Brexit supporters argue that the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is a burden and something imposed on Britain by the EU. Many have argued that it should be binned after Brexit in order to gain back control and British sovereignty. 

But looking at the history of the ECHR, might dispel some of the Brexiters’ entrenched beliefs of the Convention’s “foreigness.” The Convention for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms was established in 1953 as a result of the human rights violations which had occurred during the Second World War and as a response to the threat of communism, in order to reinforce democracy and universal human rights. In its early stages, it was fervently supported by Winston Churchill and co-written by Conservative MP Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe. For those then who think that the Convention was a European imposition and something foreign inserted into UK law, finding out that the Convention is at its heart more British than they have initially assumed, might come as a surprise. 

Winston Churchill: United Europe

As early as the 1940s, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill referred to the Council of Europe. In his speech broadcast on 21 March 1943, Churchill called for a Council of Europe and on 19 September 1946, he talked about building “a kind of United States of Europe…the first step is to form a Council of Europe.” Later, addressing the Hague Congress, in 1948, he celebrated the idea of a Europe “united by the heart-felt wish and vehement expression of the great majority of all the peoples in all the parties in all the freedom-loving countries, no matter where they dwell or how they vote.” While now, with Brexit, everyone is quick to dismiss everything that has been built by European people as bureaucratic, antihumanist or even undemocratic, in the 1940s and 1950s, Europeans saw Europe as a democratic expression of free people to protect their rights and interests against the repetition of a violent history. In the first Congress of Europe in 1948, Churchill said that “We need not waste our time in disputes about who originated this idea of United Europe,” and raise a European voice “upon the scene of chaos and prostration, caused by the wrongs and hatreds of the past, and amid dangers which lie about us in the present and cloud the future.” While now, it seems that we have given up that voice for freedom, and instead reverted to a past that Churchill would find impossible, back then the idea of forgetting the hatreds of the past and “letting national rancours and revenges die” was a motivating force towards the future and progress. In that speech, Churchill stressed how important it was to efface “frontiers and barriers which aggravate and congeal our divisions,” and rejoice “together in that glorious treasure of literature, of romance, of ethics, of thought and toleration belonging to all, which is the true inheritance of Europe, the expression of its genius and honour.” 

Most importantly, Churchill argued that the movement for European unity must be a positive force “deriving its strength from our sense of common spiritual values,” “a dynamic expression of democratic faith based upon moral conceptions and inspired by a sense of mission,” and which has, at its centre, “a charter of human rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law.” Churchil recognised back then that you cannot separate political unity from economics and security: “It is impossible to separate economics and defence from general political structure. Mutual aid in the economic field and joint military defence must inevitably be accompanied step by step with a parallel policy of closer political unity.” Churchill here highlights how all these powers and structures were intertwined, and that there was no economic cooperation without respect for political unity and vice versa. And he emphasised all these knowing that a stronger and united Europe could act as a protective shield against the threat posed by totalitarian regimes, whether Nazi, Fascist, or Communist.

It is easy to forget that what we deride as European bureaucracy or autocracy is something that European states, including the UK, have helped to build together for their own protection and prosperity. 

Drafting the Convention: Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe

It was at the Hague Congress that the call for drafting the Convention was issued. In the summer of 1949 the Council of Europe gathered in Strasbourg to draft the charter of human rights and to establish a legal court to enforce it. 

One of the leading members and the Chair of the Assembly’s Committee on Legal and Administrative Questions, British Conservative MP Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe helped draft the report, while the French Pierre-Henri Teitgen submitted it.

When later, the European Convention on Human Rights was finalised and accepted, it was signed in Rome on 4 November 1950. The first to sign the Convention was the UK.

So, when people like Nigel Farage, claim that the European Convention on Human Rights should be ignored and that it is exploited by criminals such as jihadists and Islamic State (ISIS) militants, we shouldn’t be fooled this easily. It is dangerous to reduce arguments to one-sided statements, or take one thing as evidence to destroy something that has protected us for such a long time. Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wing populists have proved that they hate anything to do with human rights. But such rights are there to protect all those who have no right to have rights, and making toxic generalisations à la Farage is a damaging act that seeks to erase all those achievements by European politicians, including Churchill.