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Our human rights don’t just begin with Magna Carta, Mr Prime Minister

Cameron’s historical selectivity would be dismissable were it not for his party’s hard-line view on the European Convention on Human Rights

On the second floor of the United Nations in New York, between the Security Council and Economic Council chambers, there’s an acknowledgement, in the shape of a baked-clay cylinder, that before the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were written, other civilisations had grappled with similar ideas.

The object is a copy of the original Cyrus the Great Cylinder kept in the British Museum. The words carved on it in Akkadian cuneiform script describe a political system that favours racial, linguistic and religious rights and equality, where all slaves are  given freedom; and respect for humanity and the promotion of tolerance is demanded.

In the flag-waving “small island” passage of David Cameron’s conference speech, where “Jerusalem” should have been used to fire up the faithful, the PM said: “When the world wanted rights, who wrote Magna Carta?”

Now I’ve no idea if Cameron has ever visited the British Museum. But one of his many advisers might have pointed out that Magna Carta in 1215, wasn’t the world’s first rights charter. Cameron was out by some 1,754 years. Cyrus was the first king of ancient Persia, who conquered Babylon in 539 BC, and although the British Museum describes the Cyrus Cylinder as “an instrument of propaganda”, the museum’s director, Neil MacGregor, says that while it might not technically be the first declaration of human rights, in respect of the modern concept “it has come to embody the hopes and aspirations of many.” Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the US Declaration of Independence in 1776 and a leading influence on France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen some 13 years later, is said to have noted Cyrus as a key figure.

So do we put it down to Cameron getting carried away? Hyperbole, poetic licence in lining up great British firsts? Because obviously it would be ludicrous to suggest, as Cameron did, that while the Magna Carta was being written, Genghis Khan was deeply concerned about events in Runnymede and how all this rights business might impact the Mongols’ capture of Beijing.

Cameron’s historical selectivity would be easier to dismiss as conference nonsense were it not for his party’s hardline view that the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is incompatible with UK law. He might have conveniently edged out Cyrus the Great to big up the barons and bishops who signed Magna Carta, but his ongoing dismissal of the ECHR and the European Court as somehow unBritish, belies its origins at the very heart of English and Scottish legal tradition. It built on the Universal Declaration, just as the UN built on Thomas Payne’s Rights of Man and it built on what Jefferson, Magna Carta and Cyrus had advocated.

Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, a Tory politician and leading lawyer, chaired the committee that drafted the ECHR, eventually signed in 1950 in Rome. And just as Cameron forgot about Cyrus, he forgets about Maxwell-Fyfe and the reality that English, French and American legal traditions now form a system of human rights that the Conservatives have decided, wrongly, is foreign. And that Britain has “had enough” of it.

So I’d be vigilant about whatever legal history a Conservative leader offers up when the referendum on Europe eventually arrives. Think about it: when we need a Jefferson, who do we have? Sadly, Chris Grayling. Our first Lord Chancellor with no legal background at all.