How can liberals defend human rights in the era of Brexit and Trump?

Brexit was declared word of 2016 by the Collins English Dictionary and is defined as ‘the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union.’ As one wag suggested, it would have been bolder had they simply defined it as ‘a noun meaning….Brexit’.   This in all fairness remains as accurate and comprehensive description as can be provided at this stage.

That obviously makes the job of anticipating the risks to fundamental rights somewhat difficult for without such details how can we assess its significance and what we can do about it?   Well I was a cub- scout in my youth and the cub-scout motto is ‘be prepared’.

We can prepare by understanding and making sure people recognise what is at stake.   And make no mistake – rights, equality and social justice are at stake, as Angela Patrick’s report for the Thomas Paine Initiative makes plain.  We can also prepare by envisioning strategies and actions now to strive to shape the most fertile environment for rights, equality and social justice to thrive through and beyond Brexit.

This is about defending the legal rights and the means by which they are protected. But it is equally about shaping our values and outlook as a country, what it means to live in the UK and our place in the world today and in the future.

In Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and recent and ongoing developments in Austria, Hungary, France, the Netherlands and elsewhere we see right-wing populism on the rise.  These are not fringe movements – they are movements and political parties seizing power and defining the political landscape. The slogans ‘take back control’ and ‘make America Great Again’ speak to the fact that:

  • Authoritarianism is winning over liberalism
  • Nativism is undermining support for universalism
  • Fair treatment is something that many believe must be earned: equality is not typically regarded as an inalienable right

Brexit and Trump did not come out of the blue.   In Britain, the debate regarding a British Bill of Rights has been bubbling under for over a decade. Insofar as we know anything about the proposed Bill it is clear that it – and the rhetoric surrounding it – is calibrated to satiate these ever more dominant values, not to uphold those we have understood to underpin the advancement of human rights since the mid 20th century. If reports are to believed, Theresa May will strive to go one step further and take the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights altogether if her Party wins the 2020 General Election.

So the lesson of 2016’s seismic events is that the challenge ahead of us cannot be reduced to one of rational arguments about which policies and laws are good for our country to maintain. It is going to require a huge effort to engage with, marshal and to strive to shape the values that are necessary to secure support for them in future. And that is going to require us to do things differently.

Against this rising tide of populism, those who espouse liberal, progressive values have largely failed to articulate alternatives in a manner sufficiently compelling to frame public debate or win political arguments. Too often they have also managed to alienate potential support, unwittingly or otherwise pressing authoritarian buttons (prisoner votes, Abu Qatada), appearing to equate patriotism with racism or by seeming to have disregard for the social contract of rights and responsibilities.   In the populist narrative where the ‘will of the people’ trumps representative democracy or the role of the judiciary, human rights can easily fall prey to being characterised as inherently undemocratic.

The danger right now is even greater polarization between ‘liberals’ and ‘authoritarians’ as each retreat into a ‘culture war.’   It seems highly likely that in the current climate liberals will lose. As one observer said of the Democrat’s failure to confront Trump ‘we have brought a sheet of parchment and a set of abstract principles to a knife fight. And we’re going to get cut.’

But how can we navigate these destructive values without appearing to endorse them? We already know some of the answers, but have shied away from others. I believe our challenge is to develop communications strategies that:

  • Pivot away from issues that press authoritarian buttons, without conceding to the notion that ‘bad people’ should have fewer rights
  • Embrace patriotism without indulging the notion of different classes of rights for nationals and non-nationals/at home or abroad
  • Demonstrate how human rights reaffirm rather than undermine the social contract, without deepening the notion of deserving or underserving groups

This is of course easier said than done.   We may need to accept that in the short term our task is simply to ‘de-fuse’ the debate around human rights – to neutralise hostility – not to anticipate (or even strive) a wholesale shift in support for the values underpinning human rights. Does this justify a shorter-term communications strategy that appears on the face at least to be more ‘in tune’ with values that human rights defenders have tended to find uncomfortable?   What could be the longer-term cost of such a strategy? Would it take the wind out of the sails of those seeking regressive reform, or risk aiding their cause?   I find it interesting that up until relatively recently ‘health and safety’ attracted similar levels of political and media hostility to human rights (a byword for ‘nanny Statism’ and intrusive regulation) but appears to have largely lost its political potency, without major reform to health and safety law or regulations, so there is perhaps hope.  What brought this about?

Values in opposition to human rights have helped secured major victories and the ramifications of those victories will be considerable for years to come. Nevertheless, the implications of Brexit, Trump’s victory and other developments are yet to be fully secured – legally, politically and socially. Human rights laws, institutions and values will provide a critical bulwark against right wing authoritarianism, helping to contain potential abuses of power. The opportunity and challenge for human rights defenders in this context is to make clear that it is human rights that stand up for the common good. There is a receptive audience: half of the voting public did not support Brexit (or Donald Trump). Many more did not vote. Of those who did vote leave, or for Trump, many fall under the ‘conflicted’ banner. They are not rabid authoritarian right-wingers. Longer-term trends lean towards more open, tolerant and rights respecting societies.

Right now and for many years to come Brexit provides a moment of national reflection. It will force us to contemplate who we are and what we want to be as a country, how we want to live together and to treat one another, how we relate to the wider world and how we want the wider world to view us.  It will force liberals – including human rights defenders – to confront factors that led us to this point: rising inequality, narrow identity politics, disenfranchisement, ceding the public narrative.

This is as much an opportunity for liberalism to renew itself as it is a threat.   Learning how to communicate effectively and to command public support for the values we hold dear needs to be at the heart of that renewal.


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