Working Theory

by Michael Reed


I do employment law for the Free Representation Unit.


michael at


Good old conservative scepticism and Human Rights

11 May 2015

The prospect of repeal of the Human Rights Act is upon us again.

I’m often slightly surprised by how hostile conservative politics has become towards Human Rights. Leaving aside the history (British Lawyers plus Churchill), it’s always struck me that the idea of enforceable Human Rights arises naturally from traditional conservative scepticism.

Conservatives are sceptical about utopian schemes, particularly those that involve an extension of state power – and most especially about those that rely on too much optimism about human nature.

This type of scepticism leads to many fundamental political ideas. Most importantly separation of powers. The idea that no single power block should have absolute power is expressly based on the old saw that power corrupts. And therefore power is best balanced between different groups, without a single group being able to exercise total control.

Human Rights are, in large part, based on exactly the same sceptical principle.

We use Human Rights law to restrain government. We want to do so not because government is inherently evil or bad, but because it is inherently flawed and we don’t believe it can be made perfect.

It is made up of flawed human beings like the rest of us. They will, like the rest of us, get tired. Or scared. Or angry. They will be subject to irrational prejudices. There will be incidents of group think leading to decisions that, in retrospect, appear bone-headed. Some of people involved will be stupid (some days it will seem like all of them are). So it goes and such is life.

Modern conservatism doesn’t seem to have become less skeptical about the perfection of government; quite the reverse. Yet it does seem to have lost track of the obvious corollary: if the government is going to make mistakes, there should be a way of fixing them.

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