Ragbag Powergrab

Sadakat Kadri

Dominic Raab’s campaign to replace the Human Rights Act began even before he entered Parliament in 2010. But he’s never explained how getting rid of it would enhance personal freedoms. He’s praised supposedly unique British liberties – above all, free speech and jury trials – but otherwise he’s mostly stressed the need to deport foreign criminals.

His Bill of Rights Bill is correspondingly sneaky. It claims to acknowledge the ‘ultimate judicial authority’ of the UK Supreme Court, but affirms the European Convention of Human Rights – meaning that Strasbourg would retain the last word. Domestic courts are ordered to give free speech ‘great weight’ – except in cases involving crime, confidentiality, immigration and national security, where they needn’t bother. Jury trials are deemed ‘fair’, by a clause that doesn’t extend their availability at all. Deportation powers are addressed more substantially – but only to remove judicial limits on their use.

Just one promise has been clearly kept. Last September, a month after he became deputy prime minister and justice secretary, Raab envisaged a law to ‘correct judgments that – albeit properly and duly delivered by the courts – we think are wrong’. Here, his new bill is right on track. When it comes to balancing rights – the most delicate of judicial duties – it orders judges to give ‘the greatest possible weight’ to parliamentary supremacy.

It’s an ungainly text – a ragbag and power grab combined – and it’s easy to explain why. When Raab first demanded change – in Assault on Liberty, a book-length polemic he published in 2009 – the threats to freedom were coming from a New Labour government. That’s why he could claim, in a video he released that year, to be standing ‘shoulder to shoulder with incorrigible lefties’ against the state. Now that he’s propping up a desperate prime minister, it’s not civil rights that concern him: it’s popularity and power.

Provisions at the bill’s core, which seek to facilitate deportation, are particularly telling. Though the Home Office has opportunistically linked them to its Rwanda policy, they’ve been shaped by a perspective very personal to Raab. He regularly mentions the fact that his own father was a refugee. When he was four, in 1938, Peter Raab and his parents fled the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. They were on the move for four years. After crossing Europe, they found refuge in neutral Tangier before sailing across submarine-infested waters to Gibraltar and then to Glasgow. Once on British soil, they obtained asylum.

There’s a screenplay there somewhere (as the trio left Morocco, the final scenes of Casablanca were being filmed in California), but Raab isn’t in a position to write it. According to a speech he made on Holocaust Memorial Day 2020, his father (who died when he was twelve) ‘almost never spoke of what he had endured’. One of the few details Raab thinks he knows is wrong: though he’s said his father reached the UK in 1940, a passenger list shows that the family didn’t arrive until July 1942.

Sympathy would ordinarily be in order – but in Raab’s case that’s inappropriate. His grandparents left relative safety and risked drowning to travel to the UK. Under the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 – a statute he backed uncritically at every stage – similar journeys are now punishable by four years’ imprisonment. Among the many refugee relief efforts he’s opposed are three pieces of proposed legislation aimed at helping children stranded in Europe. All were tabled by Alf Dubs, who escaped Czechoslovakia at the same time as Raab’s father.

The predicaments facing Jewish fugitives in the 1930s were often exceptional, of course, but Raab’s suspicion of foreigners doesn’t end there. As housing minister in 2018, he blamed ‘immigrants’ for bumping up property prices by 20 per cent over the previous quarter century. Since becoming an MP, he’s voted consistently to strengthen border controls, and no Cabinet member has uttered the word ‘deportation’ more often in Parliament. His favourite argument for a new Bill of Rights, meanwhile, is seriously misleading. According to an assertion he’s made at least eight times since announcing the plan, bogus claims by foreign criminals constitute about 70 per cent of ‘successful human rights challenges’. Rights-based challenges are rare – according to the Home Office, only 5 per cent of detained immigrants initiated them in 2019 – and most aren’t ‘successful’ at all. They fail around nine times out of ten.

Raab is not alone in wanting to kick away ladders climbed by immigrant parents – think Priti Patel – and his concerns about the Human Rights Act clearly run deep. But its proposed replacement looks obsessive rather than judicious. Though the Bill of Rights Bill will appeal to many nationalists, it threatens a principle that couldn’t be more embedded in this country’s common law. Individuals, wherever born, deserve protection from ministers who do as they please. As Raab himself used to say, ‘this attack on our freedom is bigger than politics and it threatens all of us.’


  • 30 June 2022 at 11:15pm
    Anthony Lorenzo says:
    With the dismantling of judicial review to add to this litany of appalling rights' theft, judges will not be able to declare ministers have acted 'ultra vires', that is, to have acted beyond the scope of their powers.

    The changes run deep, and the mechanisms that would bar their malevolent success won't any longer exist. Already powerful, government will soon be all-powerful. The most we do is tut-tut over dinner and write overwrought comments like this one under articles warning us of the impending bonfire of the virtues.

    This government must be stopped before a constitutional and legal system that has been cultivated and refined since the Magna Carta is left in tatters.

    We talk with horror about cultural decimation, the burning of books, Isis and their desecration of historical art, even, if so inclined, the toppling of slaver statues. Where is the outrage at the cataclysmic wrecking of the institutions that underpin the fundamental nature of our country?

    This is really, really bad. It is happening in such a piecemeal way, and on topics that bore the mainstream so much, noone is paying attention.

    We shall wake up one day with no rights, no rights of redress, and no right to complain due to our own complacency.

  • 1 July 2022 at 11:52am
    Rory Allen says:
    If the one remaining guarantee of our rights enshrined in this legislation is the ECHR, can a constitutional expert comment on whether that could be removed by some later amendment? That is, having got this one through on the nod, can the government later on pass a 'statutory instrument' or some similar device, to remove the reference to the ECHR and the reliance on Strasbourg, to the acclamation of the Express and Daily Mail? 'Repatriating our liberties' - I can see the headlines now.