One of the things that you become aware of as a writer on religion is how much religious illiteracy there is in the country. But over the past few months, as my writing has veered more towards politics rather than religion, I have noticed that there is a far greater political illiteracy – particularly so when it comes to Europe.
Unlike religious illiteracy, where leaders are trying to do something about it; when it comes to political illiteracy, it is politicians themselves who are the cause of the confusion – and I’ve seen many examples of political journalists who accept this as the norm.
An example of politicians spreading political illiteracy is an email sent by the Liberal Democrats to potential supporters this weekend in the name of Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dems’ only Scottish MP and the former Scottish Secretary. The email asks recipients to sign a petition to save the Human Rights Act (HRA) (petitions are a standard form of data-collection and verification used by political parties).
In the email, Carmichael says: “As a former solicitor working in the courts, I know the HRA isn’t just some bureaucratic system invented by Brussels bureaucrats to wrap us in red tape, which is what the Tories would have you believe. The HRA was drafted by British lawyers in the aftermath of the Second World War, and gives us so many fundamental protections that we rely on in our day to day lives.”
Except it isn’t. Carmichael is confusing the Human Rights Act – which the Tories have vowed to repeal – with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – which the Tories are not planning to repeal.
The ECHR was indeed, as Carmichael says, drafted by British lawyers as a response to the horrific human rights violations that occurred during the Second World War. As an international treaty, the British government could not repeal it. All they could do, if they wanted, was to renounce Britain’s signature to the Treaty and, in doing so, withdraw from both the European Union and the Council of Europe (not to be confused with the European Council). The government has no plans to do either.
In contrast, the HRA was drafted by the Labour Party and worked its way through the Houses of Parliament following Labour’s landslide 1997 General Election result. The HRA is not the ECHR. Instead, it incorporates the ECHR into UK law and does a number of other things: it prohibits public authorities from doing any act that is incompatible with the ECHR and it requires UK courts to take account of the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). It also allows citizens to purse alleged breaches of the ECHR through the British courts rather than having to take courts to the ECtHR in Strasbourg.
This is all very laudable but there are a number of difficulties that have emerged with this approach. I’m not going to go into them here because this isn’t a comment on the rights or wrongs of the HRA.
Rather it is to point out that what the government has said they intend to do is to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. The British Bill of Rights will not replace the ECHR; it will replace the HRA.
Alistair Carmichael knows this very well. Why isn’t he honest in his email?
The answer is simple: British politicians seemingly enjoy keeping us Brits in the dark. They don’t want to tell us what is really going on because 1, they can use the ensuing confusion to further their own political aims; and 2, they think that it is better not to confuse our little heads with such complicated matters.
I’m using Carmichael’s email as an example here but the Lib Dems are not alone in doing this. Politicians of all parties need to understand that we, the public, are not as thick as they think we are. They do themselves no favours when they lie, or dumb-down, or over-simplify matters. Tell us the truth and campaign on your position. But don’t accuse your opposition of doing something that they aren’t doing and then campaign against them for doing what they’re not doing. That doesn’t help anybody – and it certainly doesn’t help bring about greater political literacy.