The coupling of the right-wing Conservative Party with the centre-left Liberal Democrats after last year’s UK general election was always going to be fraught.  Already the Coalition government has been strained by the increase in tuition fees in the higher education sector, which many Lib-Dems opposed.  Now a new potential schism looms in the guise of the UK’s Human Rights Act.

The Tories have never liked the idea of human rights because they equate it with Muslims, asylum seekers, individuals who commit offences and various other groups whom their supporters view as the natural enemy.  The Human Rights Act was introduced in the early days of the Blair government and it gives the courts a chance to keep a strong check on the executive.  The courts have ruled in favour of a better deal for asylum seekers and terror suspects in recent year.  And the UK is signed up to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, which sits in Strasbourg.  During the 2010 election campaign Conservative Party Leader David Cameron promised to repeal the Human Rights Act and to look at exiting the UK from the clutches of the European Court.

In order to entice the Lib-Dems into a coalition government, Cameron ditched this hard-line stance, but this week he has put it back on the table.  Cameron has seized on two rulings to argue the need for reform.  The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has ruled prisoners should have the right to vote, and the UK Supreme Court says s-x offenders can challenge being put on a s-x-offender register for life.

S-x offenders and prisoners, two groups of people for whom there is little sympathy in voter land, have provided Cameron with the chance, which he announced in the House of Commons on Wednesday this week, to move to undermine human rights protections.  He railed against courts making decisions that seem “to fly completely in the face of common sense.  It is time to assert that it is Parliament that makes our laws, not the courts,” Cameron said.

Cameron has announced the establishment of a commission to “look at a British bill of rights” and Cameron made it clear such a Bill will not be enforceable in the courts because “it’s about time we started making sure decisions are made in this Parliament rather than in the courts.”

For Lib-Dems Leader Nick Clegg and his team this n-ked attempt by Cameron to reduce the courts to being rubber stamps of the parliament is highly problematic and surely must be a potential threat to the Coalition.

For the past two decades it has been the Lib-Dems that have been the lone voice in the UK in opposing assaults on human rights in areas such as anti-terrorism laws, criminal justice, welfare and migration.  As a party it has long differentiated itself from Labour and the Tories on the need for a strong human rights law.  In April last year a senior Lib-Dem told The Guardian that his party is in “favour of the Human Rights Act as it stands. We want to see its scope extended and, eventually, its entrenchment in a written constitution. We are not prepared to give a single inch to those who want to undermine it.”

If the Lib-Dems fail to stop the Tories dismantling human rights protractions, then its supporters might decide to abandon the party at the ballot box.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey