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‘Making the ECHR the Bogeyman is the Conservatives’ Next Big Fear Campaign’

Calls for the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights shouldn’t be viewed as mere sabre-rattling – as many did with Conservative promises to leave the EU, writes Nicholas Reed Langen

Home Secretary Suella Braverman arrives at Rwanda’s Kigali International Airport in July 2023. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA/Alamy

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If you listen to the siren call of the populist right, there is a gulf between what ‘the people’ want and the elite consensus on the question of migrants and asylum.  

The people, we are told, support the bigotry of Lee Anderson, the straight-talking Conservative Deputy Chairman, who wants asylum seekers to ‘f**k off back to France’. Given the opportunity, he and the Government would push refugee dinghies in the Channel back to Calais and let refugees stagnate in legionnaire disease-ridden hulks. 

The only thing apparently stopping this is the elite consensus – which forces them to accept asylum seekers and to treat them with dignity.  

The fact that the immigration tribunal system is ridden with delays, that asylum seekers are expected to live on as little as £8.24 a week and forbidden to work, and that they are confined like criminals while they wait is ignored in this narrative. 

If the elite – an amorphous, long-tentacled group that defies definition – had the influence the populist right projects onto it, the asylum system would be at least in a semi-functional state. 

Proper funding would be given to the immigration tribunals, there would be money available for legal representation, and decisions would be made promptly. There would be no rhetoric about how the infinitesimal number of people crossing the Channel pose a threat to the ‘British way of life’.  The Government’s attention would be dedicated to issues that actually do pose such a threat.

It is entirely because of issues like inflation, housing and the NHS that the right peddles this fairy tale straight out of the Brothers Grimm. Columns like that written by Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former advisor in the Home Office, in the Daily Telegraph this week are crucial to distract people from the car crash that the British state has become. 


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The unoriginal villain in Timothy’s piece is the judges sitting at the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg (ECtHR).  In his telling, but for the black-robed justices at Strasbourg, the ‘crisis’ would be a puzzle already solved.  

Not only does rhetoric like this redirect people’s ire, absorbing the fury and frustration that would otherwise be wreaked upon Downing Street, but it presents a simple solution: we must leave the European Convention on Human Rights. 

Much like how leaving the EU was presented as panacea – paving the way for the British Empire 2.0 – so too would leaving the ECHR ‘unshackle’ the country from the chains of human rights. Instead, our courts would be free to develop a new strain of ‘British’ rights, that would defend rights for people who matter, while letting the Government treat outsiders with contempt. 

The populist right’s current preoccupation is with the Government’s Rwanda policy.  So far, the Court of Appeal and Strasbourg have intervened to block the policy from taking effect, although on the basis of specifics rather than the scheme itself being unlawful. 

Last year, the ECtHR blocked the deportation of an Iraqi asylum seeker to Rwanda through interim measures (on which there is some legitimate debate) because there was a risk he would be treated ‘contrary to [his] Convention rights’.  Any deportation would have to take place after the Supreme Court ruled on the legality of the policy. 

According to Timothy and other critics of the ECtHR, decisions like these are the result of the court’s expansionist tendencies; an example of how Strasbourg has stretched the meaning of the Convention to let it block legitimate policies. But this isn’t true. 

As Tom Hickman KC, a barrister and a professor of public law at King’s College London, has pointed out, the Rwanda decision rests on longstanding ECHR precedents. Strasbourg has always been wary of letting governments deport people (even criminals) to countries where there is a risk their rights will be violated. Not only does this reflect the animating principles underlying the ECHR, but the fact that the Convention was drafted while the dust was still settling on the Second World War, which saw thousands of people repatriated to the Reich, where they were condemned to concentration camps and death. 

Nor is the ECHR the only document that the UK has signed up to that prevents us from sending refugees to countries where ‘their life or freedom would be threatened’. The UN Convention Against Torture, the Refugee Convention, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also prohibit sending a person to country where they would be at risk of harm. 

This is coupled with the fact that the Good Friday Agreement – crucial to maintaining peace on the Irish border – and the more recent Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU both require membership of the ECHR.  

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But all of this is waved away by Timothy and his fellow-thinkers as mere ‘complications’.  Much as how they dismissed the concerns about post-Brexit trade borders as fear-mongering, so the EU withdrawing its criminal cooperation from the TCA would be “needlessly destructive” on the EU’s side. 

So too with Northern Ireland, where “incorporating the articles of the ECHR might be sufficient” or “the ECHR might continue to apply to Northern Ireland… [although] excluding foreign nationals”.  This prevarication skates over the reality – which is that the Good Friday Agreement mandates the “incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the ECHR”, and all the ancillary entitlements that flow from this incorporation, like access to the courts. 

No one should doubt the fervour of Nick Timothy’s desire to leave the ECHR, as well as that of his fellow travellers, which until recently included the then Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab. It is not something that critics should view as mere sabre-rattling, as many did with the Conservative promises to leave the EU. 

But the real present purpose is more sinister. 

It is to ferment a sense of fear and apprehension among voters, whereby refugees are bogeymen defended by elites sitting in courtrooms, conspiring to “endanger the public, destroy the border, and put the rights of foreign nationals above… the British people”.  From here, the Conservatives can claim that only they can keep ‘the people’ safe.

The Government knows that, judged on its own merits at the next general election, the people will throw it out of office.  Its solution is to try and terrify them into keeping it there.  

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