David Maxwell Fyfe or Lord Kilmuir, as he became, was a staunch Tory for his whole adult life and yet he is hard to equate with the modern breed of conservatives. Kilmuir was born in Edinburgh and became the Conservative member for Liverpool West Derby in 1935, neither places now thought of as Tory hubs. Yet despite having been solicitor-general, attorney general and later home secretary, Kilmuir is relatively unknown.
Neil Duxbury’s short portrait of his life tries to restore and provide a proper context for his legacy: the drafting of the European Convention on Human Rights. This was no mean feat, as Kilmuir was not known for his legal acumen (overshadowed by legal greats like Lord Denning) or his political achievements (he was a key advocate for the invasion of Egypt in the Suez crisis).
The need for the Tories to untangle their own role as authors of the Human Rights Convention plays out in their analysis of Kilmuir’s contribution. In 2014, the Conservatives produced a document entitled ‘Protecting Human Rights in the UK’. This proposed repealing the Human Rights Act 1998 and putting the original Human Rights Convention into primary legislation. The significance of this is that Kilmuir drafted that text and therefore they were attempting to square the circle of the legacy of Tory commitment to a supranational body guaranteeing human rights and their current anti-European sentiment.
If readers are seeking confirmation that those who believe in the sanctity of human rights are on the side of the angels then Kilmuir will disappoint. He was not a radical but a man of his time and this was most evident when he was home secretary. Kilmuir was an enthusiastic proponent of prosecuting homosexual acts and capital punishment. In the case of the murder of a woman, Beryl Evans, and her one-year-old daughter, he continued to believe in the guilt of Timothy Evans despite the confession of another man, John Christie. Kilmuir refused to set up a public inquiry because he was convinced of Evans’ guilt and chose to believe that Christie, a convicted multi-murderer, was innocent of this crime. Aneurin Bevan remarked in the House of Commons that Kilmuir was ‘more concerned with defending the reputation of the member of the legal profession whom he appointed to conduct the inquiry [done in private] than to defend the integrity of British justice’.
Nevertheless, Kilmuir made an important contribution to one of the most major legal developments of the last century. His commitment to universal human rights arose from his role as prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, where in his closing speech he marked his commitment to the universality of tolerance, decency and kindliness. One of three people who drafted the European Convention on Human Rights, Kilmuir referred to it at times as ‘my convention’. Duxbury is clear about Kilmuir’s acceptance of the surrender of part of our national sovereignty to guarantee the efficacy of the ECHR project. More importantly, he argued throughout his life that law was an organic instrument that had to adapt to the world around it.
This short book goes a long way to explaining the Tory commitment to the ECHR at its inception. The case for our continued commitment to the European Court of Human Rights remains compelling. Duxbury’s triumph is to explain why Kilmuir would agree.
Sara Ibrahim is a barrister whose focus includes employment and equalities law. She is a member of the Fabian Society executive committee and former chair of the Young Fabians. She tweets @sara_e_ibrahim
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