Leading human rights lawyer, Liberal Democrat peer, and member of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG), William Goodhart was born in 1933. He graduated with a law degree from Trinity College Cambridge in 1956 and then won a Harkness Fellowship to study law at Harvard University. He practised as a barrister since 1959 and was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1979.
Politically active for most of his life, Goodhart made a number of attempts to be elected as an MP, originally for the Social Democratic Party and later for the Liberal Democrats. All the while he continued to practice law, for which he received a knighthood in 1989. From 1993 onwards, he served as a Commissioner of the International Commision of Jurists, a worldwide NGO dedicated to the promotion of human rights. From 2007 to 2009, he served as chair of its UK arm, JUSTICE.
1997 and 1998 saw two dreams of Sir William’s realised in quick succession. The first was his entry to Parliament for the first time as a life peer. The second was the passage of the Human Rights Act, which realised many longtime aims of the ICJ. From this point on, he set to work, dedicating his forensic legal mind to all manner of bills put before the House of Lords, and continuing to draw attention to deficits in the United Kingdom’s human rights settlement.
One glaring omission, as he saw it, concerned the privileged place of religion in public life in Britain. Two BHA reports in 2010 brought to Parliamentary attention the sheer extent of religious influence in public services in Britain — and nowhere more than in state-funded schools, where religious organisations controlled one in three school places.
It was Lord Goodhart’s conviction that ‘the government’s support of new state-funded faith schools was a profound mistake.’ He posited: ‘Surely children who sit side by side in a school will understand more about each other than will those who have been to separate schools? Religion must be taught in schools; it is an essential part of history. Not only political and national history, but the history of art, architecture, and music, because so much early art is wholly religious. However, publicly funded schools should not teach that one church or religion knows the truth and that the others do not… or indeed that any religion is necessarily the truth.‘
His concern with education reflected his deeper concerns with the direction of society. ‘In a time of globalisation,’ he remarked, ‘surely we must all learn to live side by side. Education is by far the most important way of achieving that.’
Commenting on Lord Goodhart’s death, BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘With Willie’s death, the BHA has lost a friend and Parliament has lost a heavy hitter for social justice and human rights. His work in Parliament represented not only a profound service to Humanism, but to society as a whole. He will be much missed.’
Lord Goodhart’s family plan to celebrate his life with a humanist funeral in the coming days.
The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.