Boris Johnson undermines Britain’s sole superpower

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants ‘global Britain’ to be seen as a superpower again. While his Conservative government doesn’t seem entirely certain how to handle this, he argued in a landmark policy document last year that in at least one area the goal had already been achieved: the UK was a “soft superpower”. ”

According to the government, this strength is “rooted in who we are as a country: our values ​​and our way of life, and the vibrancy and diversity of our union”. It is therefore strange that Johnson and his ministers are working diligently at the same time to diminish Britain’s soft power in almost every dimension.

The guidance document noted that “the BBC is the most trusted broadcaster in the world, reaching 478 million people every week, in 42 languages”. The Conservative culture secretary wants to defund it. The newspaper also boasted that the UK was “a world leader in diplomacy and development”. Yet Johnson and his chancellor have abandoned a longstanding bipartisan pledge to keep aid spending at 0.7% of gross national income in good times and bad.

Now the government appears to be trying to redefine “British values” to exclude human rights as they have been understood for more than two decades.

Earlier this month, the Queen’s Speech – which is used by governments to outline their proposed legislative agenda – revealed that a ‘Bill of Rights’ would be introduced to replace the Human Rights Act 1998. man and “restore the balance of power between the legislature and the courts.”

The HRA protects certain fundamental rights – including the rights to life, free speech, privacy and property, among others – and prohibits discrimination, torture and forced labor. Parliament does not appear to think its power has been limited: a joint committee of the UK’s two legislative houses concluded last year that the law “was designed to maintain parliamentary sovereignty” and that “it does not there is no need to change the Human Rights Act the basis of the impact on the separation of powers in the UK The Bar Council agrees that “the central machinery of the HRA…has worked well and has stood the test of time.”

The real problem for conservatives is that human rights law is hopelessly European. It essentially allows UK courts to enforce the rights guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, devised in 1949 by the Council of Europe. Ironically, the UK was the first country to ratify the Convention – in 1951, prompted by the president of the first European Congress, Winston Churchill, and his description of a “charter of human rights, protected by freedom and supported by law. .”

It is clear that the Council of Europe is in no way the European Union. But conservative Europhobia is unfathomably deep and unimaginably wide. To stick with Europe, the British government has already been perfectly willing to restrict the rights of its own people – to freedom of movement, for example.

Johnson’s government clearly hopes to open another victorious front against ‘Europe’ and ‘wokery’, even at the expense of the soft power it claims to value. We know this because Justice Secretary Dominic Raab told the Daily Mail (understandably) that the purpose of the new law would be to prevent the debate from being ‘diminished’ by ‘error and political correctness’. “.

It’s just strange. In fact, human rights law is generally used, to take just one example, by pensioners demanding proper treatment from local authorities. How to prevent vulnerable Britons from using rights-based legislation to hold the state to account runs counter to political correctness is unclear.

Depending on how the bill is drafted, what it could do is reduce the state’s legal obligation to respect the rights of citizens. In the past, it has been through rights-based challenges that patients have forced reform in UK hospitals accused of poor care and families of soldiers killed in Iraq have held the government to account. Without the law, legislative and administrative breaches of fundamental rights in the UK will almost certainly increase.

If none of this moves Johnson, the cost to Britain’s reputation should give him pause. Are the fringe benefits of declaring that it got rid of yet another European tax really worth being seen as another government flouting the values ​​of the Council of Europe? (Russia was expelled earlier this year.)

Britain’s soft power, as the government’s own review argued, is based on “common values ​​which are fundamental to our national identity, our democracy and our way of life”, primarily “a commitment to human rights of universal man”. When British diplomats speak to increasingly illiberal foreign states, they like to be able to highlight their own country’s reputation as a defender of these rights.

A Britain that decides to abandon decades of dedication to these values ​​for a few transitional buzzwords will be less respected and weaker on the world stage. It is not the new superpower promised by Johnson.

More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• Ukraine should be wary of gifts from the British: Pankaj Mishra

• London doesn’t need a legal restart: Paul J. Davies

• Brexit is not Northern Ireland’s biggest problem: Thérèse Raphaël

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A senior researcher at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, he is the author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy”.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion


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Edward L. Robinett