When I wrote 950 words for the October edition of Standpoint about why Conservatives should support the European Convention on Human Rights I anticipated a certain amount of kerfuffle from some of the magazine’s most articulate and formidable contributors. I am astute enough to know that the mere mention of human rights law is apt to drive a few otherwise reasonable Standpoint readers and contributors to something approaching apoplexy.
At first nothing much seemed to happen. There was the odd tweet, largely from slightly touchy-feely liberal lawyers that habitually drink the milk of Human Rights in preference to the red blood of National Sovereignty. There was a single, somewhat cryptic comment, which I took to be favourable, on the Standpoint website. I steeled myself for evisceration by the terrifyingly intelligent Douglas Murray or the polite but devastating (and terrifyingly intelligent) Daniel Hannan but when none came I started to relax.
What I had not anticipated was an attack — and to be honest it felt a little below the belt — from one of Conservatism’s most distinguished, and according to the slightly baffling Guardian quotation on his website, “fertile” gurus; someone who was in fact, like me, a supporter of the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights.
Standpoint had kindly tweeted a link to my article:
The Conservative case for the Human Rights Act is a strong one, argues Matthew Scott http://ow.ly/pCPMi
Quick as a flash back came a reply — tweeted to more than 11,000 followers — from the fecund Jesse Norman, biographer of Burke, MP for Hereford and Herefordshire South, and (for good measure) son-in-law of Thomas Bingham one of the greatest judges in English history:
What rankled was the suggestion that my article “closely resembled” Mr Norman’s four-year-old pamphlet (jointly written with Peter Oborne), with the implication that I had — not to mince words — plagiarised his work. I may not have the voters of Hereford and Herefordshire South to worry about, but even the criminal classes of Hampshire and Wiltshire, from whom I derive a modest and steadily reducing income, might hesitate to instruct a brief branded by a popular guru as a cheat and a charlatan. Would you want to be represented by the Johann Hari of the Western Circuit?
As it happens I have now read Mr Norman’s pamphlet The Conservative Case for the Human Rights Act and it is, as one would expect, lucid, learned and persuasive. It is also more than 10 times as long (I haven’t done a word count) as my modest effort. We both make the obvious point that the EU is not the same as the ECHR, but that is hardly an observation that Mr Norman is entitled to copyright. He says that the ECHR does not threaten sovereignty because it cannot over-rule domestic courts; I made the same point, not because I was copying Mr Norman — who is not, whatever the Guardian might suggest, regarded as a particular guru in legal circles — but because it is an absolutely fundamental point of constitutional law. People who make it cannot really be expected to acknowledge Mr Norman’s scholarship every time they do so.
Much of his argument was based upon the premise that the Conservative Party (when he wrote his pamphlet in 2009), was not proposing to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights: it now looks as though withdrawal will be one of the centrepieces of the next Conservative manifesto, the point I made in the very first sentence of my article.
Anyone who wishes to do so can of course compare the two pieces of work. I make no claim that mine is any better than his, only that they are demonstrably different pieces, albeit broadly in agreement.
Mr Norman has been kind enough to make clear that he was not intending to suggest plagiarism, for which I am of course grateful. But please, in the future Jesse, perhaps you could think before you tweet.