Tory Watch: Michael Gove and the Human Rights Act

Meet Michael Gove…


Michael Gove was adopted by a Scottish family from Aberdeen, aged 4 months. He went to state school initially, but then won a scholarship to private school and read English at Oxford University (gaining a 2:1). He was president of the Oxford Student Union during his time there. His interest in politics began at University but got off to a rocky start – he was rejected for a job at the Conservative research department for being ‘not Tory enough’ and ‘not political enough’.

His initial career was as a journalist, a writer. He had regular columns in the Times after becoming a lead writer there in 1996. He’s written for the TLS and Spectator, has won awards for his writing and was also a regular on Radio 4 and BBC2 shows. He also worked as a speech writer for both shadow and cabinet ministers. His wife is also a writer for The Times, with a regular column at the Daily Mail since 2013.

Gove was elected to Parliament in 2005 and is part of the Notting Hill set. He was appointed Education Secretary in 2010, before being replaced in 2014 and serving as the Chief Whip for the Tory party. His term in office at the Department of Education was controversial and eventful to say the least. Under his authority, academies took hold, Free Schools were opened, American classics were removed from the national curriculum for English literature, the school-building programme was cut back, bibles were given as gifts to every school in England and plans were made to replace GCSEs (although these were rejected by parliament). Michael Gove also announced plans to allow teachers who were involved in groups such as the BNP (“extremist groups”) to be dismissed (Guardian, Nov 2010).

Gove might not have the most photogenic face – cartoonists must have cheered with glee when he rose to the centre state of national politics (and it took a long time to find a picture of him not pulling a funny face for this article). But he is not a man to be dismissed lightly. Intelligent, articulate, educated, influential and with strong ideas about how to change this country, he is a man to be taken very seriously indeed.

Current Job

Following the election in May 2015, Michael Gove was appointed Justice Secretary.

So what does that job involve?

The Government website gives the following job description:

The Secretary of State has oversight of all of Ministry of Justice business and is responsible for making improvements to the criminal justice and prison system so that it better serves the public. Other responsibilities include:

  • the resourcing of his department
  • overall strategy on criminal justice, penal policy, human rights and rehabilitation
  • other functions of the Lord Chancellor
  • EU and international

Gove is in charge of these areas now.

Government Strategy

How does this link into government strategy?

The first thing that the Conservative Government have announced their intentions on is the repeal of the Human Rights Act (1998). I’ve already blogged about what this act covers, so let’s think about how this intention would affect the UK.

In the first instance, not so much, although the legal process would become more long winded for anyone who wished to appeal a case based upon Human Rights legislation. While the HRA might be removed, the UK is still a member of the Council of Europe. This means we are still covered by the European Court of Human Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights, which covers pretty much the same stuff as the UK’s HRA. The HRA means that the UK has incorporated the ECHR into UK law. Even if we get rid of the UK’s HRA, we are still covered by the European Convention of Human Rights.

So it’s all fine so long as we are a member of the Council of Europe. And we’d never leave, right? Because we were a founding member, right from the beginning, in 1949.

Well … that’s not important, according to the Conservatives.

You see, they have already threatened to take us out of the Council of Europe over the issue of prisoners voting in elections. The previous Justice Secretary Chris Grayling had this to say on the matter:

“If we cannot reach agreement that our courts and our parliament will have the final say over these matters then we will have to withdraw.We have a treaty right to withdraw, it is specifically provided for in the convention. We would exercise that right. There is always a first time for everything.”

This would, for the first time since 1949, leave the UK legally isolated. Don’t like the decision that the government made regarding your case? Tough shit. There is nowhere left to run and nowhere left to appeal.

The new government aren’t fooling around on this issue. This was a key pledge in their manifesto and it is out of the gate, front and centre, within the first month of them being elected to power. They want the last word on all legal issues in the UK and they are determined to have it.

So how does this link back to Gove?

Personal Views

Well, it turns out Michael Gove has been vocally in favour of hanging, during that time when he was working as a journalist having been told he wasn’t political or conservative enough. Why? Because he believes it would force the courts to be fairer:

“Hanging may seem barbarous, but the greater barbarity lies in the slow abandonment of our common law traditions. Were I ever alone in the dock I would not want to be arraigned before our flawed tribunals, knowing my freedom could be forfeit as a result of political pressures. I would prefer a fair trial, under the shadow of the noose.”

Honestly speaking, I would rather my freedom be at risk of forfeit under political pressure rather than my life. One of those two processes can be reversed in the event of a miscarriage of justice. Especially since the UK’s justice systems have been known to get it wrong in the past.

Supporters of Gove have pointed out that he made these remarks 20 years beforehand. Shouldn’t we cut him a break?

Well, the truth is these remarks have been all over the national press again. And not once – not once – has Gove issued any statement or made any comment to indicated that he has changed his views, changed his mind or no longers wishes to follow this course of action. He might have apologised to a former teacher for poor behaviour, but he hasn’t apologised for wanting to kill prisoners found guilty of crimes. That to me speaks volumes in the silence – he still thinks this is a wise course of action, and it is one that will be open to him once the HRA and ECHU are out of the way.

The Conservative Government have stated that they want to replace the HRA with a ‘British Bill of Rights and Reponsibilities’.

They have yet to release a draft, despite having promised one before the election.

Key Questions

1) Will this Bill apply to all residents of Britain? Or only British citizens?

After all, they have specifically stated that the intent behind scrapping the HRA is so that ‘foreign criminals can be more easily deported from Britain’ (manifesto page 58). Does this mean that non-British nationals will not be covered by the proposed BBRR?

Will asylum seekers be covered while they are making their claims? While they are appealing? While they are given temporary leave to remain? Or indefinite leave to remain?

What about other EU citizens?

Or international visitors?

Or the non-UK born spouses/children of British residents?

How far will this bill go in terms of protection? Who are they planning to leave out from the umbrella? The HRA is already inclusive in its protection. If it is to be curtailed, who is going to be left outside of the remit? That’s a deeply worrying thought.

2) Will this Bill cover all of the current elements of the HRA?

I presume not, since they have already spoke badly of the ‘so-called’ Right to Family Life (manifesto page 30).

What else are they planning to leave out?

3) How will their plans for punishments change under the new legislation?

Hanging is explicitly banned as being against Human Rights under the HRA (1998) and the ECHR.

Did you know that following the abolition of the death penalty for murder, the House of Commons held a vote during each subsequent parliament until 1997 to restore the death penalty for Murder? It was the passing of the HRA in 1998 that stopped this, after a Labour Government came to power. This motion was always defeated, but the death penalty still remained for other crimes until long after it was abolished for murder.

  1. causing a fire or explosion in a naval dockyard, ship, magazine or warehouse (until 1971);
  2. espionage (until 1981);
  3. piracy with violence (until 1998);
  4. treason (until 1998); and
  5. certain purely military offences under the jurisdiction of the armed forces, such as mutiny (until 1998). Prior to its complete abolition in 1998, it was available for six offences:
    1. serious misconduct in action;
    2. assisting the enemy;
    3. obstructing operations;
    4. giving false air signals;
    5. mutiny or incitement to mutiny; and
    6. failure to suppress a mutiny with intent to assist the enemy.

No executions were carried out in the United Kingdom for any of these offences after the abolition of the death penalty for murder, but there was a working gallows in HMP Wandsworth which was tested every six months up until 1992. Once the HRA has been scrapped and we’re out of the Council of Europe, the way would be paved to bring this legal punishment back.

I would like to know which of these offenses the government thinks the death penalty should be reinstated for, and to see a definition of what they constitute.

But I doubt we will see one in time for us to make an informed decision on such matters.

4) Finally one personal question to Michael Gove:

You have stated that you are a proud Christian, who is “selfish, lazy, greedy, hypocritical, confused, self-deceiving, impatient and weak. And that’s just on a good day.” You have said that “while all of us are prey to weakness, there is a potential for good in everyone. Every individual is precious.” And yet you are willing to dish out death and judgement on the most final and fatal of scales.

I am not a Christian, but I take the liberty of quoting from your holy scripture. The King James version, since that’s the one you sent out to the schools in England and described as ‘the most important book in the English language’. I would like to know which part of these verses you did not understand. Or did you just choose to ignore their relevance?

‘Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord.’ (Romans, 12:19)

‘Thou shalt not kill.’ (Exodus, 20:13)

What can we do?

You can contact Michael Gove to make your views on his policies and opinions known at the following address:

Ministry of Justice
102 Petty France


You can keep up to date with the Ministry of Justice and their efforts/new developments via social media:

You can respond to consultations from the Ministry of Justice via this website:

You can start e-petitions here – although this site is currently ‘on a break’ after the general election. There are some other petitions going around about the HRA and the government’s proposals to scrap it. You can sign two of them from 38 Degrees and Amnesty International here:

This has been Tory Watch. We will be back. 

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Are you listening Mr Gove?

So this morning I log in to Twitter to find that Michael Gove has decided that American classic novels like To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice And Men, along with classic plays just like The Crucible, are not good enough for the English Literature GCSE syllabus. He would prefer learners to read British texts instead.

To say that I think this would be moronic is an understatement. Of Mice And Men is a text that I have personally taught and it had a massive impact upon the teenagers who were in my class. I cannot say the same about every text I have taught to that age group. Austen would not have had the same reach. Nor would Charlotte Bronte. Nor would Charles Dickens. And I say that as a great admirer of all three of those writers’ works.

I made a quip to my husband this morning that if we’re going to focus on British writers, we should have Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis on the syllabus. After all they’re both highly successful contemporary writers, who work in a wide variety of media and who have both produced exemplary prose worthy of study.

On a whim I tweeted it. Then this happened…



For those who can’t see, it says RETWEETED BY NEIL GAIMAN

This is pretty incredible, given that I am a massive fan.

The 47 retweets and 82 likes that followed were also incredible.

It’s not often you find yourself at the centre of a zeitgeist.

This has been a great day, I’ve really enjoyed this whole thing. It’s been great getting tweets from other people with other suggestions too. Other writers that I like and respect like Jasper Fforde, Stephen Fry, Terry Pratchett and Alan Moore. Other successful writers like Grant Morrison, J G Ballard, Douglas Adams and Nick Harkaway were suggested too.

But it doesn’t really matter what I think.

Rather unfortunately, the crux of this matter rests with someone else.

And this matter is very important. We’re defining what literature the vast majority of 14-16 year olds in this country are going to be exposed to in their formative years. We’re deciding that lessons they’re going to be taught, what life lessons they’re going to be exposed to through their reading. What they read during these years will have  a massive impact upon whether or not they read for pleasure as adults or whether they regard reading as distasteful and something to be endured or avoided.

The texts that Gove is considering removing tackle massively important themes. Like Loyalty. Friendship. Love. Honour. Justice. Integrity. Equality. He regards it as a “disappointing statistic” that 90% of learners have read ‘Of Mice And Men’ which touches on the vast majority of these in a simple, direct and elegant way which still speaks to teenagers and young adults across decades and thousands of miles.

Incidentally – those themes I just listed? They are the ones I admire most in the work of Gaiman and Ellis. I adore Spider Jerusalem’s passion for the truth, his pursuit of the facts, his dedication to uncovering every sordid and hidden little political detail in his city. I still read and re-read Good Omens by Pratchett and Gaiman, which addresses the fundamental nature of Good and Evil in this world along with the notions of destiny, innocence and freewill.

I wasn’t kidding when I said that those writers should be included in the syllabus for study. These are the sorts of themes that our young people should be examining, deconstructing, discussing and ENJOYING. These are the sorts of texts that should be forming part of the gateway to the world of literature, wider reading and cultural awareness. Alongside those wonderful classics by Harper Lee, John Steinbeck and Arthur Miller. The advantage that writers like Gaiman, Pratchett and Ellis have though is that they are still alive. They are accessible. Reachable. Still talking. Still writing. Still working.

Michael Gove would rather that we go back to the tired texts that have been picked over, pulled apart and written about for decades. For hundreds of years. By people who carry more authority and more weight than the average fourteen year old will ever muster. Michael Gove would rather than we study texts where academics have already determined the right and wrong answers about the vast majority of the issues. Where people have already decided what opinions are acceptable to hold about those texts.

Michael Gove would like our young people to study texts which reinforce gender stereotypes, highlight the existence of class boundaries and promote the notion that Britain is a world economic and military power. He would like our young people to live in the past, to be shielded from the complex nature of this international world and cocooned within blind and outdated nationalism.

I always believed that Michael Gove was unfit for his post. This decision of his confirmed it.

How can someone who has studied English Literature at Oxford University believe that reinforcing nationalism is more important than exposure to the best examples of literature that the world has to offer? How can someone who is in charge of the education process for the overwhelming majority of this country’s youth allow his personal preferences and tastes in influence his policy decisions? How can someone with this level of influence believe that the past is more relevant that the present we are living in, or the future that our young people are going to build?

This man is not fit to be the Secretary of State for Education.

And it is this man whose opinion dictates what happens next.

Even on a day like today which has been filled with joy and excitement, the feeling which dominates me most at the end of the day is Fear. Fear about what else Michael Gove might come up with next. Recently I’ve been watching the hashtag of #weneeddiversebooks on twitter. Michael Gove would do well to read some of the responses and rethink his blinkered and narrow minded approach to education policy, especially when it comes to literature. But sadly, I don’t think he ever will.

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