You can’t have human rights in a neoliberal economy: Britain and the Universal Declaration at 70

June 6, 2018 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948. It is 70 this year. The UDHR is not legally binding. Its initial advocates, including Eleanor Roosevelt, explained at the time that it was meant to be a symbol of aspiration toward the ideal of universal rights.

However, in 1966 the UN adopted the legally-binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Britain ratified in 1976. Many of the UDHR’s Articles are covered in the ICCPR. But, sadly, there is no enforcement mechanism for the UDHR provisions, even within the ICCPR. Yet, the 30 Articles of the UDHR cover everything from right to life and social care, to right to housing and to privacy, as well as right to a fair trial, protection from discrimination and decent working/holiday time.

In my new book, Human Wrongs: British Social Policy and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (2018, Iff Books), I argue that the nature of the British neoliberal economy means that it is impossible, practically speaking, to safeguard many of the socially-related articles of the UDHR. A neoliberal economy simply doesn’t allow for the protection of human rights because it is based on marketizing and privatizing everything. A neoliberal system is based on everything sociopathic and antihuman.


Neoliberalism (a portmanteau of new and liberal) is neither new nor liberal. It has its roots in laissez-faire “free trade,” advocated in the 19th century by the British empire. There is no scholarly or economic consensus on what defines “neoliberalism,” but some general principles are:
1) limiting government in social affairs (denigrating the “nanny state”)
2) expanding government to protect private capital (but calling it “small government”)
3) cutting social programmes, including health and social security (under the guise of “helping people into work”)
4) financializing markets, i.e., letting companies make money from money (blowing bubbles)
5) deregulating national and international markets and practices (or making a “level-playing field” as they call it)
6) heavily regulating government insurance policies to make taxpayers pay for financial crashes (socialize risk, privatize cost)
7) putting as many public assets as possible into private hands (creating “jobs”)
Under Margaret Thatcher and John Major’s Conservative governments (1979-1997), much of the UK’s social principles were largely destroyed: the National Health Service was defunded, public finance initiatives (PFIs) were implemented, child poverty ballooned (from 7% to 30%), union membership declined and council homes were sold, meaning that the poor were often trapped in mortgage crises or found themselves at the mercy of private landlords.
For those caught in the upswing of the growing economy, however (such as the new class of home-owners and landlords), neoliberalism worked very well. So much so that the Parliamentary Labour Party (by then long taken over by US-linked “free marketeers” like Ed Balls and Gordon Brown), convinced itself that Thatcherism was the way toward electoral victory; hence the prime ministership of Tony Blair, followed by Brown, under the self-styled New Labour party (1997-2010).

After six years of brutal, post-financial crisis austerity and slow growth, coupled with a generation of renters increasingly dependent on their parents for support, record numbers of grassroots activists through an organization called Momentum worked to transform the Parliamentary Labour Party from a status quo, Tory-light organization back into a working people’s party; hence the election of the mild socialist Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party (notice, Labour Party, not New Labour. Incidentally, the political framework in the UK is now so far to the right, that Corbyn is ludicrously described as “hard-left” in the media).

Despite its many flaws and indeed crimes against Britons, the New Labour government at least believed in some kind of social welfare programmes. The Conservatives believe only in social welfare for their own class of often very wealthy, intergenerational elites.

In a critique of the loss of civil rights under New Labour, future Tory MP Dominic Raab, said that political leftism and selfishness “conflated” the so-called fundamental rights-liberty, presumption of innocence, freedom of speech, protection from arbitrary detention-with so-called wants: decent education, healthcare, decent housing and functioning public services.

That is the battle in a nutshell: it is fought between those who believe that housing, education and so on are fundamental rights (as enshrined in the Universal Declaration) and those at the top who do not.

According to Raab’s view, which underlines the neoliberal ideology, the expansion of fundamental rights from abstractions, such as “liberty,” to concrete protections provided by the state, such as adequate housing, is an assault on rights.

This kind of antihuman thinking is the basis of the so-called New Conservatism, which indoctrinated Tory policy planners in the 1970s, following decades of social progress at the expense of the wealthy under genuine, post-WWII Labour governments (notably, Attlee and Wilson). Raab blames the European Union and Britain’s adoption of the Human Rights Act 1998 for the “introduc[tion of] a socialist conception of human rights, fundamentally at odds with the British legacy of liberty.”

By this, he means that social rights are at odds with the liberty of the rich to continue sponging off the poor. Raab concludes that “[t]he result has been to upgrade endless ordinary claims, including to social services, NHS treatment, welfare payments and even police protection, to the status of fundamental human rights.” A lawyer, Raab conveniently omits Britain’s obligation to socialistic principles as codified in the ICCPR and, of course, the UDHR.

Speaking to the right-wing think tank Bow Group in 1980, Conservative Treasury Secretary Nigel Lawson, explained: “During the 25 years that followed Churchill,” himself an anti-socialist fanatic, “the philosophy of social democracy” emerged from the grassroots. Social democracy was rooted “in the efficacy of government action,” meaning governments of left-leaning parties reflecting the wishes of working people, “and its deep commitment to the notion of ‘equality’.” Notice Lawson’s dismissive placing of the word equality into quotation marks.

For a while, the Tories “embraced both these delusions,” says Lawson. This is because Britain needed rebuilding after WWII and also the Labour party had initially become a serious political force, shifting the political framework toward a more humane left.

But there were reasons to be cheerful because (writing in the 1980s) “the old consensus is in the process of being re-established,” via a “return to the mainstream”; meaning back to the good old days of aristocratic control, in which the masses serve elite interests. The so-called New Conservatism was, according to Lawson, “founded on the basic acceptance of the ineradicable imperfection of human nature,” meaning everyone for themselves. This includes “scepticism about radical plans of any kind.” The ideology also opposes “bring[ing] all social’relationships within the political realm”; hence Thatcher’s “no such thing as society” interview not long after.

This is the ideological framework in which British policy is set and continues to be set. Is it any wonder, then, that various UN agencies have repeatedly condemned the UK for its violations of human rights at home, including rights relating to the UDHR, such as the UK’s treatment of children, women, disabled people, citizen’s rights to privacy and much, much more?

T.J. Coles is a postdoctoral researcher at Plymouth University’s Cognition Institute and the author of several books, including The Great Brexit Swindle (2016, Clairview) and Human Wrongs (2018, Iff Books).

Categorised in:

This post was written by TJ Coles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *