Be careful what you wish for

Stephen Sedley

  • The Conservative Human Rights Revolution: European Identity, Transnational Politics and the Origins of the European Convention by Marco Duranti
    Oxford, 502 pp, £59.00, February 2017, ISBN 978 0 19 981138 0

‘The United Kingdom played a major part in drafting the convention,’ said the Blair government’s paper introducing the bill that became the 1998 Human Rights Act, ‘and there was broad agreement between the major political parties about the need for it.’ The Panglossian account of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights – that it was essentially uncontentious and genetically British – is the orthodox narrative that the Australian scholar Marco Duranti sets out to deconstruct. His copiously evidenced account, drawn from British, French, German, Italian, Dutch and US archives, is that the convention was an individualistic and conservative project, devised outside the offices of governments and the chambers of parliaments and designed to stem the postwar tide of socialism and statism. Through it, he argues, ‘conservatives enshrined human rights as European values in the service of a nostalgic Christian vision of the European legal order, not a liberal cosmopolitan one.’ So if to modern readers the European convention, which includes practically no social or collective rights, looks like a 19th-century manifesto of liberal individualism, it’s because that’s what it was: reactionary in the best and purest sense of the word. A young French journalist, Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, wrote in Le Monde, as the draft moved towards finality: ‘Our parliamentarians at Strasbourg are playing at being lawyers from 1789 and liberals from the 19th century.’ It is time’s whirligig which in the last half-century has spun the convention round, making it a shield for the dissident, a weapon for the unrespectable and a bane for state authorities, a living reminder to be careful what you wish for.

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