History of Civil Rights in the UK

Civil liberties in the United Kingdom are part of UK constitutional law and have a long and formative history.

It is usually considered to have begun with the Magna Carta of 1215, a landmark document in British constitutional history.

Early History of British Immigrants

The slave trade in Britain was first documented around 1562 and by the early 18th century there were 14,000 black people living in Britain.

The development of civil liberties advanced in common law and statute law in the 17th and 18th centuries, notably with the Bill of Rights 1689. Then during the 19th century, working-class people struggled to win the right to vote and join trade unions. Eventually, Parliament responded with new legislation beginning with the Reform Act 1832.

Few still had any real freedom, and it was not until the abolitionists began protesting that slavery across all of the British Empire was banned in 1833. By 1892 Britain had its first Indian Member of Parliament, Dadabhai Naoroji.

After World War II 150,000 Poles arrived in Britain along with hundreds of men from the West Indies and multi-cultural Britain had arrived.

Attitudes towards suffrage and liberties progressed further in the aftermath of the first and second world wars. Since then, the United Kingdom’s relationship to civil liberties has been mediated through its membership of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Mass Migration

During the 1950s Britain invited workers from the Caribbean especially Jamaica to fill job vacancies such as labourers and transport workers in order to help rebuild post-war Britain.

As the rise in immigration continued so too did the rise in racial violence in cities such as London, Birmingham, and Nottingham.

Racial discrimination in Britain during the postwar period was rife. Many of the immigrants were skilled workers but racism and discrimination meant that semi or unskilled work was the only option.

By the 1960s the economy in Britain was declining and unfortunately, black workers were the first to lose their jobs. Those that did manage to keep jobs usually did double the work for less pay.

The racism and discrimination in Britain echoed that felt in America at the time, although on a smaller scale.

The Bristol Bus Company Saga

There were a number of black people who made a difference to the civil rights of the black population in Britain. One was Paul Stephenson, who in 1963 led a boycott against a racist public bus company.

The Bristol bus company operated a colour bar that refused employment to blacks or Asians. Stephenson, a 26-year-old teacher, organised the 60-day bus boycott on the city’s buses. Thousands of people supported the bus boycott and the news of racism made headlines. By 28 August 1963, the bus company lifted the employment colour ban.

Ironically, this was the same day that Martin Luther King Jr made his “I have a dream speech”.

Anti-Discrimination Laws

Paul Stephenson hit the headlines again when he stood trial for refusing to leave a pub until he was served a beer. It was not uncommon to see signs in Britain during the 1960s proclaiming, “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs”.

Both cases helped to highlight the treatment of black and Asians in Britain during this period. By 1970 the amount of non-white residents in the UK numbered 1.4 million, although a third of this number were born in Britain.

The government by then had begun to curb immigration and by 1972 non-whites could only settle in Britain with a work permit or if they had parents or grandparents who were born in Britain.

During Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s term (1964-1976) he introduced tighter controls on immigration but also introduced legislation that made racial discrimination a legal offence.

The UK Law in the 90’s

The United Kingdom, through Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, led the drafting of the Convention, which expresses a traditional civil libertarian theory. It became directly applicable in UK law with the enactment of the Human Rights Act 1998.

Unfortunately, Civil liberties have been gradually declining in the United Kingdom since the late 20th century. Their removal has been generally justified by appeals to public safety and National Security and hastened on by crises such as the September 11 attacks, the 7/7 bombings and the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

Coronavirus Act 2020

In fact the pandemic oversaw the introduction of the Coronavirus Act 2020, which was described by former Justice of the Supreme Court Lord Sumption as “the greatest invasion of personal liberty in [the UK’s] history.”

The relationship between human rights and civil liberties is often seen as two sides of the same coin. A right is something you may demand of someone, while a liberty is freedom from interference by another in your presumed rights.

However, human rights are much broader. In the numerous documents around the world, they involve more substantive moral assertions on what is necessary, for instance, for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness“, “to develop one’s personality to the fullest potential” or “protect inviolable dignity“.

Civil liberties” are certainly that, but they are distinctly civil, and relate to participation in public life.

As Professor Conor Gearty writes, Civil liberties is another name for the political freedoms that we must have available to us all if it to be true to say of us that we live in a society that adheres to the principle of representative, or democratic, government.

In other words, civil liberties are the “rights” or “freedoms” that underpin democracy. This usually means the right to vote, the right to life, the prohibition on torture, security of the person, the right to personal liberty and due process of law, freedom of expression and freedom of association.

Now and Beyond

Over the past couple of decades, our Civil liberties have been tested to the limit by modern technology. We are now all being watched by the government and big corporations, especially over the internet.

Those who do not believe in the big brother are living their lives as a slave to their human rights. There was a line that was not to go over but that has gone over a decade ago.

Now using the pandemic as the reason, governments from the UK to New Zealand are proposing mandatory vaccine passports.

There must be movement soon to say no more…. no more hidden surveillance…. no more collecting our data, no more hidden agendas. This needs to stop.