Michael Gove is an intelligent man. He's opinionated, bullish and stubborn – qualities which made him a lot of enemies during his tenure as Education Secretary in the last Parliament – and he has an unshakable faith in his own infallibility which can be quite off-putting. But he is clever, perceptive, and a formidable opponent.
It is baffling, therefore, that he is even considering touching the Conservatives' proposed repeal of the Human Rights Act (1998) with a bargepole. The problems surrounding such a repeal are many – and not easily overcome. The ramifications could be huge. Lawyer and legal writer David Allen Green (@JackOfKent on Twitter – well worth following, if you're interested in this area of policy) details the issues with his customary clarity on his Blog.
Interestingly, though, Green also touches on the common misconceptions surrounding the Tory party and human rights issues in his column in the Financial Times – pointing out that despite their reputation, the Conservatives historically have delivered constitutional reform and civil liberties legislation of a significant and lasting kind. It appears to be the Human Rights Act – not the concept of human rights itself – to which the Conservatives seem to object.
That is, in itself, not unreasonable. Personally, I don't have any great attachment to a particular piece of legislation; I think human rights, and enshrining those rights in law, are hugely important – but the Human Rights Act itself is just a vehicle for delivering that. Any other similar vehicle would be as good. The Conservatives' plans include replacing the Human Rights Act with something they are calling The British Bill Of Rights. Fine. If the British Bill Of Rights functions in the same way as the Human Rights Act, I've no objections to that – at least not in principle…
What I do object to is the needless constitutional turmoil which could end up endangering the United Kingdom. Replacing the Human Rights Act with a British Bill Of Rights is a task fraught with difficulty. As we've already seen, the consequences of meddling with the Human Rights Act could be huge; there would be a knock-on effect for devolution settlements in Scotland, and on the Good Friday Agreement (not just an Act of Parliament, but an international treaty) in Northern Ireland, and this controversial move would further strain the already fractious relationship between the national government in Westminster and the devolved legislatures affected.
All of which leads me to wonder: is it worth it?
The Tories' proposal is to remove the Human Rights Act and replace it with something which performs pretty much the same job, but under a different name. As I have said, I don't object to that in principle – what's good about the Human Rights Act is not its name, but the fundamental rights of citizens which it exists to uphold, and as long as something is fulfilling that duty I don't much mind what it is, or what it's called.
However, the corollary is that if the proposed British Bill Of Rights would do the same thing as the Human Rights Act, why not just leave the Human Rights Act in place? Risking a constitutional crisis for the sake of removing one piece of legislation and replacing it with another which does pretty much the same job seems, to me, to be utterly ludicrous.
Until we see a draft of it, we don't know what the British Bill Of Rights will hold. It may well be that the British Bill would enshrine our civil liberties in law just as well as the current Human Rights Act does. And that would, therefore, be fine. But even if the outcome would be fine, the process to get there seems incredibly perilous. Any negatives of the Human Rights Act can surely be addressed without a wholesale repeal, and all the brouhaha that will inevitably cause; that is the much safer, more sensible option for critics of the Act.
It is wrong, I believe, to say that the Conservatives are trying to "take away our human rights", or any such hyperbole as that. Conservative MPs such as Dominic Raab (a newly appointed junior minister at the Ministry Of Justice) have a keen interest in civil liberties, and genuinely believe that their approach to defending human rights is the best way. But I think it is correct to say that they are being needlessly, recklessly dogmatic, and putting the future of our country at risk for the sake of what is, essentially, an ideological vanity project designed to appeal to those hysterically populist tabloid newspapers who would otherwise be screaming about the indignities of Brussels-mandated banana curvature.
Replacing the Human Rights Act with a British Bill Of Rights might not be the worst thing in the world – but getting there is so risky and so labyrinthine that it simply isn't worth it. I seriously hope this government drops the stunt, stops pandering to whoever in the tabloid press can shout the loudest, and gets on with something meaningful and worthwhile before too much damage is done.