Sign Up

Britain’s Conservatives: Independence Yes, Human Rights No

British Conservatives would rather discard the European Court of Human Rights than remain members of the EU.

October 3, 2014

Britain and the EU

As Queen Mary of England neared death in 1588, she said she expected the word “Calais” to be found engraved on her heart. Her short reign had been dominated by the loss of the last English possession in France – the coastal city of Calais. Today the leaders of Britain have the word “Europe” tattooed all over their bodies.

For two weeks the two main parties, Labour and Conservatives, have been meeting in their early fall annual conferences. Much was discussed and even more was drunk, as the British party conference is a Bacchanalian all-day and all-night event of talk, temptation and too much alcohol.

MPs, activists, business supporters, lobbyists, consultants, journalists and PR people fuse into a mass of gossiping, wonking, and preening wannabes.

Euro-skepticism at the Conservative conference

The Conservative conference began with one of David Cameron’s ministers exposing his upstanding Wiener through his paisley pajamas in a text message to what he thought was a young Tory PR woman. In fact, it was a dirty raincoat tabloid reporter who set up the hapless Tory minister in a sting straight out of a modern House of Cards.

Another Conservative MP began the Conservative conference week by announcing he was joining the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) – the nightmare on the election horizon for David Cameron. If UKIP voters keep voting according to opinion polls, it will cost him Downing Street.

In another blow for Cameron, one of the Conservatives’ biggest donors announced he was switching his financial support to UKIP. The Tories are not short of cash but need to spend serious money between now and May 2015 so any defection by a six-figure donor hurts.

That set the scene for a Conservative Party conference that saw more and more open hostility to the EU every day.

David Cameron said he was 1000 times more interested in the union with Scotland than the union with Europe.

Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, said there had to be “concrete and irreversible” concessions made by the other 27 EU member states in order to get a future Conservative government to support continuing membership in Cameron’s proposed In-Out Brexit referendum in 2017.

London Mayor, Boris Johnson, said it was time to scrap free movement of people, one of the four core freedoms of EU membership: “We want sensible control of the numbers of people coming in. I think you would agree that it is the right and duty of every state to have some idea of how many people want to settle in its boundaries.”

An ill-conceived plan

But if the UK tries to stop free movement of EU citizens, it cannot remain an EU member state.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said the Conservative manifesto would contain proposals to block the European Court of Human Rights from imposing judgments on British courts. This, de facto, would mean Britain’s repudiating the European Convention on Human Rights and leaving the Council of Europe.

The senior Tory MP and former cabinet minister John Redwood said British business leaders who support the EU would face sanctions and should keep their mouth shut on the UK’s future membership of the EU. His Hugo-Chavez-type threats to business leaders were not challenged by any Conservative minister.

In short, the Conservatives at their conference appeared more and more obsessed with Europe and despite the injunction not to “bang on about Europe,” they got out their anti-EU tin drums and bashed away night and day.

Honest threat or fear of losing votes to UKIP?

The move to reject the authority of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is serious, because it does not depend on a referendum to stay in or quit the European Union. Forty-six countries have signed the treaty under which they pledge to accept the European Court’s rulings on human rights issues.

Set up after World War II by Winston Churchill, the ECHR was part of the “Never Again” mood in Europe that had let dictatorships eliminate all respect for law. Belarus is currently suspended from the ECHR.

President Putin has complained that the Court is too political – that is, the judges dare to criticize his attacks on journalists and other violations of the European Convention on Human Rights.

For the anti-European Tories, opening a second front against not the main enemy, the EU, but a different rules-enforcing body with Europe in its title means that they can sustain their campaign against all things European.

Labour’s tentative support

Labour, by contrast, had a much quieter conference on Europe. Ed Miliband did state, “Let me say it plainly: our future lies inside not outside the European Union.”

Labour might have invited as a keynote speaker from the outside rising figures from the European center-left – like the new prime ministers of Italy or Sweden. Instead, the party opted for Mayor Blasio of New York.

What was interesting for the Labour conference was the dog that did not bark. There were no calls by major or heavyweight figures for Labour to copy Cameron and offer an In-Out plebiscite, thus neutralizing the Tory pledge to hold one if re-elected to power.

As the campaign for the May 2015 general election gets under way, there may be fresh pressure on Ed Miliband to do a U-turn and offer a referendum.

However, there is growing business concern about the country being plunged into two years or more of destabilizing uncertainty, if the only British story until 2017 is the prospect of an In-Out referendum and at least Labour (and so far the Liberal Democrats) offers a clear choice in rejecting the Tory UKIP clamor for a Brexit plebiscite.

What neither conference addressed was the future direction of travel for the EU as a whole, including Britain. No attention was paid to the incoming Juncker Commission or the priorities it should adopt to get Europe moving again.

As so often in the past, the British party political debate on Europe was solipsistic and about political positioning and inner-party politics. Other than vague calls for “reform” — never defined or fleshed out — neither party offered vision or policy on Europe that shows enthusiasm or engagement.

More on this topic


London's Mayor says it is time to scrap free movement of people, one of the four core freedoms of EU membership.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling proposes to block ECHR rulings in British courts.

Neither British party offers vision or policy on Europe that shows enthusiasm or engagement.