On Wednesday I debated fairness and the law at a seminar arranged by Middlesex University.
One of the most interesting exchanges was about the supremacy of the European Convention of Human Rights over UK Statute law passed by Parliament. The general view was that the UK like all other signatories to the Convention had to obey the international law, and that law would be settled by international judges. Their decisions might be at variance with the wishes of the UK voters as expressed by their elected representatives. I was told that the inconvenience of losing a few court cases was offset by the advantage that the Convention would do more good in some countries with lower legal and democratic standards than our own.
In the discussion we were reminded that the European Convention was the product of 1940s thinking. Its defenders accepted that in some areas opinions and general morality changes. They accepted that some opponents of gay marriage had appealed to the Convention which implies the right to marriage is a right for a marriage of a man to a woman. They just thought they can read the Convention in a different way to modernise it without needing to amend it. Some also accepted that some issues aroused too many passions in particular countries for it to be wise to seek a conclusion through court action. Rights for migrants to change country could be such an issue in some cases.
I reminded the audience that one of the greatest statements of democratic rights and freedom, the American Declaration of Independence, has been much amended by changes to the US Constitution subsequently. One of its main architects was a slave owner. The authors of modern demcoracy saw nothing wrong with rights only applying to freeborn males, with little regard for the rights of women and no regard for the shared humanity of the slaves. These bad features of the original American settlement needed amending at a later date. These amendments occurred thanks to democratic actions and to protests.
All those who rely on Treaty law from the EU and from the ECHR need to grasp that these methods of imposing morals and standards on us run the risk of being inflexible and becoming dated. Statute law designed by a free and sovereign Parliament has two great advantages over these Treaties. The first is Parliament can regularly improve and update the moral standards and viewpoints behind the laws as opinion evolves. Secondly the public can remove members of a Parliament that make a mess of it and insist on urgent change after a new election.