OPINON: Now is the time for British Jews to defend Magna Carta’s liberties

OPINON: Now is the time for British Jews to defend Magna Carta’s liberties

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

By Jewish News Foreign Editor, Stephen Oryszczuk

Stephen Oryszczuk
Stephen Oryszczuk

Magna Carta, 800 years old next month, was the first attempt to recognise and protect certain liberties. Church rights, the right not to be imprisoned illegally and the right to fair and swift justice all originated here, as did trial by jury.

Its legacy has ever since been the subject of staunch debate, but most agree with the late Lord Denning, who called it the “foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”.

In the run-up to the document’s forthcoming 800th anniversary, Supreme Court president Lord Neuberger issued a timely reminder this month that human rights, as they have since developed, were “fundamental to a modern, civilised and democratic society”.

On Tory plans to scrap the Human Rights Act, Britain’s most senior judge warned it was only in “international instruments and treaties” that we have such freedoms.

They give “the right to life, to liberty, and to a fair trial, freedoms from torture, forced labour, and discrimination, and freedoms of religion, expression, and association,” he said. “You don’t have to go back very far to find a time when every one of these freedoms simply did not exist, and we should not fool ourselves into thinking that they are timeless, let alone absolute.”

He’s not the first person to voice disquiet, and while we’re not about to start burning heretics or jailing homosexuals, he’s right to worry. Conservatives, the party of cuts and crackdowns, are now rid of their ‘liberal’ cabinet colleagues and have discovered that “security” wins most arguments.

So, ill-fated Human Rights Act aside, the new government now promises to restrict strike action (risking a hard-won workers’ right), silence undefined ‘extremism’ (risking free speech), cut legal aid (risking the right to a fair trial) and introduce sweeping new surveillance powers (invoking Big Brother). The sight of senior Tories bullying an independent BBC just confirms suspicions.

Has a sound record on the economy and on Israel led to votes for the death of liberalism in the UK? Some certainly think so. Among the many post-election speeches, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s was the most interesting. “Liberalism is not faring well against the politics of fear,” he said. Austerity and globalisation had “led people to reach for new certainties: the politics of identity, of nationalism, of us versus them”.

It captured a trend, both here and abroad. “Fear and grievance have won, liberalism has lost,” he said.

It is hard to argue that the politics of fear has not already won two elections in 2015. Think not only of David Cameron’s warning that Labour would let England be run by Scots, or that the UK would recognise Palestine within two years if Ed Miliband got in, but also of Benjamin Netanyahu’s warning that “Arabs are voting in droves,” or of his advertisements suggesting rivals would let ISIS into Tel Aviv.

In both ballots, these tactics led to a right-wing coalition balanced by centrists giving way to an outright right-wing majority.

What will happen? In Israel, the absence of people like Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid means the new cabinet is made up almost entirely of politicians who see the West Bank as part of a Greater Israel, who have no interest in making peace with Palestinians, and who do not view Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs as equals.

Amid their ascendency, constitutional checks and balances are taking a battering, and more may follow. The Justice Ministry is now controlled by an ultra-nationalist [Ayelet Shaked], who could use it to block a Palestinian state, marginalise Israel’s Arab minority and weaken the Supreme Court, the constitution’s last line of defence. In short, civil liberties in Israel are in for a testing time.

Back home, the community has been quick to celebrate the death of liberalism, despite the fact that Jews have a great tradition of upholding Western liberal values.

Think of the contributions in philosophy, politics, social sciences, academia and ethics, think of what liberalism defeated only 70 years ago, and think of the scientific and social progress liberalising instincts helped herald.

With some of these freedoms now in grave danger, perhaps it is time British Jews woke up to this slow dissolution of liberties.

Because the politics of identity, of fear, of ‘us versus them’, only ever ends badly.

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