In the Footsteps of H G Wells

By Klug, Francesca | New Statesman (1996), October 9, 2000 | Go to article overview

In the Footsteps of H G Wells


Klug, Francesca, New Statesman (1996)


The great author called for a Human Rights Act; 60 years later, we have it.

At the beginning of the Second World War, H G Wells wrote a letter to the Times attached to a draft "Declaration of Rights". The celebrated author called for a set of written principles to clarify what people were fighting for. His point was that fundamental rights were not just legal entitlements, but a set of values -- perhaps the only values powerful enough to inspire and bind a nation of disparate people in the common undertaking of defending their country from invasion.

Wells called for a great debate on the issue, and the left-wing Daily Herald obliged. It made a page a day available for a month, for a discussion of the articles in the draft Declaration. The final version of the Declaration was published in the Herald in February 1940, with comments by distinguished personalities, including J B Priestley, A A Milne, Kingsley Martin, Barbara Wootton and Clement Attlee, the future Labour prime minister.

The Declaration was translated into 30 languages and sold thousands of copies. A Penguin special, The Rights of Man or What We Are Fighting For by H G Wells, was published with a revised version of the "Declaration of Rights". Wells sent a copy to his friend, President Franklin Roosevelt, and on 1 January 1942 the allied powers belatedly included the protection of human rights among their official war aims. After some further lobbying, this goal was reflected in the founding charter of the UN.

This was not the first time that the idea of fundamental rights electrified these islands. Wells traced a line between the Magna Carta, the 1689 Bill of Rights and his own vision of fundamental rights.

One hundred and fifty years before Wells's efforts, Tom Paine's extraordinary two-part booklet, The Rights of Man, had endorsed France's newly minted Declaration of Rights. First published in 1791, it was a bestseller -- about one in ten readers bought it.

That other hero of the left, however, Karl Marx, dismissed "the so-called rights of man"--and the curtain largely went down on a debate that had so fired radicals in an earlier era. Wells excepted, from then on, bills of rights were usually dismissed by the left as irrelevant at best and hopelessly individualistic at worst.

As the 20th century wore on, successive UK governments bequeathed a bill of rights as a leaving card to virtually all its former colonies, most recently to Hong Kong in 1991. One by one, virtually the entire democratic world adopted bills of rights, or incorporated human rights treaties into their laws. But Britain hung on to its common law liberties and unwritten rights.

Until now, that is. This month, the people of the UK finally have their own bill of rights -- a set of written entitlements that can be enforced in the courts. Although most of us may already enjoy many of the rights written down in the Human Rights Act, we do not all inhabit such a benign world.

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