British freedom was anything but universal. Nationalist, often xenophobic, it viewed nearly every other nation on earth as ‘enslaved’ – to popery, tyranny or barbarism. . . . British freedom was the linear descendant of an understanding of liberty derived from the Middle Ages, when ‘liberties’ meant formal privileges such as self-government or exemption from taxation granted to particular groups by contract, charter, or royal decree. . . . The medieval understanding of liberty assumed a hierarchical world in which individual rights in a modern sense barely existed, and political and economic entitlements were enjoyed by some social classes and denied to others. 30
Of course this version of history is as contested as any other, although the awarding of compensation in 2013 to more than 5,000 Kenyans tortured during Britain’s colonial rule and the Prime Minister’s acknowledgement in the same year of the ‘monstrous’ 1919 Amritsar massacre in British India of peacefully protesting Sikhs, provides evidence of Foner’s assertion that British freedom was a rationed commodity. The second interconnected problem is that even when values such as ‘liberty’ and ‘tolerance’ are presented as ‘universal’ they can, as Gray has warned, sound like ‘the universalising project of Western cultures’. 31 This was ﬂ awlessly reﬂ ected in the response of the former president of the European Union Herman Van Rompuy to the Turkish request for entry to the EU in 2009 when he said ‘the universal values which are in force in Europe, and which are also fundamental values of Christianity, will lose vigour with the entry of a large Islamic country as Turkey [ sic ].’ 32
For a book aimed at homing in on universal human rights this critique may sound surprising. But the kernel of my argument is that post-war human rights should not be understood as a straightforward continuation of the Enlightenment project of universalizing a Western preoccupation with rationality and individual liberties, as is frequently presumed. To the contrary, it was in large measure an attempt to ‘correct’ the failures of that project in the aftermath of the Second World War.