Disasters aren’t good for democracy. If you want an example, have a look at the Grenfell Tower debacle last year and some of the fall-out in the last few months from it.
The government response has been distinctly low-key. It has consisted of an ongoing inquiry under retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick aimed quite tightly at establishing what happened, how to stop it happening again, and whether the response was adequate. To this can be added a report from Dame Judith Hackitt in May on apartment construction and management practice, and another report last month from the Parliamentary Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee.
One suspects this response is none the worse for that, even taking into account the sheer awfulness of what happened. But it clearly isn’t enough for the new, impatient, activist establishment. Last March, a number of activists and academic human rights lawyers invited radical Canadian housing equality lawyer and part-time UN apparatchik Leilani Farha to visit. She was, to say the least, no fan of conservatism or the Tories.
The EHRC approached the whole affair as might a trendy human rights lecturer talking to a class
Two years earlier she had signed a formal letter on UN notepaper to the British UN representative laying into austerity and demanding to know what the government was going to do about it. A week after Grenfell, she had penned a piece in the Guardian tearing into what she saw as government-sponsored inegalitarianism and capitalism in general in the housing market.
Her reaction was shortly expressed and predictable. Whatever the elected government might think, human rights law had to intervene. What human rights law? Oddly enough, not the European Convention but the rather less precise International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and its guarantee of “an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing.”
This, she said, meant that any foreseeable danger was the government’s responsibility (itself doubtful). Warming to her theme, she added that international human rights law, for which there was “no wiggle room”, demanded (whatever this meant) “meaningful participation of every person at every stage”, “participation in terms of monitoring outcomes”, “a community feel that dictates the situation” and replacement housing “dictated by those who have lost their homes.” I’d be interested to see any court decision to that effect.
So much for Ms Farha. But she wasn’t the only one talking Grenfell human rights. This week the powerful if tiresome official agency the Equality and Human Rights Commission (for a critical look see here) muscled in on the issue. Having previously set up its own parallel Grenfell inquiry rather than waiting for the official result, not to mention bombarding hard-pressed local services with hectoring and time-consuming questionnaires, it again approached the whole affair as might a trendy human rights lecturer talking to a class.
You should have to persuade voters, not cajole apparatchiks, into agreeing with you. That’s democracy.
The human right to life under Article 2 of the ECHR, it said, was potentially at stake (true); under it the state had to adopt “preventative measures to protect life from all foreseeable threats” (much more debatable); the right to life required as a matter of human rights law “appropriate measures to address the general conditions in society that may … prevent individuals from enjoying their right to life with dignity’” (controversial, derived not from any treaty but merely from a report from a UN committee). It was against this, rather than the mundane issues addressed by the official enquiry, that Grenfell had to be looked at.
What is there in common between these two – the slightly priggish UN busybody and the earnest well-meaning government agency? Apart from the fact that what both of them said and wrote could have been embodied in a speech by Jeremy Corbyn or a Guardian op-ed, the answer is, frankly, a disdain for democracy.
The country might have voted for Theresa (true, only just: but it certainly didn’t vote for Corbyn); many working class voters might have misgivings over what they see as abuses in housing and social security; but the cosy sodality of academics, human rights lawyers and international civil servants know better on matters of social policy.
Of course this isn’t to say there is no place for human rights as trumping democracy: in extreme cases of oppression there is (think compulsory hijabs in Iran, or persecuted Christians in Syria or Egypt). But as soon as human rights muscles in on questions of social policy such as housing matters and the distribution of wealth, then the argument becomes a great deal weaker.
It’s all very well to want to end austerity, or to prevent London being bought up as a bolt-hole by foreign investors (and in the latter case you certainly have a point). But you should have to persuade voters, not cajole apparatchiks, into agreeing with you. That’s what democracy is about, and we ignore it at our peril.
All this, of course, is a not-so-gentle fightback by (mainly) those who found themselves on the losing side in 2016. Remember their disgust at those who said we might sometimes want to follow something other than the views of the “experts”? Essentially this is their plea in 2018: democracy is all very well, but such important matters as social policy can’t be left up to the untutored voters and need if necessary to be dictated by – well – experts who can be trusted to agree with them.
As they might say in their ostentatiously cosmopolitan way: plus ça change: plus c’est la même chose.
(Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law at a well-known UK university, who also teaches in Europe and elsewhere. In the 2001 General Election he stood as UKIP’s candidate in Bath).