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Britain First: An Affront to Liberal Democratic Values

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About The Author

Josh Dowdall (Writer)

Josh is a final year law student at Durham University. His primary interests lie in private law, public law and EU Constitutional law. Outside of academics, Josh is involved in a number of pro bono projects, and is passionate about diversity within the legal profession.

Although I study at Durham University, I was born and grew up in Medway. Rochester forms part of Medway, the former being the constituency facing a by-election triggered by the resignation of Mark Reckless. Britain First is contesting the election: a first for the party. At its core Britain First is based on extreme right-wing ideology, and actively campaigns against Muslim participation in British society.

Britain First frequently post campaign videos on their Facebook page, which usually end up on my Facebook newsfeed. Presumably this is because I have Facebook friends that support their ideology, or at least sympathise with some of their messages. Whilst I do not endeavour to explain the causes of the rise of the far right, I would argue that right-wing extremism is a legacy of conflict in the Middle East and the 2008 Financial Crisis. Each video never fails to shock me for its audacious attack on the Muslim community of my hometown.

The necessity for human rights

You may be wondering what any of this has to do with Keep Calm Talk Law, and rightly so. I believe recent events in Rochester demonstrate the ever present need to retain and strengthen human rights protection in the UK. Yet surprisingly, it would appear that political discourse is heading in the opposite direction. The Conservative party are heading into the 2015 General Election with a commitment to repeal the Human Rights Act (“HRA”). In addition, they plan to offer a referendum on European Union (“EU”) membership. Chris Grayling has also said that a Conservative government would renege on the UK’s commitments under international law by attempting to secure a veto over rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. Failing that, he threatens withdrawal from the Convention system itself. The significance of the Human Rights Act, the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”), and the EU, on British human rights law cannot be understated, and so plans to curb their influence are alarming to say the least.

Plans to erode the protection afforded by human rights are an affront to liberal democratic values; these values are the core of British identity and heritage. Britain First misunderstands these values, and it produces truly shocking consequences. In its campaign videos, activists cite their democratic right to field a candidate and campaign. It is true that freedom of political expression is strongly protected under article 10(1) of the ECHR. Freedom to express political opinion is an integral requirement of liberal democracy. It is a means of challenging the status quo and achieving reform. However, the right to freedom of expression is not an unqualified one and can be justifiably restricted under article 10(2) ECHR. For the purposes of this discussion I am mainly interested in the protection of the rights of others as a ground for the restriction of rights. 

Protecting minorities

One purpose of human rights law is to protect minorities from the actions of temporary democratic majorities. This liberal democratic principle was recognised by the Constitutional Court of South Africa in its certification of the Constitution of South Africa. The need to balance the protection of rights and democracy first became clear in the wake of Nazi defeat in the Second World War. If one lesson is to be learnt from the horrors of the Holocaust, I believe it is that, at its worse, democracy without rights can lead to the arbitrary destruction of minorities.

In light of these observations, the case for legal protection of rights is arguably a strong one. However, the UK’s constitutional arrangements are somewhat problematic for this conclusion. The British constitution is firmly based on the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty. Parliamentary sovereignty concentrates sovereign legal power in the hands of Parliament. It is not impossible, therefore, to imagine a scenario in which a democratically elected parliament could legally curb the rights of a minority. As noted by Lord Hoffman in R v Secretary of State for the Home Department, ex parte Simms: ‘Parliamentary sovereignty means that Parliament can, if it chooses, legislate contrary to fundamental principles of human rights’. 

Of course it may be argued that the principle of legality demands that Parliament must squarely confront its actions. In reality this means that the desire to secure re-election effectively prevents a government from using its temporary majority to erode fundamental human rights. The political protection of human rights in the UK has been a central point of discussion for advocates of political constitutionalism: Griffiths, Tomkins, and Bellamy to name but a few. I would argue that their analysis is correct, but it is contingent upon moderate parties being in government. Therefore, I must question: would political protection of minority rights be effective if Britain First actually did come to power? I am sceptical.

In one video, Britain First’s candidate, Jayda Fransen brands those who oppose her racist ideology as ‘left-wing, labour, Muslim, paedo loving scum’. In another video, which has since been removed, the party campaigns outside a mosque. Fransen spouts racist abuse, suggesting that Islam incites Muslims to violence, terrorism and paedophilia. Arbitrary discrimination against Muslims is also present in this video, which shows the group campaigning for ‘justice for victims of Muslim paedophiles’. Why are they campaigning solely for the victims of Muslim paedophiles? Why does Britain First exclude victims of other paedophiles? What about the victims of Christian paedophiles? 

The answer is because Britain First is a racist party, with an ideology is as extreme as Islamic States’ warped view of Islam. It is premised upon arbitrary discrimination against British Muslims for not being white. I doubt, however, that Britain first would stop there. From their abusive rhetoric it would appear that Britain First is set on returning Britain to a land of white Christians. Perpetuation of an image of the UK that ceased to exist a long time ago is not only infantile, but also chillingly ironic. What Britain First must forget is that Britain has been colonised by successive waves of European migrants. There is no such thing as an ethnic British person. Either that or they are just ignorant.

Just imagine if such a heinous party ever secured a Parliamentary majority. Dominance of the House of Commons by Britain First would allow the party to use their Parliamentary majority to pass racist and arbitrary policies into legislation. The danger of political constitutionalism as a mechanism for the protection of rights appears readily apparent. Whilst I am not for a second suggesting that Britain First will gain a Parliamentary majority any time soon, lessons must be learned from the rise of UKIP. The traditional dominance of British politics by the Conservative and Labour parties is coming to an end. With over half a million ‘likes’ and supportive comments on Facebook, an expanding donor base and now an official candidate fielded for a Parliamentary election, Britain First cannot simply be ignored. The UK constitution can no longer remain complacent to right-wing extremism. The best way to do this, in my opinion, is to move away from political constitutionalism to the legal protection of rights. Consideration of the constitutional design process of foreign countries suggests that such a move would be consistent with modern constitutional logic. I therefore believe that the case for curbing Parliamentary sovereignty and enacting a codified constitution has been made out. The entrenchment of the Human Rights Act and the ECHR in the UK constitution will forever place human rights out of the reach of temporary Parliamentary majorities.

Britain First, as an organisation, likes to invoke the sacrifices made by British soldiers in the Second World War and subsequent conflicts. Many of their videos are set to wartime songs. I believe that the people who fought for this country did so because they believed in British values of tolerance, liberty and rights, as I do. They fought against Nazism: an ideology that proved a democratic majority can easily suppress the rights of a minority. Britain first, to the extent that it consistently fails to recognise this, is despicable and must be condemned in the strongest terms. If the sacrifice of our soldiers is to be one that was not made in vain, we need to ensure that Parliamentary sovereignty never allows history to be repeated in these islands. To allow concerns about immigration to transform into support for racist parties such as Britain First would do just that. 

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Tagged: Constitution, European Union, Human Rights, Rule of Law

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