Dominic Raab appointed Justice Secretary last month: should we be worried?
It is not often that we can read the thinking of a cabinet minister and rarer still for an MP to write about a topic which becomes central to his ministerial appointment. Dominic Raab, the new Justice Secretary after the recent reshuffle, has written about human rights in a book The Assault on Liberty: What Went Wrong with Rights, (Harper Collins, 2009) and was co-author with Kwasi Kwateng, Priti Patel, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss of Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
The latter book became famous (infamous?) for the much quoted passage accusing British workers for ‘being among the worst idlers in the world’ and for Britain being what they termed a ‘bloated state with high taxes and excessive regulation’. The book was criticised for its slipshod research. Four of the authors have achieved senior positions in the Johnson cabinet.
Raab’s book is devoted to a demolition of human rights as expressed in the Human Rights Act. There are several key themes in the book the main one being that it is an attack on British Liberties. The act he claims has led to a proliferation of rights beyond the original intention caused by the court in Strasbourg widening the net with each new case.
This has led to confusion by those dealing with the law, police and local authorities he claims. Teachers can no longer keep control in class because of the act. Professionals have ‘their judgement trumped by being fettered by the diverse and onerous burdens dictated by human rights’.
Claims by individuals can now ‘select from an arsenal of new rights’ by which the individual can ‘force the state to prioritise the interest of the individual claimant over the claims of other individuals and the rest of society’.
There are interesting passages on torture. He says ‘[A] whole range of comparatively minor mistreatment is now covered by the wide ban on torture and inhuman treatment, well beyond the original intention of the convention’. No evidence is given to support this.
Significantly, a number of references are quotes from the Daily Mail which has maintained a steady stream of stories critical of the act and of human rights generally. Curiously, Raab quotes one concerning a man under siege who demanded Kentucky fried chicken as it was his ‘human right’. This made headlines in the tabloids but it turned out not to be true. Police routinely accede to reasonable requests in these circumstances in an effort to diffuse the situation and has nothing to do with human rights. Raab acknowledges this but explains that ‘if officials got it wrong it only serves to demonstrate the pervasive confusion’.
His history is not on sure ground either. He claims that the huge rise in prosperity between 1800 and 2000 was due to liberty. The argument seems to be that liberty is under threat from human rights and hence it will harm our prosperity. He rather ignores the influence of slavery and the slave trade which provide enormous wealth enabling the financing of the industrial revolution: hardly an example of liberty at work.
The entire book is a kind of peon of times past. We lived in a country which enjoyed liberty, trial by jury and a parliamentary system which is now threatened by a proliferation of rights ‘conjured up by human rights lawyers and campaigners’ he states. Conor Gearty refers to the ‘myth of the glorious past’ in his book On Fantasy Island (Oxford University Press, 2016). There was no glorious past. Women for example, then as now, could not look to the law for much in the way of protection. Ferocious laws were enforced against ordinary people to protect the interests of the wealthy and the landowners. Working conditions were atrocious for millions who died early deaths from industrial accidents or from the conditions they worked under. People were deported for the merest offence. It took decades of struggle to achieve basic sanitation and clean water in our towns and cities. And let us not forget that the judiciary are drawn from an extremely narrow section of society with 70% of them educated in just a handful of public* schools.
Raab’s book is thus based on the dubious proposition that we all enjoyed halcyon days of liberty and then along came the Human Rights Act which is slowly and surely destroying it. We can ask ‘liberty for whom?’ The wealthy, the elite, the well connected and the products of elite schools did enjoy the fruits of liberty. But the vast majority of citizens (actually subjects, we are not citizens) had little recourse to the law even if they could afford it. They were unlikely to get a fair hearing even if they did.
Perhaps one of the facts about the Human Rights Act is that it gives every person a list of basic rights. Everyone can in principle at least, use these rights to achieve justice, something they could not do before.
Dominic Raab’s book is worrying since it reveals reasoning which is feeble, flawed and far from historically accurate. Together with his contribution to Britannia Unchained it also reveals someone who seems to have both a low opinion of his fellow citizens and a somewhat disdainful attitude to their rights.
He is now our Justice Secretary.
American readers. Since we have many USA readers we should explain that ‘public’ schools are not public at all. They are extremely expensive private schools.