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The Conservative Culture War Against the European Court of Human Rights
Sir James Fawcett, Boris Johnson's grandfather, dedicated his life to human rights. A year ago his niece Anneke Campbell, wrote a letter to then Prime Minister about his abandonment of those principle
In light of escalating rhetoric from the right around the UK’s involvement with the European Court on Human Rights, Byline Supplement republishes an open letter to the Prime Minister by his first cousin once removed, Anneke Campbell
When I held you on my lap, an ungainly baby boy, the notion that you would become Prime Minister one day would have made me laugh out loud. You were called Alexander then. Charlotte, your mum, was my first cousin.
Our families were not close and I moved to America. But when on a visit to my sister in London some 35 years later, she told me that the bombastic fellow appearing on Have I Got News For You was Charlotte’s son, I still had to laugh.
Now any news of you makes me feel like crying.
My side of the family found your work as a journalist and general buffoonery embarrassing and watched your rise as Mayor of London and as a Conservative MP with wariness and disbelief. How could people take you seriously? But even then none of us would have predicted that you would get behind the Brexit campaign.
When the EU Referendum was announced, your lies were fact-checked many times to your face – but you blithely continued telling them, just as you have done on so many other issues since.
I want you to know that, in the weeks after the Brexit vote, my sisters’ mixed-race grandchildren, who were born and brought up in east London, had their first ever experiences of being told to “go back to your own country”. Now I am not blaming you for that, Boris – I recognise that, like your soul brother Donald Trump, you did not cause the racism, although you purposely took advantage of it. But that is not why I am writing to you.
Your response to the recent vote of no confidence – as it has been every time people object to your personal behaviour, policies and administration – is ‘let’s move on’. Really? Move on and ignore your law-breaking? Move on to how much more abuse and corruption?
Your Government is making it clear that you want to repeal parts of the Human Rights Act. It claims that it prevents the UK from deporting refugees and protecting soldiers from prosecution.
When your mother died last September, I wondered what she thought of your intention to destroy one of her father’s lifetime achievements. I’ll never know the answer to that question. But I know your grandfather would be appalled.
He was the barrister, Sir James Fawcett, who dedicated his life to human rights – as a member of the European Commission for Human Rights for 20 years and its president for half that time. From that body, which became the European Convention on Human Rights, the British Parliament adopted the Human Rights Act in 1998.
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In the US, I watched with dismay as international treaties resulting from endless, painstaking diplomatic work were undone by our former President’s stroke of the pen: the Iran nuclear deal, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Paris Climate accords, withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council. It’s with the same alarm that I witnessed your cavalier approach to the Good Friday Agreement, as you navigated the country towards leaving the EU.
I knew my Uncle James as a mild-mannered, gracious and erudite man. After a wartime stint in the Royal British Navy, he became a member of the UK’s delegation to the United Nations where he assisted in the writing of its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In his work for the European Commission of Human Rights, he appeared at the European Court of Justice at The Hague for the UK several times. I was not surprised when the Queen awarded him a knighthood for his work.
As a child, I was fully aware of the seriousness with which my parents – and your grandparents’ – generation approached the need for inter-country agreements and cooperation, to work towards their hope that ‘never again’ became a reality. Having just lived through war and the rise of fascism, the horrors of genocide and the Blitz, the disruption of lives and economies, their hearts and hopes were rooted in the necessity of this work of national and international cooperation.
Yes, we have had a lot of ‘again’ – smaller wars and genocides – a fact that has engendered cynicism towards the project of creating universal agreements and treaties, rather than the recognition that this work must be continually improved upon and strengthened. It is a cynicism you have done much to encourage.
The large bureaucracies required to advance and carry out such agreements make an easy target for hostility and nationalist rabble-rousing. Like Trump, you have indulged your instinct for whipping up resentment and fear to further your own political goals.
Uncle James’ work and his sense of purpose was far too great to allow for cynicism. Our families shared common values and concerns and I appreciated his kindness. When he hosted my wedding reception, he drove across London in rush-hour traffic with champagne and apologised profusely when he arrived late. I also admired your mother Charlotte’s artistry, charm and bravery and I am sorry for your loss.
I feel so sad watching you dismantling what your grandfather spent a life trying to build. At the Conservative Party Conference, you described human rights lawyers doing their job trying to prevent illegal deportations as “lefty activists” – denigrating the very people who labour to protect our rights. Would you have called your grandfather a lefty human rights activist to his face? Where did you pick up this kind of contempt?
This is what I don’t understand: how can you consider policies that limit human rights abroad and increase hardship for immigrants given your own diverse family heritage?
One of your great-grandfathers was the controversial Turk, Ali Kemal; and the other – my own grandfather – was a Russian Jew who found a welcome in England and taught classics at Oxford.
You seem to enjoy attacking time-honoured government norms; like a child swearing to shock people. You don’t even pretend to be honest, don’t even try to hide the corruption. You seem to harbour a careless, nihilistic pleasure in blowing up the hard-won gains of the past, with the intention of making the rich richer by whittling away everyone else’s rights.
In an open letter last October, more than 800 top-level lawyers and judges called on you to cease your attacks on the justice system and the rule of law. Your response has been to egg on your Government to find more ways to weaken the justice system’s ability to monitor the executive.
I understand that your fantasy of a simpler, more sovereign, future for Britain may be appealing against the reality of our ever more complex, interrelated world. But retreating into our national silos, as if the planet and its ecosystems are not one living organism we share, will not keep us safer. Better trade deals based only on economic profit will not mitigate the threats of climate change, nuclear proliferation, authoritarianism, pandemics and many millions of refugees.
What do you care about? Your breaking of your own Coronavirus rules shows that, not only do you believe that the rules don’t apply to you, but that you and your cronies feel yourselves above them.
But disregarding the rules around human rights will have far more damaging and far-reaching consequences for people all over the world.
The hard work of creating international agreements around rights and responsibilities desperately needs care, cooperation, patience and tenacity – all qualities you seem neither to possess yourself nor to value in others. The dedication to a sense of common purpose and the law exemplified in the life of your grandfather is more needed than ever – and it is far too easy to destroy in moments what it takes years to build.