The UK’s new justice minister has some worrisome thoughts on human rights

Michael Gove, newly appointed justice minister, wants Britain out EHRA.
Michael Gove, newly appointed justice minister, wants Britain out EHRA.
Image: AP Photo/Jon Super
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Michael Gove’s tenure as education secretary in the UK makes his appointment to justice secretary one that ought to invite caution and attention. There were surely moments of that tenure that have raised questions as to why he was ever appointed to the post in the first place.

Some people seem to be more or less okay with Gove’s appointment as justice secretary—Joshua Rozenberg, writing for The Guardian, and Memphis Barker for The Independent are two, and both make good points in the course of what they write: that Gove is a poster-boy for much needed “compassionate, centrist conservatism.” And, indeed, there is a consensus on his being quite nice, but every time I see Gove defended, and every time I see his capacity for intellectual gymnastics invoked, an edge of hand-wringing enters into the fray.

Increase the amount of books children read, sure, but to try and nudge Of Mice and Men, To Kill A Mockingbird, and The Crucible off the syllabus? As if these were “ess than?” As if one couldn’t read Siegfried Sassoon and Steinbeck? Or think about why Twilight might be popular, and then make use of that towards these seemingly hail-the-canon ends? Or cut library budgets to the point where scores have to close, and then demand children read more?

To criticize the economic inequality of the school system and then try and bring back O level exams (and more exams in general; have we forgotten the time when he tried to replace GSCEs with an EBacc?), especially when rich kids do better on standardized testing? There is a weird dissonance that follows Gove around—some of it fine, some of it not.

Take, for instance, a speech of his entitled “What’s Good About The Right?” In it, amongst other things, he casts Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive trust-busting as a deregulatory coup of conservative “personal responsibility” ethos. That’s not what that was—nor, indeed, is. (Though, interestingly, it seems to be cut from the same ideological wool as saying that free schools only succeed because parents choose to send their kids to them.)

It brings to mind Decca Aitkenhead’s piece in The Guardian and George Parker and Helen Warrell’s piece in the Financial Times, where the former “read every word published under [Gove’s] Times byline up to his election in 2005, and found that Gove the progressive arch-modernizer simply does not fit with the facts,” and noted that Gove “regards the Northern Ireland peace process as a shameful capitulation to terrorists.” The latter wrote of how—were he at the Home Office—he would be “driven mad … by the constraints of EU law and the European Convention on Human Rights when dealing with Islamic extremists.”

In Gove’s estimation, then, the fact that pulling out of the EHRA would mean modifying the Good Friday Agreement wouldn’t exactly matter. In fact, he once devoted 65 pages to criticizing the Good Friday Agreement, claiming that it “enshrines a vision of human rights which privileges contending minorities at the expense of the democratic majority,” and that it “turns the police force into a political plaything whose legitimacy depends on familiarity with fashionable social theories and precise ethnic composition and not effectiveness in maintaining order.”

Now, the Human Rights Act is a bill that came into effect in 2000 that incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. The law itself guarantees the right to life, freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment, the right to liberty and security, freedom from slavery and forced labour, the right to a fair trial, the right to education, and the right to participate in free elections, among other stipulations.

To leave that and replace it with a “British Bill of Rights” was the campaign commitment of the Conservative party. On his blog Public Law For Everyone, Mark Elliott notes that “we are told that the Bill of Rights will ‘break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights,’ but are not told how… We are told that the Bill will ‘protect basic rights, like the right to a fair trial, and the right to life, which are an essential part of a modern democratic society,’ but are not told which, if any, other rights it will protect.”

There is a 40-page draft “British Bill” already in existence, and, in his piece for The Guardian, Rozenberg notes there was a “widespread relief” when Chris Grayling, Michael Gove’s predecessor, left his post. In other words, it might already be here, and there might not be anything to worry about. For starters, it would be procedurally difficult to pass a “British Bill,” and Nicola Sturgeon has already said that Scotland would try and resist a change as well, which—based on Elliott’s reading of the law—might very well be something Scotland can do.

Which brings us to this: parliament opens on May 27. To pass judgement on a government that is not yet officially “open for business” would be premature in the surreal extreme. But in looking at Gove’s previous track record in government—as well as Priti Patel’s comments regarding the death penalty—we can say this: he’s a nice person, but, nice as he may be, pay attention.