10 January 2017

S5M-03297 Protection and Promotion of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (European Union)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-03297, in the name of Angela Constance, on Scotland’s place in the European Union—protecting and promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

Presiding Officer,

“The Movement for European Unity must be a positive force, deriving its strength from our sense of common spiritual values. It is a dynamic expression of democratic faith based upon moral conceptions and inspired by a sense of mission. In the centre of our movement stands the idea of a Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law.”

That was Winston Churchill to the congress of Europe in 1948. In 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said:

“Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose.”

The issue of human rights is hardly a new one. It would be selfish and wrong of us to turn our backs on the hard-won expression of shared values and duties that Governments owe to those in whose interests they serve.

It would be selfish and wrong to turn our backs on international treaties. We would certainly undermine their value and applicability and the respect that they have by resiling from signing them. We would be talking about rights without law, law without enforceability and enforcement without rights.

This important debate, which is on leaving the European Union, is about our rights. It is one that we can have in this Parliament but which people seem reluctant to have in the Parliament further south, which also purports to represent us.

Let us consider a little of the history of how we got to where we are. Like a couple of other members who are in the chamber, I was born and brought up in the immediate aftermath of the second world war. None of us is old enough to have had any direct experience or real memory of it, but we were certainly close to its effects. We did not smell the putrefaction of human corpses across Europe, and we did not hear the booming of the guns or the crashing of explosions. We were lucky to be born after that war into a world that was determined to step away from the economic and social chaos that authoritarian regimes brought us—in particular, the desolation that came from the Holocaust.

I am old enough to remember watching “The Brains Trust”, which was shown on Sundays, and seeing Jacob Bronowski, who was a Jew who had escaped from the horrors of the Holocaust and had come to the UK to seek refuge. The UK has a long and honourable tradition of providing refuge to people from around the world, which the present Tory Government appears to want to put under threat.

Jacob Bronowski, whom I have referred to in a previous debate, made the most moving piece of television in his series “The Ascent of Man”. In one episode, while standing in a concentration camp in Poland, he leans forward to pick up some mud from a puddle, looks at the mud in his hand and, slowly turning to the camera, he says, “These are my relatives.” His relatives all died in the concentration camps.

If we wonder why human rights matter to us, we need only think of what the denial of human rights in Nazi Germany and the attrition against an entire community caused for those people and for all of us. Hundreds of innocent, terrified people were herded into the gas chambers. Today, we can barely imagine that such a thing could happen. However, if, as Gordon Lindhurst would have us do, we reduce “Human Rights” to “human rights”, we are taking a dangerous first step, albeit that I accept that it is on a long road, in a relatively democratic country—the UK is not fully democratic, because the majority of our legislators are not elected. As Edmund Burke said,

“Laws, like houses, lean on one another.”

If we take away a critical part of the structure, we threaten the whole structure.

Gordon Lindhurst: Does Stewart Stevenson accept the historical fact that the atrocities to which he refers, which took place in the concentration camps and so forth, happened under the auspices of a Government that was elected under a constitutional framework that included the Weimar constitution, which was set out to guarantee rights and freedoms? That is therefore not the issue at debate.

Stewart Stevenson
: On the contrary, I suspect that Gordon Lindhurst has inadvertently just made my point for me. Democracies and structures are not good enough; as Edmund Burke said in the 18th century,

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

We are the good men and women who will not stand by to see our human rights, which are encapsulated in the laws of this country, deconstructed by the mindless Visigoths who reside on the Tory benches. I have my history as an autodidact as an excuse for my ignorance; I do not know what excuse the Tories have for theirs.


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