I had some fun on Twitter over the weekend. Here’s a tweet I put out there:
One of my favourite Brexiteer lines is “If you like the EU so much why don’t you go and live there?” Perhaps because Brexit removed my right to do so?
Although I didn’t tweet this to specifically phish for information, what I learned was interesting to me. A lot of people don’t actually understand what a right is and by extension, when that right has been taken away. Many Leavers shot back at me that Brexit hadn’t removed my right to live and work in the EU at all. I could fill in some forms. I could get a visa. What was my complaint? Any British citizen could still work in the EU if they qualified and did the right things.
Except, this just demonstrates a deep lack of understanding of what constitutes a right and what does not. And for the political right to be failing to understand this is interesting in and of itself given rights have been at the centre of so many of their concerns over the last thirty years.
But first, let’s define the difference between a right and a privilege. A right is something that cannot be legally denied to anyone who falls within its remit. Basically, if you are a citizen of a country that grants a particular right, no government can legislate to take it away from you without legally removing the right in the first place. A privilege, on the other hand, is something that is legally allowed but is at the discretion of whomever is in a position to dispense whatever is contained within the privilege.
The easiest example of a privilege is the drinking of alcohol. Everyone who is over 18 in the UK and tries to buy alcohol between licensed hours has the privilege to do so – not the right. For instance, if I run a pub and you come in obviously, stinking drunk, I can refuse to serve you. I can do so because the drinking of booze is a privilege not a right. If you had the right to drink alcohol if you were over 18 and it was during licensed hours, I could not legally deny you a drink, no matter how drunk I thought you were. To do so would legally be the same as if I told you to get out because you looked gay or Irish or because you were black.
The best example to use here of how important rights can be is the National Rifle Association in America. They certainly know the difference between a right and a privilege. The crux of their whole campaign is keeping the second amendment of the US constitution in place, which is the right to bear arms. They know that if gun ownership becomes a privilege, even one with few caveats, they have lost the game. The difference between your right to bear arms and a privilege to bear them is strikingly different. This is the little talked about difference between the US and Canada – in Canada, bearing arms is a privilege, not a right. Now, it is much easier to get a gun in Canada than it is in the UK, but you can still be denied the legal ownership of guns for many reasons. This is what happens when something is a privilege, not a right – there will be someone who thinks they should have had a gun when they don’t, I should have been allowed a drink, I’m a grown man, etc. Someone will be denied access, inevitably, and the NRA knows this.
The British right knows this as well. At least, it used to. Remember when they used to rail against the European Court of Human Rights? It was because they understood that when you give people rights, it has consequences. Whether you think the consequence of the rights being given out is a good thing or not, you can’t deny they exist. I could stay on Brexit and demonstrate this point even further – people from the EU27 used to have the right to live and work in the UK, now they do not. Brexiteers mostly seem happy about this fact.
Yet they cannot seem to understand that they, like all Britons without an EU passport, have lost their right to live and work in the EU at the same time. Yes, British people can still work in the EU, obviously – they can buy property there that meets immigration standards, they can get a job and then a visa, they can even pretty much buy a passport from a few member states – but this isn’t the same as having the automatic right to live and work in the EU. The fact that you have to do something proactive, even it is just filling out some forms (which it isn’t, by the way), and there is even a small percentage chance you will be turned down, this turns your former right to live and work in the EU into a privilege.
Now, it is a perfectly reasonable position to say that you either don’t mind having lost this right or even that you are happy about it. I can disagree, but it is an intellectually defensible position. But saying, ‘We haven’t lost our right to live in the EU’ means you either just don’t understand the basics of the Brexit deal or you don’t understand the difference between a right and a privilege. Or both. It’s an important distinction – just ask the NRA if you don’t believe me.
While I’m here, I’ve got a new book coming out in the autumn entitled The Patient. It’s about a woman who goes into the hospital to give birth to her child, being two weeks overdue….and ends up staying in the hospital for a year, still pregnant the whole time. If you want to find out more, here’s where you can have a better look.