Jack Straw on a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities
Jack Straw has given a speech at the George Washington University about the UK’s and USA’s constitutional heritage and what a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities might look like.
Well, he was a bit vague. And he also perverted Thomas Paine’s idea of rights and duties.
At the heart of each [of the UK and USA], of both, is a powerful and everlasting idea of liberty and of rights. I often think that the commonality between us and our ideas is best reflected in the person of one man, that great Anglo-American, Thomas Paine. Paine was born and raised in a small town in the east of England called Thetford in Norfolk, but was to go on profoundly to influence the revolutions in America and France. Indeed, the name ‘the United States of America’ itself is attributed to his creation. That Paine is commonly considered among the Founding Fathers, and later was elected to the French National Convention are measures of his remarkable contribution to the dialectics of liberty. But though Thomas Paine’s seeds were the same wherever he sowed them, they grew. And their progeny then evolved in ground that was different, differences today reflected in very different systems of governance.
In this individualistic age, we would do well to remind ourselves of first principles: that rights come with duties.
This is hardly a new concept. Thomas Paine declared that:
A Declaration of Rights is, by reciprocity, a Declaration of Duties also. Whatever is my right as a man, is also the right of another, and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.
I fully understand that there is not, and cannot be an exact symmetry between rights and responsibilities. In a democracy, rights tend to be ‘vertical’ – guaranteed to the individual by the state to constrain the otherwise overweening power of the state. Responsibilities, on the other hand, are more ‘horizontal’ – they are the duties we owe to each other, to our ‘neighbour’ in the New Testament sense. But they have a degree of verticality about them too, because we owe duties to the community as a whole.
Clearly Straw doesn’t understand what Paine meant, as there is a symmetry between Paine’s idea of rights and duties, as is more than evident from the quote.
When we speak of right we ought always to unite with it the idea of duties: rights become duties by reciprocity. The right which I enjoy becomes my duty to guarantee it to another, and he to me; and those who violate the duty justly incur a forfeiture of the right.
He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.
In other words you have a duty to ensure the rights you enjoy may also be enjoyed by others. That’s it!
If for example you enjoy freedom of speech you have duty to ensure others enjoy it also. If you enjoy freedom from arbitrary punishment you have a duty to ensure others that freedom. There is the symmetry.
Indeed it is your duty to fight against those people or organisations who try to take away our rights.
He also said we had a duty to point out the defects of every government and constitution.
In a democracy, rights tend to be ‘vertical’ – guaranteed to the individual by the state to constrain the otherwise overweening power of the state.
On the contrary, Paine would have it, we are born with our rights and it is our duty to guarantee our rights to each other. What does the state have to do with it, except for (by extension) having the very same duty, and to expect to be fought against if it fails in that duty?
It is a perversion of terms to say that a charter gives rights. It operates by a contrary effect - that of taking rights away. Rights are inherently in all the inhabitants; but charters, by annulling those rights, in the majority, leave the right, by exclusion, in the hands of a few.
In a way it’s amusing to see Labour Ministers namecheck such people. Gordon Brown reeled off loads of names in his long speech on liberty as if it lent him any credibility. You have to laugh. Perhaps they have even deluded themselves that they have a clue. But I am being charitable.
While the Declaration of Rights was before the National Assembly some of its members remarked that if a declaration of rights were published it should be accompanied by a Declaration of Duties. The observation discovered a mind that reflected, and it only erred by not reflecting far enough. A Declaration of Rights is, by reciprocity, a Declaration of Duties also. Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.
- The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine (576 Kb PDF)