Reflections on ‘Who are we? Hate, Hostility and Human Rights in a post Brexit world’ by Martha Spurrier

Just back from a lecture by the new(ish) Director of Liberty, Martha Spurrier at the LSE, chaired by Professor Connor Gearty titled ‘Who are we? Hate, Hostility and Human Rights in a post Brexit world.’  You can listen to it here and a video will be available soon.

First of all, to say what a wonderful public speaker Martha is – clear, authoritative but infused with humanity and humility. I don’t know how long Martha spoke for but it flew by. And to answer so masterfully questions which spanned deeply complex ethical, philosophical and legal matters was deeply impressive.

Martha began by reference to her background in history, rather than law, quoting Benedict Anderson’s concept of nations as ‘imagined communities’ founded on ‘horizontal comradeship’, venturing that human rights could offer the ethics, values or principles on which such comradeship could be rebuilt at a time of such apparent social division. In doing so she echoed her predecessor Shami (now Baroness) Chakrabarti, under whose leadership Liberty launched its ‘common values’ campaign and long time Liberty Associate and LSE luminary Professor Francesa Klug author of ‘values for a godless age’.

In building on this argument, Martha went on to talk of her time at the Bar, speaking movingly about the family of a woman who had committed suicide following detention in a psychiatric institution. Martha noted how their intuitive sense of injustice – of the idea that the organization responsible should lead an investigation of itself and that it should have taken all steps to eliminate risk while their daughter was in their care – meant that they already understood human rights. This put me in mind of Mary Robinson’s observation that ‘human rights are inscribed in the hearts of people’.

On this basis, she argued, human rights were not ‘toxic’ or unpopular as the Conservative Party argued.

This is where, for me, her argument came unstuck.

First, the polling Martha referred to was not commissioned by the Conservative Party but by the Equality and Diversity Forum to inform the development of its ‘Equally Ours’ initiative and carried out by YouGov. It found that 80% of the British public possessed either negative, conflicted or ambivalent attitudes to human rights.   Far from offering a platform on which to build a new ‘horizontal comradeship’ it appears human rights are today a focus of division. Only once these negative attitudes are overcome might human rights offer the framework of values for any future ‘imagined community.’   Doing so needs to go hand in hand with the other major challenge Martha identified – shifting from a sense of national identity founded on the existential threat of conflict, to one where we are differentiated by shared values of, inclusion, openness and tolerance.   As Professor Gearty argued at the close of the event this is ultimately a battle between and for values (he actually used the phrase ‘culture war’ which I think is deeply unhelpful, risking falling into the trap of being seen as metropolitan liberals going to war with members of some of the most deprived communities in Britain over their lack of support for human rights).

Second, human rights are being used to challenge and resolve injustices faced by everyday people, all the time. But these stories are rarely told, told well or heard as having any relationship with human rights.   As a result, while notions of justice may be inscribed in people’s hearts, people do not intuitively connect this to human rights.

Martha’s answer to this was for human rights champions to take every opportunity to set out the facts when confronted with myths and misunderstanding.   I’ve heard other human rights advocates suggest the same. But most evidence about how attitudes form and what it takes to challenge them points to the ineffectiveness of rational argument as a primary strategy.   Indeed, YouGov having carried out the polling work for EDF concluded that:

‘At present, the debate is both too rancorous and too alien for people to engage with the subject matter in the considered and rational manner required to emphasise the benefits human rights can have for society.’

The only answer in my view, if we are serious about ensuring that human rights are regarded as in the common good, is, through empirical research to find a new narrative with which to situate human rights as part of our past, present and future national story. It must navigate what the Frameworks Institute refers to as ‘the swamp’ of public opinion and discourse, understanding the most fruitful values to strive to command and the most effective metaphors and simplifying models to employ.   This does not, incidentally, mean pivoting away from talking about groups or issues that parts of the public or media do not like, but rather finding better ways to talk about why their human rights are of equal importance.

It needs to be as potent as ‘taking back control’ was in commanding support to vote to leave the EU. Not ‘protecting and promoting the right to life of large sub aquatic mammals’, but ‘Save the Whale.’*   And it should not, in my view, be frightened of invoking patriotism, just as the Labour government was not afraid to when it coined the phrase ‘Bringing Rights Home’ to frame the ECHR as a British innovation and the HRA merely our ‘taking back control’ of it. Tradition, patriotism and strong notions of national identity need not be enemies of openness and tolerance, as Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympic opening ceremony so ably demonstrated.   When YouGov tested various messages about human rights they found that by simply referring to the ‘British Human Rights Act’ support rose. Of course, this may not work well in parts of the UK, but those are on the whole not the parts of the UK where problematic public attitudes, political or media hostility to human rights prevail.  This is about finding messages to suit and command the support of target audiences, not wholesale rebranding.

Strategic communications is going to have to enjoy equal status with strategic litigation if we wish to see an imagined future come to pass where human rights bind us together rather than push us apart.

* Thanks to Lucia Nader for this last example.

These ideas are explored in more depth in my recent post Building public support for human rights – where next?

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