There is a lie permeating the Christian social-media detachment that the Conservative quest to repeal New Labour’s Human Rights Act amounts to an assault upon fundamental human rights; that somehow Tories are inherently opposed to limitations on the state and to the basic protections and assurances of justice and liberty which have been set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights – the ‘Human Rights Charter’ – which the UK helped to draft in the aftermath of World War II. No doubt the Church of England (or, rather, certain anti-Conservative bishops and clergy) will be vocal in their opposition to repeal, insisting (erroneously, not to say misleadingly) that the Government’s intention to replace the Human Rights Act 1998 with a British ‘Bill of Rights’ constitutes an immoral political degradation, if not a grave social evil.
Michael Gove is the new Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor. The role is not quite as it was when Sir Thomas More kept the Great Seal with “like place, pre-eminence, jurisdiction, execution of laws, and all other customs, commodities, and advantages”. But like More, Gove is a lay churchman of great intellect and integrity with a profound understanding of theology, ecclesiology, social philosophy and jurisprudence. He is tasked with implementing the necessary legislative reforms – a post-devolution constitutional quandary which will make the establishment of Free Schools look like a brisk walk in the park while nibbling a very dainty piece of cake.
Chancellor More saw the Act of Supremacy as theological heresy and lost his head over a sovereign matter of political treason. Michael Gove sees the Human Rights Act as philosophical heresy but is unlikely to lose his head by asserting that British judges ought to adjudicate on the rights and liberties of British subjects: that it is not for activist judges in foreign courts to contravene parliamentary statutes or intervene in domestic courts. If Chancellor More “heard Luther’s call to destroy the Catholic Church as a call to war”, Chancellor Gove hears Cameron’s call to repeal the Human Rights Act as a call to righteous governance, liberty and justice.
Conservatives prefer to talk about human rights in the context of individual responsibilities: it is a social contract of mutual reciprocity for the furtherance of the common good and the flourishing of civil society. What reasonable Christian could possibly object to that? The manifestation of human rights to which Conservatives are inherently opposed are not those ‘fundamental’ ones of dignity, liberty and life; but those which demand that foreigners who commit crimes may not be summarily deported because to do so would infringe their ‘right’ to a family life; that alien extremist Muslims who think Britain is “like the inside of a toilet” cannot be expelled because of some nebulous threat of torture; that foreign courts may determine that prisoners have their ‘democratic rights’ violated when they may not vote in elections; that hijackers of aeroplanes should be able to claim and be granted asylum in the UK; that an escaped criminal on a prison roof shouldn’t be entitled to Kentucky Fried Chicken to “protect his wellbeing”, courtesy of an accommodating police force.
The Human Rights Act 1998 was one of New Labour’s flagship pieces of legislation. It promised a culture of awareness of rights, but has produced nothing but a culture of absurd infractions and perpetual grievance. There are now more than a thousand human rights lawyers in the UK – mainly funded by taxpayers through Legal Aid – stoked by the Commission for Equality and Human Rights which says its task is to “opine on every law which it may not like”. This muddled and murky partnership is disposed neither toward yielding justice nor liberty.
Even Labour politicians complain about the Act’s consequences. Former Home Secretary John Reid said: “We are fighting with one arm tied behind our backs.” Quite so: the Act has clearly become a charter for traitors, terrorists and chancers. When we cannot deport criminal foreign nationals even when they are in Britain illegally, it ought to be clear that the application of human rights is open to serious and serial abuse.
Surely it is preferable for the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom to be supreme. Surely it is better for politicians to legislate and for judges to interpret and apply, and for both to be subject to the rational democratic will. Governments are elected to shoulder responsibility: they are tasked with ensuring justice and sustaining liberty in accordance with our Judæo-Christian traditions and customs of law. A framework of human rights that is both relativistically secular and detached from a foundational moral code is inevitably going to challenge Christian-based jurisprudence.
The Conservative proposal for a new British ‘Bill of Rights’ is designed to redress the imbalance. If the Human Rights Act is not repealed, this new ‘Bill of Rights’ will merely supplement it with an additional tier of rights, piling rights upon rights with no appeal to responsibilities. Notwithstanding that we already have a Bill of Rights (1689) which explains the rights of subjects and defines the limits of the power of the state, it is worth giving Michael Gove the opportunity to fashion a contemporary expression of these rights in the new context; to make the sovereign intention of Parliament clear; to constrain the influence of Strasbourg case law promulgated by activist judges. This solution must protect our liberties, respect our legal inheritance and restore the sovereignty of Parliament.
And those Christians who spread the lie that to oppose Labour’s Human Rights Act is to oppose the very notion of human rights need to consider the temporal repercussions of perpetuating grave injustice, as well as the eternal consequences of spreading such disinformation. Michael Gove may not be a man for all seasons, but he is the Queen’s good servant, if not God’s first.