UCL News


Comment & Debate: Politicians are pandering to an irresponsible media when they invoke the balance between liberty and security

24 May 2006

This is a dangerous time for freedom in Britain.

The country's most powerful politicians have joined its irresponsible press in a shameful attack on the idea of human rights. Tony Blair says that the nation needs to re-examine what he calls the "philosophy" behind the Human Rights Act so as to change the balance it strikes between individual freedom and the community's security. David Cameron says a Tory government would reform that act or repeal it entirely. …

Most political decisions require a cost-benefit balancing in which disadvantages to some are outweighed by the overall benefit to the community. Building a new airport is bound to disadvantage some people, but the damage is justified if it is the best choice for the nation. However, some injuries to individuals are so grave that they cannot be justified by declaring that that is what the public wants. A civilised society recognises rights precisely to protect individuals from these grave harms.

It might well be in the public interest to lock up people who the police think dangerous even though they have committed no crime, or to censor people whose opinions are offensive or unwelcome, or to torture people who we believe have information about impending crimes. But we do not do that, at least in ordinary legal practice, because we insist that people have a right to a fair trial and free speech and not to be tortured. We insist on these rights even though the majority would be safer and more comfortable if we ignored them. …

It is one of Britain's most honoured traditions to accept the marginally increased risk as the price of respect for individual human dignity. That is what self-respect requires. It is dangerous gibberish to say that the public has a right to as much security as it can have; no one has a right to security purchased through injustice. …

Ronald Dworkin, Bentham Professor of Law at UCL, 'The Guardian'