One of the few interesting courses I took as a law student four decades ago was in jurisprudence, or the philosophy behind the law. We studied people like Hugo Grotius, a Dutch writer who lived in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
He wrote on something called natural law, an attempt to distil moral concepts into a body of rules that should govern all human behaviour. His contribution was to say that it was possible to evolve such a code without any divine intervention, and that if religious principles ran counter to this, they should be discarded.
If the law of God is unjust, it is no law at all, he said. (I paraphrase.) This was daring stuff for the time, and in a Catholic country would have brought him to the attention of the Inquisition. Fortunately, Grotius lived in the more enlightened Dutch Republic.
The principle became one of the foundations of the Enlightenment, see this blog passim. What has it to do with the European Court of Human Rights? Well, wind forward to the Allies’ victory in Europe and the Nuremberg trials. One of the defences put up by Germans in the dock there was that their actions were not actually contrary to the laws of the land, as they existed in Germany at the time.
This gave the Allies in the west some pause for thought. (The Russians, understandably, had no truck with such sophistry.) If the actions the defendants were on trial for were not illegal at the time, how could they be deemed illegal now? The (western) Allies were keen not to have the proceedings at Nuremberg appear a case of “victors’ justice”.
They fell back on the concept of natural law. The laws that allowed the defendants to carry out such actions were illegitimate because they ran contrary to any proper code of law.
Most people have a vague belief that the ECHR has something to do with the EU, Brussels, interfering eurocrats, etc. On the contrary, the ECHR was set up by the Council of Europe, separate from the EU though, confusingly, sharing the same flag and anthem.
The Court was created to enforce the principles of natural law and basic human rights. It would ensure that, if any country that had signed up to them subsequently passed laws that contradicted them or breached them, its citizens would have some authority to appeal to. That authority, the court, could overrule those laws and protect those basic human rights. What happened in Germany in the 1930s could never happen again.
The Conservatives say they will pull the UK out of the ECHR and ensure Parliament is able to overrule its decisions. It is true that many believe the Court has exceeded its authority and extended its remit into areas where it was never intended to go. It is true that some judges there are drawn from countries with debatable human rights records, and some do not appear terribly professional.
But disentangling the UK from the ECHR would be rather less easy, and raise more difficult constitutional questions, than some tub-thumping politicians may claim.