal human rights.” When the UK’s diplomats address increasingly illiberal foreign states, they like to be able to point to their own country’s reputation as a defender of such rights.
A Britain that decides to abandon decades of dedication to these values for the sake of some transitory buzzwords is one that will be less respected and weaker on the world stage. That’s hardly the new superpower that Johnson promised.
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
• Ukraine Should Beware of Britons Bearing Gifts: Pankaj Mishra
• London Doesn’t Need a Regulatory Reboot: Paul J. Davies
• Brexit Isn’t Northern Ireland’s Biggest Problem: Therese Raphael
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, he is author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.”
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.