A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand

The UK should accept the European Court of Human Right’s judgements or withdraw entirely 

The British press reacted to the Court’s recent decision on whole-life sentences with typical restraint. ‘Victory for evil!‘ The Sun declared. ‘An insult too far to British democracy!‘ the Daily Mail trumpeted. More subdued opinions were found elsewhere in The Telegraph and The Independent, though the ECtHR had managed to unite everyone from Guardian columnists to Nick Griffin in opposition to it. For those unfamiliar with the history of the European Convention on Human Rights or whole-life sentences, a quick background is vital.

The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) was born from the ashes of post-war Europe. Drafted in 1950 and inspired by none other than Winston Churchill, the intention of the treaty was to prevent human rights abuses of the sort Europe had witnessed in the past decades. The outcome was the creation of the Council of Europe, a body that today seeks to protect human rights across 47 countries covering 800 million people. In recent years, the European Court on Human Rights (ECtHR) (the institution within the Council of Europe tasked with judging whether cases contradict the European Convention of Human Rights) has been criticised for dealing with cases beyond the remit its founders intended. Its accusers claim that the signatories intended for the ECHR to protect citizens from the Gestapo, not give prisoners the right to vote.

Whole-life sentences are a more recent phenomenon. Until 1957 there was only one punishment for murder: death. The Homicide Act 1957 reduced the number of situations in which capital punishment could be sentenced to just a few circumstances, requiring life imprisonment in all other cases. In 1983, the then Home Secretary Leon Brittan created whole-life orders to curb ‘excessive leniency’ by judges or parole boards. Unlike prisoners punished with life sentences, prisoners issued whole-life orders were to be kept in prison without the possibility of parole. This was balanced by giving the Home Secretary the power to review prisoners’ cases after 25 years. When the Home Secretary’s discretionary powers were abolished in Criminal Justice Act 2003, this power was not replaced, meaning that prisoners sentenced to whole-life orders were to remain in prison for the rest of their life without the possibility of review or parole.

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The ECtHR’s ruling this week was that that power should be restored, albeit exercised by judges rather than politicians. Amongst the raucous cries in the press over the past week, this important distinction (that the ECtHR was not against whole-life sentences, merely whole-life sentences without review) was either missed or ignored. If anything, the distortion in the justice system the ECtHR is trying to correct should simply be thought of as yet another entry in the catalogue of errors by the Blair government, not an imperialist takeover of the British justice system.

Yet even this misses the true issue at hand. Whether the UK government agrees or disagrees with the ECtHR’s rulings, it should acknowledge its validity. It is quite true that the ruling would not be supported by a majority of Parliament, but nor was the Kansas government keen to desegregate education after the Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education. Some may be insulted by the comparison, but the point remains: courts are supposed to be independent, not popular.

Many would respond that this is entirely the problem. That Britain’s political system is based on Parliamentary sovereignty. Thus, if Parliament disagrees with the ruling of the ECtHR, Parliament’s voice must prevail. Anything else would be an encroachment on the UK’s sovereignty. There is only one decision that the British people must make. Either the UK must accept the ECHR as an integral part of the UK’s ever-evolving constitution, or it must withdraw from the Council of Europe entirely. Neither choice should be taken lightly, nor would a referendum on the issue be out of order. A house cannot stand half divided and the UK cannot stay in the Council of Europe whilst ignoring its rulings.

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