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October 13, 2011

Magna Carta & the New Europe

By The Rt Hon Shirley Williams

Magna Carta Lecture

1. Introduction

It is indeed a great honour to be invited to deliver the third Magna Carta lecture in a college which has led the way in the higher education of women, the half of the civil community that was for millennia simply left out of the scope of human rights declarations and human rights legislation. Royal Holloway College, founded in 1879, was the younger sister of Bedford College which in 1849 uniquely in England opened its doors to women. They could not take degrees until the degree examinations were extended to women in 1878. Since then, the two colleges, now merged, have produced a stream of excellent graduates, many of whom have made a valuable contribution to their professions and to public life. It is a great honour too, to keep such distinguished company as that of your former lecturers, Lord Woolf and Professor Bogdanor, who have both made conspicuous contributions to the cause of liberty.

It is a timely moment for this lecture, as once again there is much speculation in political circles about yet another round of counter-terrorism legislation, the eighth since 1997. There has even been a suggestion from the redoubtable Home Secretary, John Reid, that the Human Rights Act of 1998, which incorporated the European Human Rights Convention of 1950 into British law, may have to be abrogated for the purpose, and this at the very time Northern Ireland is being brought back within those provisions. The Government’s policies on terrorism have been characterised by instant reactions, a pursuit of headline stories intended to show how tough the Government is, and a marked lack of consultation with Parliament, the judges and even the police. The new indications that the Government will now pursue
a cross-party consensus based on extensive consultation before rushing into legislation is very welcome indeed, though it appears to be something of a death-bed conversion.

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Magna Carta & the New Europe



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