Yesterday, as I walked out of the lecture theatre where Mr Bond had given his Polymath talk, I noticed a monochrome A4 poster pinned to a notice board on the opposite wall which bore the face of The Right Honourable Dominic Grieve QC MP, the former Attorney General for England & Wales. I was startled to see that his present was scheduled to occur less than 24 hours after the one which I had just left.
This evening, as the sweltering heat of the afternoon had begun to subside, I arrived at the Esk building. Being a mathematics student, I lacked much in the way of prior experience with that part of the campus and for some minutes I thought I might be lost. I was reassured that I had reached the correct venue by the appearance of a wine table just outside the lecture theatre flanked by several men in dark suits (among them Professor Norton). I shambled in believing myself to be late, but in fact our right honourable and learned guest was himself delayed by almost thirty minutes due to faulty railway signals between London and Doncaster.
Though Mr Grieve was invited and advertised primarily for his legal experience, he chose on this occasion to speak in his capacity as a politician. His speech covered the ups and downs of the relationship between the British political scene and the concept of Human Rights.
In recent years the Conservative Party has pushed to replace the Human Rights Act 1998 with a British Bill of Rights, mainly with the intention of disentangling British courts from those in Strasbourg. Theresa May has even been known to say that leaving the European Convention on Human Rights is more important than leaving the European Union. Grieve confessed that he would struggle to maintain an impartial stance on this issue, his own career as Attorney General having ended because of it.
The ECHR was promoted in the immediate post-war years by Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe (later known as Lord Kilmuir). In 1951 the United Kingdom became the first country to ratify the convention. Controversy came and went over the years, with tensions notably emerging under New Labour who, Grieves said, made much of the promotion of Human Rights legislation but did little to confer any national character upon it.
In the latter half of the noughties, the Conservative Party began planning for major changes to our human rights legislation. Michael Howard in particular was hostile to the Human Rights Act, and David Cameron leaned in that direction for – leading towards the 2010 general election – he was trying to form an alliance with News International, who did not much care for the expansion of privacy law. Grieve, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, produced reform proposals in late 2009.
In the next section of his speech, our guest explained how, despite their partisans’ decade of obsession, Conservative governments have struggled to make any noteworthy progress in separating British courts from those on the continent. The First Cameron Ministry (sometimes known as ConDem) made considerable noise, but no action could actually be taken without the cooperation of the Liberal Democrats, who – being ardent Europhiles – naturally refused to give any.
It became very quickly apparent through the speech that Mr Grieve considered the British Bill of Rights to be an exercise in pointlessness. He noted that only 16% of polled voters showed any interest in repealing the HRA and said that the government was struggling against the reality of the convention’s benefits, apparently oblivious to the destructive influence of the UK’s non-adherence – such as Russia’s using Britain’s attitude as justification for its own non-implementation – or to the positives when we do confirm – such as the improvements in Jordanian law following the Abu Qatada case.
Our guest closed his presentation by criticizing some of his Conservative colleagues for pursuing a mythologized view of parliamentary supremacy which bore little if any resemblance to constitutional reality.
Due to the delayed start, many attendants had already filed out before the question & answer session could proceed. The organizers were keen to wrap up the event swiftly so that the promise of wine could be fulfilled.
As a non-drinker, and having given up my dinnertime to attend this, I was more than a little disappointed at the absence of the usual buffet nibbles. Even so, this was a small price for making Dominic Grieve the twelfth name on my notables list.