Democracy Cafe, February

February 2023

Some cross-over in the topics put up for discussion today but the first one chosen was How important would it be if the UK withdrew from the European Court of Human Rights? This desire is one put forward by several Conservative politicians and some cabinet ministers including the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman. It became a hot topic when the Court overruled the intended deportation of immigrants to Rwanda.

The proposer said that it was a threat to our rights. We had signed the Universal Declaration in 1948 and subsequently, the European Convention of Human Rights. Withdrawal from that risked us becoming a ‘tiny little country’. It was all part of Brexit and the idea of ‘taking back control’ particularly our borders. The current government didn’t want anyone telling us what to do. This was particularly relevant in the context of the channel boat crossings. If we left the ECtHR it would give the government more power and the citizens less.

A counter view was that the UN Declaration and the ECtHR were both mistaken since it gave states the legitimacy to remove them (our rights). Our rights came from God it was argued.

Concern was expressed over the power struggle with our relations with Europe. There was a kind of ‘thuggishness’ in our government at present, not just around the bullying allegations against the Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab (which are denied), but the aspect of our role with Europe and the desire to leave the jurisdiction of the court. There was a kind of desire to appear strong. They were keen to show themselves to be above the judges and were seemingly happy to engage in battles with the Good Law Project. That it was a Conservative, Winston Churchill, who was a moving force in the signing of the UN Declaration seems to have been forgotten by some members of that party. We were reminded that the justice system was in crisis at present with massive waits for cases to be heard.

It was pointed out that we got the Human Rights Act because the government was constantly running into problems with the court in Strasbourg. They were overturning decisions by our courts which was proving embarrassing. People seem to have forgotten that our judges were quite reactionary. Examples included rights for disabled people and the right of elderly people to live together in a care home where the decisions of our courts were overturned.

The discussion moved on to discuss the Shamima Begum case. She was one of the three girls who fled to Turkey, thence to Syria, to join ISIS. The debate was around did the government have the right to remove her citizenship and to make her stateless? She currently lives in a camp in Syria. One view was that we should not be concerned about her welfare: she went of her own accord to join a murderous and fanatical group. What happens to her now was on no consequence.

Others pointed out that she was an immature teenager when she left and would have been easily misled. She had become the object of a media hate campaign. Would it not be better to accept that she has British citizenship, to bring her home and put her on trial? Another suggestion was to send her round to schools to explain the severe results of doing something such as she did?

This case – and our earlier discussion – both brought up the role of the media in generating negative ideas about the European Court and cases like Shamima Begum. Was the fact that she was a person of colour important in her demonisation someone wondered? It was important someone stressed, that rights existed for people you don’t like as well as those you do.

This discussion drew to a close with some remarks about our media, with their predominantly overseas ownership. Our rights were hard won over centuries (yes, Magna Carta was mentioned) yet there was a libertarian trend, promoted by some of the foreign media owners, who wanted more deregulation and who believed in increased libertarianism. It was these beliefs which led to the Grenfell Tower tragedy it was suggested. It was pointed out on the other hand that the print media was in danger of losing touch with younger readers in particular who no longer bought papers and often did not agree with their views.

We then moved on to discuss the question Do we need more immigration? a matter which arouses considerable controversy at present. The question was posed in the context of large numbers of European workers having left because of Brexit and sometimes because of the hostile environment. Many of those who came here were not allowed to work.

The economic argument was put forward namely, that British firms had relied on cheap labour, whether indigenous or imported, instead of investing in new kit and skills training. Corporate welfare was mentioned which meant that firms externalised their costs and employees were receiving benefits from the state and some were forced to use foodbanks.  It was not just low investment but economic uncertainty which also contributed to our economic problems.

Was the nation’s attitude a reflection of being an island nation it was asked?  Other nations had borders which had moved over the centuries with mixed populations.  Britain was an island so its borders were fixed.  This had engendered an ‘island mentality’.

The contrast in speaking to people whose family members had emigrated and the pride they expressed at their success and evidence of enterprise and ‘get up and go’, with attitudes towards those who came here was interesting. If our people go there, it’s good. If they come here, not good.

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and the need to frighten people to work was brought up.  However, it was noted that the number of registered disabled had increased significantly so that, it was claimed, something like 20% of the working population was so designated (this figure was disputed). Many people suffered chronic illnesses it was said.

The discussion moved on to other issues to do with the labour supply and mobility was mentioned. We needed more labour mobility, both nationally and internationally: people needed to go where the work is. Some of the barriers are the housing supply and frictional costs in moving, and affordable childcare.  Significant numbers of older people had left the workforce as a result of Covid but many had not returned.  Perhaps training to encourage them back might be a solution.  It was harder for older people to return however.

Should we in fact promote emigration?  A period working abroad could be an attractive option for many. 

Two interesting debates, both connected with our attitudes towards the outside world.  They concerned a widely held and suspicious view of Europe closely connected with a fear and hostility towards immigrants.  Our ‘island mentality’ has no doubt played a part.  But it was interesting that just over half a million Ukrainians and people from Hong Kong have come to the UK almost without anyone noticing, whereas the 40,000 boat people had generated considerable anger and almost frenzied media attention.  That seemed to point to a basic humanity which still exists in contrast to the hostility which grabs the headlines.

Peter Curbishley

Venue. There are some issues about out venue but we hope to know more before the next meeting on 11 March. Details will be posted here.