AS we sit, suspended, in the strange space between a year of being battered into exhaustion by a deluge of bad news and the welcome relief of knowing we’ve made it to the finish line, it’s hard to find the energy for one more thing to worry about.

That’s what makes this an ideal time for a government to slip things under the radar which, in normal times, might command more public attention. Things we probably should be taking notice of, if we know what’s good for us. At the risk of detracting from what remains of the festive spirit, might I offer that this could explain the timing of the UK Government’s mid-December announcement of an independent review into the Human Rights Act?

The Act, if you’re not familiar, was passed in 1998 under the Labour government and enshrines the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into domestic law, allowing people to challenge rights violations in UK courts without having to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. It also places a duty on public bodies to uphold those rights in the course of delivering their services.

The effect of this was to make justice more accessible and strengthen the application of the EHRC in the UK. These should, you would think, be uncontroversial goals, given that the convention was drawn up following the Second World War with significant involvement from Britain. And, despite frequent confusion on the matter (accidental or otherwise), the convention and the court which enforces it are not part of the European Union but the Council of Europe, which has 47 member states and primarily serves the function of upholding human rights.

But the Conservative Party, who have long been critical of the Strasbourg court, have called for the Act to be repealed since it was passed and included promises to either scrap or reform it in several manifestos since. Knowing the Tories’ views on this subject, and looking at their record on human rights over the past 10 years, the prospect of a “review” on their watch – however independent – inspires a creeping unease.

Labour’s shadow justice secretary David Lammy said the review, and its timing at the height of a pandemic, was “bonkers”. I fear this is too generous. “Bonkers” is the amount of food you ate on Christmas day after saying you definitely weren’t going to overdo it this year. “Bonkers” is when a Prime Minister mandates a referendum on leaving the EU because he’s so convinced the public won’t back it despite years of exposure to anti-Europe invective in the right-wing media. “Bonkers” is when you’re too silly to foresee the consequences of your actions.

This is something altogether more sinister. It’s a calculated step from a government which has little regard for international law or, for that matter, its own courts. In July, the Government established a separate review into the judicial review process, which allows people to challenge the lawfulness of decisions made by public bodies. At the heart of both these exercises is a simple fact: the Government isn’t happy that the law prevents it from doing what it wants to people, and it’s looking for a way to tilt the system in its own favour.

This isn’t something the Tories have been shy about admitting, either. This year, home secretary Priti Patel launched an open assault on “activist lawyers” for defending the rights of people seeking asylum, while Attorney General and former Brexit minister Suella Braverman wrote in January that the Parliament “must take back control, not only from the EU, but from the judiciary”, in light of what she described as “judicial activism”. No wonder Boris Johnson appointed her to the role weeks later.

The National: Suella BravermanSuella Braverman

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While the Tory manifesto in 2019 softened the language from earlier pledges on a “repeal” of the Human Rights Act to an “update”, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that this could be part of a “long game” strategy. In some ways, Brexit was the starting point on that journey, and one often conflated by the Leave camp with an escape from Europe’s enforcement of human rights.

One person who was conscious of this was Dominic Cummings, special adviser to Johnson at the time when the General Election manifesto was drawn up and while the plans for the HRA review were presumably being concocted.

In 2018, Cummings wrote: “If I get involved in politics again, a referendum on the ECHR should be high on the agenda — and bear in mind most people probably think we’re already leaving it because of the 2016 referendum, so imagine how mad they’ll be when they realise we’re still in it.”

Imagine. It’s almost as if the right had been contriving all along to get people mad about just that. It is a very odd feature of political discourse in the UK that many people do, in fact, seem to be very upset about the idea of human rights. Odd in the sense that it’s self-defeating, because even if you’re operating based on pure self-interest, undermining human rights protections puts us all at risk.

And yet, entirely understandable when you consider the daily diet of “human rights gone too far” served by the tabloid press, Tories and Ukippers who have sought to make “rights” sound like something that belongs to someone else and never you. The immigrants. The criminals. The minorities. The scroungers, and everyone else who’s just looking to take advantage of the system. Everyone other than hard-working, ordinary, British people.

This was a mentality which former Prime Minister David Cameron helped to cultivate, with his claims that he felt “physically sick” at the thought of prisoners voting after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK’s blanket ban was in breach of the convention. This was part of the reason he vowed to replace the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights, even though this wouldn’t remove the UK Government’s international obligations. Of course, he also supported remaining part of the EU, largely due to the economic benefits, in the knowledge that the EU requires members to adhere to the convention.

This was a game “moderates” in the Conservative Party played for years. Promising to do things which would, in reality, still not allow them to do what they claimed to be intent on, in the hopes this would appease the right wing of the party.

But the right are the ones steering the ship now. And they’re the ones who were always clear that “taking back control” had to include Brexit, it had to include a repeal of the Human Rights Act, and it had to include pulling out of the European Convention on Human Rights. They just weren’t quite so clear that the control was being taken from the people for the Government.

WELL, they’ve achieved their first goal, they’re on their way to making the case for the second, and if the past few years have taught us anything it’s that we should never underestimate the risk that their destructive plans will be realised in full. The lessons in how to carry it off are already there for the taking. Simply convince people that giving up their rights is a triumphant rebellion against a higher power which is definitely responsible for all their problems, and they’ll hand them over with enthusiasm.

After a truly awful year, at the end of a pretty awful decade, it would be nice to see 2020 out with a note of optimism. But what we really need is a healthy dose of realism if we have any chance of rising to the challenge ahead.

David Cameron may not have predicted what lay ahead when he introduced the European Union Referendum Act in 2015, but perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, the rest of us can do a better job at foresight now.