What are ‘precious liberties’?

The publishing of the national curriculum for secondary schools in England and Wales last week was a qualified victory for citizenship education.

Though not ideal in all respects, the final draft of the citizenship curriculum has come a long way: from citizenship potentially being dropped as a national curriculum subject altogether, through it being kept in and improved over various drafts, to the final citizenship programmes of study for key stages 3 and 4 outlining much of the knowledge, skills and understanding young people need in order to function and flourish in society.

The Citizenship Foundation, campaigning through Democratic Life, has had a big hand in this victory – but there is still important work to be done. For example, we must continue to develop and expand our suite of programmes which help teachers to deliver key elements of the citizenship curriculum. And we must seek to unpack the programmes of study, so that a 2½ page Department for Education document becomes something that teachers can understand and bring alive for their students.

One aspect of the curriculum that I think needs some serious unpacking is the requirement that pupils in key stage 3 be taught about “the precious liberties enjoyed by the citizens of the United Kingdom”. Exactly what these ‘precious liberties’ are is left entirely unclear, and the introduction of the term appears to have no basis in popular use in law, politics or education.

The process of defining the idea of ‘precious liberties’ for our young people must, as with any contested idea, take the form of an ongoing conversation, but I’d like to start by speculating about why someone might introduce the term in the first place. What does the vague and unfamiliar phrase ‘precious liberties’ designate that the well-known (though still, of course, contested) idea of human rights does not?

In the first instance, we should note that the new curriculum does make reference to human rights when it requires that pupils in key stage 4 be taught about “human rights and international law”. It is instructive that human rights and international law are packaged together because it points to one potential point of difference with ‘precious liberties’: human rights are global, general and, potentially, foreign, while precious liberties are local, home-grown and (only?) “enjoyed by the citizens of the United Kingdom”.

This foreign vs. home-grown refrain is familiar. It is observable in elements of the political and media class who complain that politically inconvenient rulings protecting human rights are imposed from Europe and even call for the UK to pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights altogether. The essence of their complaint is that international human rights conventions constrain the ability of national, representative decision-making bodies to make laws that reflect the will of the people they represent and have ultimate authority over.

This is true, but that is also (at least partly) what human rights are for: to set minimum standards on states’ use of their supreme coercive authority over their citizens (even when this use is popular). This doesn’t mean that the respect for and protection of every human right will look the same everywhere, but it does mean that if you complain that human rights are limiting the power of sovereign, even democratic, states you have missed the point. Perhaps you disagree that the particular right being protected is in fact a human right, perhaps you think only ‘precious liberties’ are. Or, more radically, perhaps you think we should give up on human rights altogether. Either way, it is far more productive and sensible to simply say so.

Another hint at what ‘precious liberties’ might mean is in the name – liberties. The idea here is that while human rights cover a whole range of human needs and interests, “the precious liberties enjoyed by citizens of the United Kingdom” are focussed on some subset that simply entail the government leaving the individual alone. This subset might include freedom from torture and arbitrary arrest, or freedom of association, or freedom of speech – all precious liberties indeed. But whatever the exact list, they are all characterised, so the thinking goes, by the fact that respecting them is said to simply involve forbearance on the part of others, and in particular government. Many of the other entitlements enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), for example, involve much more than mere forbearance. The right to social security (article 22), or the right to an adequate standard of living (article 25.1), or the right to fundamental and elementary education (article 26), for example, all involve considerable expense and a highly developed institutional architecture if they to be respected, in a way that the liberties – precious or otherwise – do not. Or so the thinking goes.

This analysis would be correct if all of the important freedoms mentioned above didn’t also involve considerable expense and require a complex institutional architecture in order for them to be protected. In fact, it is not even clear to me what it means to have freedom from torture, say, if it doesn’t mean having a government that not only resists the urge to torture me itself, but also enacts and enforces effective laws to deter those who may want to torture me and punish those who attempt to (or, god forbid, succeed!). This requires, at the absolute minimum, a police force and courts of law – both of which are complex and expensive institutions to build and sustain. So, once one takes into account the fact that having a right or liberty involves having that right or liberty robustly defended, the purported distinction between them referred to earlier then becomes wholly unclear: they both involve and mixture of forbearance and positive action on the part of a whole range of individuals and institutions.

The final thing to note is that the freedoms likely to be included amongst the ‘precious liberties’ – those mentioned above, for example – are themselves included on that most celebrated of human rights documents the UDHR (articles 5, 17 and 19 respectively).

So, if my speculations are right, it seems that ‘precious liberties’ are a subset of human rights that some regard as deserving priority because they are home-grown and not imposed from outside, but, like all rights and liberties, involve considerable expense and require complex and effective institutions if they are to be robustly protected. But if this is the case, why not just say so?

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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  1. Pingback: Writing Injustice | When is a human right not a human right?..

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