Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s newly-announced Cabinet “reshuffle” provides fresh evidence that his government has the courts - and our human rights - firmly in its sights.
The government’s new Attorney General Suella Braverman, its top legal adviser, is on record recently arguing that the courts’ ability to hold the government to account should be restrained, and expressing her criticism of human rights.
It’s increasingly clear that Johnson plans to water down the Human Rights Act, which keeps us safe from government harm, and make it harder for British courts to intervene when the state tramples on people’s rights.
In December 2019, the newly-elected Conservative government set out its priorities, which include setting up a new commission to look at human rights, the judiciary, and the courts, a move its election manifesto said would ensure “a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government.”
That may sound innocuous, but even a cursory look at what ministers have been saying makes clear that it is anything but.
Reports suggest that the government wants to “clip the wings” of the Supreme Court, which ruled last September that the government’s decision to suspend Parliament was unlawful, a decision that deeply frustrated the prime minister.
There is evidence – including comments by the outgoing Attorney General – that the government wants a greater say in how senior judges are appointed. Controlling judicial appointments has been a key tactic by authoritarian governments in Poland and Hungary, and it is chilling to see this being mooted in the UK.
The Conservative Party also has a history of calling for the Human Rights Act to be replaced, and even for the UK to leave the Council of Europe, Europe’s human rights club, altogether.
If the UK government wants to review the constitution it should not try to put itself above the law in doing so. Instead, it should protect people’s human rights, ensure a cross-party process, and consult closely with civil society on its plans.
Independent courts to protect people when the government goes too far, as well as human rights laws that define our basic freedoms, are vital to our democracy. They need to be defended.