Humans are the only species on this planet that cover their natural bodies in manufactured clothing. A million years of evolution and our skin, with its covering of fine short hair, is not up to the job, it seems. How would Darwin explain that one? It’s a rhetorical question but I can imagine creationists may have an answer:
If the good lord had intended us to go naked she wouldn’t have created sunburn and skin cancer.
On the whole, UK law is fairly sensible and there is no law against going nude, no legislation to say we must wear clothes in public places. That is why I’ve seen a whole lot of Stephen Gough, otherwise known as the naked rambler. I’ve seen him many times and mostly naked except for sensible footwear. It seems he was born in the wrong time and place, he’d have been right at home in ancient Greece. Or actually anywhere for most of human history. Or even in some other parts of the world now. The social taboos and culture around decent dress are limited in human history.
In case you are unfamiliar with the Naked Rambler’s story in 2004 he walked, without clothes, from Land’s End to John O’Groats.
Of course, he makes great TV (of the channel 4 or 5 variety). When I say i’ve see him, I mean on my TV. I’ve never met him, in the flesh. I’ve deliberately watched documentaries about this crazy anarchic libertarian. For many reasons, not least I admire people who are willing to stand out from the crowd for their beliefs. Mr Gough does more than this, however, he challenges and exposes some of the tensions in the UK between individual freedom and law and order.
It is worth repeating:
- It is not illegal to be naked in a public place in the UK.
- We are all wearing clothes due to social convention and possibly peer pressure (and the weather, of course).
Unfortunately, life went downhill for him and he has spent most of the last decade in prison essentially because he insists on taking his clothes off, in public places. He has been charged with the common law offense of “outraging public decency”, breach of the peace and served with civil anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs).
To spend the greater part of a decade of your life in prison for doing something that is not illegal, for simply walking around naked, does seem a bit harsh.
So Mr Gough took a case to the European Court of Human Rights claiming the UK government was restricting his freedom of self expression in contravention of European Convention on Human Rights, which was drafted in 1950, long before the European Common Market (EEC) or the EU. Note, the European Court of Human Rights was established by the Council of Europe in 1950s, it is nothing to do with the European Union. Leaving the EU, or not, makes no difference to our relationship with the Council of Europe and Human Rights.
I have been to the Court in Strasbourg and had the privilege of sitting in on a hearing in the 1990s. It was fascinating.
It is impressive that 47 countries have signed up to this process whereby a case can be considered by a bunch of judges, as many as seventeen at a time. The judges are independent experts from each of the 47 countries, so they have both great experience but no vested interest in the outcome of a case. They do not make laws but only consider each issue in relation to the European Convention on Human Rights. Judgements relate to this and only this.
The Court’s function is to ensure the enforcement and implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR drafted in 1950, as a direct consequence of the atrocities committed in Europe in 1940s).
Among other things the convention:
- Protects the right to life.
- Prohibits torture and “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”
- Countries may not deport people who might be subjected to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, in the recipient state
- Prohibits slavery and forced labour
- Demands the right to a fair trial (the McLibel trial is very interesting in relation to this one).
- Right to respect for private and family life
- Right to freedom of thought & religion
- Right to freedom of expression
The European Convention on Human Rights is not essentially controversial. The UK government is signed up to it (and at the time was instrumental in writing it) and, in recent statements about repeal of the UK Human Rights Act, the current conservative government expressed support for the Convention and has reaffirmed its intention to remain a member of the Council of Europe.
It is notable that the government has won in the vast majority of cases against the UK, which means overall our society is very good at protecting those basic rights and freedoms that we take for granted.
Some examples of the UK losing:
- Aslef, a trade union should be free to decide who can join. Ie can exclude people with opposing views such as BNP & NF members.
- Spycatcher, when the UK government wanted to gag our newspapers from reporting on a book that was available for purchase all over the world except in England & Wales.
- Not all convicted prisoners should be denied the right to vote.
In total contrast to going bare what about completely covering up?
I was very interested to follow a French case in recent years. in 2011 France outlawed full face coverings in public. If you want to rob a bank in that country you can’t wear a balaclava or a crash helmet. As soon as the law was introduced in 2011 a woman (SAS) applied to the court to defend her right to religious freedom, freedom of expression and the freedom to a private family life. The French had taken the bold step of banning the full veil, the niqab.
I couldn’t imagine such a ban in the UK where we expect to be able to wear anything (or even nothing) and we are very tolerant of other people whether they are eccentric or religious or both. It seems a very anti-British rule, no wonder we were always at war with the French.
On the other hand I could see that the new law wasn’t a bad idea. If you are not about to mug someone at the cash point machine, why completely cover your face in a way that can frighten and intimidate others? Seeing the full face of other people is reassuring and a part of social interaction. In relation to the full veil covering the face of women, i am pleased we do not live in a society where that is the norm and note that such headgear is associated with societies that discriminate against women rather than support full gender equality.
In 2014 the Court delivered its ruling upholding the French law. Two judges held the minority view that her religious freedom was breached by the ban but all unanimously agreed that the lady had not suffered discrimination because the ban was not sole enforced on against religious or cultural garments but all full face coverings. In conclusion, the French government won and the law is still in place because showing our full face as part of living together as a social group is legitimate.
In the UK you can still walk around totally covered up from head to toe like the Stig or a ghost of the white bed sheet variety but when you cross to Calais you must alter your costume.
In 2014 the Court also delivered its decision on the naked rambler’s case, he did not win. I’m no lawyer so my interpretation may not be quite accurate but it seems similar to the French. It is legitimate for the state to curb an individual’s freedom to dress in as much or as little as s/he pleases in the interest of us living together as a social group. It doesn’t matter that the nudity of the naked man is not illegal, it is antisocial, it might upset or alarm other people and so the state is right to protect us from repetitive antisocial conduct.
Personally I don’t agree with every decision arrived at in the European Court of Human Rights, but what is marvelous about this institution is that a whole bunch of independent experts will consider the issue and evidence in relation to a clearly defined and agreed set of Human Rights.
The repeal of the Human Rights Act
Finally, the current government propose to scrap the UK Human Rights Act, I think this is about politics. About being seen to repeal laws passed by a Labour government and being seen to keep British courts free of European influence. The Human Rights Act came in in the late 1990s, the European Convention in the 1950s.
The repeal of the Human Rights Act will have
no impact on our rights
as long as the UK remain committed to the Council of Europe and the European Convention.