Book Chapter

Security, citizenship and responsibilities beyond the Human Rights Act: Towards a British bill of rights and responsibilities in the UK



McGhee D (2012) Security, citizenship and responsibilities beyond the Human Rights Act: Towards a British bill of rights and responsibilities in the UK. In: Kang-Riou N (ed.) Confronting the Human Rights Act 1998: Contemporary Themes and Perspectives. London: Routledge, pp. 271-289.

In this chapter, I will examine the political context associated with the debates on the Human Rights Act (HRA) and also the Labour Government’s Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. Why? Because there are lessons to be learnt from our recent past as we move into this new period of transition under the Coalition Government, who have announced in their coalition agreement to establish a commission to investigate the creation of a Bill of Rights. 1 It will be suggested here that these debates and proposals for a Bill of Rights in the UK are the site for the emergence of a clash between two types of politics: a ‘politics of citizenship’ and a ‘politics of human rights’ in which the ‘dual commitments of liberal democracies’, that is, to international human rights and collective self-determination 2 are in tension. This tension between the universal and the particular, with regards to civic rights and human rights is part of what Žižek refers to as ‘the rebirth of the old distinction between human rights and the rights of citizens’ which involves the process of narrowing the rights of citizens through repackaging the political rights of citizens as a mere ‘secondary gesture’ 3 for example, with regards to debates on the conditional relationship between rights and responsibilities; but also with regards to the processes of radical exclusion under the ‘war on terrorism’ where the treatment of foreign-born ‘terrorist suspects’ can be best described in Arendtian terms as a matter of deciding who has ‘the right to have rights’ in the name of public safety. 4 In this chapter, the tension between ‘civic rights’ and ‘human rights’ will be examined through examining what the recent Labour Government and Conservative Opposition had to say about the potential Bill of Rights with regards to the relationship between: (1) human rights and ‘public safety’; (2) rights and responsibilities; and (3) the need to bolster what is perceived to be a weak sense of citizenship in contemporary Britain. In many ways, this chapter is an examination of what Nancy Fraser, in her book Scales of Justice , calls ‘the politics of framing’, which involves debates on the setting of boundaries, associated with decisions on who is included and who is not included. For Fraser, the boundary-setting aspects of the political is among the most consequential of political decisions. 5 The debates surrounding the potential Bill of Rights offer a rich vein of intersecting discourses and strategies, associated with what were thought to be our two main political parties in the UK in the run-up to the general election in 2010. For example, these debates are a site for us to recognize the tabloid collusive ambivalence of the Labour Government with regards to the HRA and their authoritarianism with regards to the British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities; but also to observe David Cameron’s explicit hostility to the HRA. At the same time, when we step away from the party-political rhetoric, we can see that at least some aspects of our democratic institutions, such as the Joint (House of Lords and House of Commons) Committee on Human Rights (JCHR), have attempted to take a longer term view with regards to the development of a human rights culture in the UK. In many ways it fell to the JCHR, in the context of the Labour Government and Conservative Opposition’s ambivalent, securitized and ‘nationalistic’ rhetoric on human rights and citizenship, to attempt to salvage the potential Bill of Rights from party political short-sightedness, illegality and jingoism.

FundersUniversity of Southampton
Publication date31/12/2012
Place of publicationLondon

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Professor Derek McGhee
Professor Derek McGhee

Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, Faculty of Social Sciences