We shall always overcome: speech to Rally For Our Rights, London, 12 Oct 2019

A couple of weeks ago I was back in Ireland visiting my family in the very place that Boris Johnson wants to reimpose a hard border.

It was a time for remembering and we remembered the dead: the dozens of people, British and Irish, who had died violently mere hundreds of metres from where we met.

There is peace now. It’s a peace that was forged by peaceful protest, by force of argument, by the spilling of sweat not blood. It’s a peace that has European foundations. Britain and Ireland’s common EU membership allowed different identities to be accommodated and old quarrels to be recast. From that new alliances and friendships have formed: before the 2016 referendum Ireland and Britain were the closest allies in the EU.

How things have changed. Now the uppity Irish are the bogey men and women of Brexit, disgracing ourselves in Brexiter eyes by our insistence that our peace is more important than their fantasies of reclaimed imperial glory.

But Boris Johnson and the imbecilic charlatans that form his government have forgotten something. They have forgotten that Britain is not just a land of Empire nostalgists and currency speculators. Like every country it may have a few racists and Blackshirts.

But Britain is also the land of the anti-slavery movement and the first trades unions. It is the land of the suffragettes and campaigns to make poverty history. In other words, this is a country filled with uppity citizens, people who believe in justice and fair play no matter what they are told by those who seek to profit from lies.

Following the corrupted referendum of 2016 the political leaderships of this country, Left and Right, wanted us to go quietly into the darkness. They wanted us to surrender to a far-Right clique the progress that had been made in peace, democracy, human rights, and environmental protections as a result of the UK’s membership of the EU. And they gave us comforting myths to help us on our way: garbage about a “jobs first” Brexit from the Left; nonsense about the Dunkirk spirit from the Right.

But we have not gone quietly. Instead a movement was born of ordinary people showing what Bobby Kennedy called numberless diverse acts of courage and belief and so reshaping the history of these times.

This movement is an expression of that collective sense of outrage that drove the anti-slavery movement and the suffragettes, and that drives still the demands for justice for Grenfell, the Windrush generation and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. It is the same sense of outrage that drives every struggle for social justice and human rights across the world.

Each of us here today is saying with our presence that we are not prepared to silently accept the stripping away of the rights of young people to live and study and work and love across Europe.

Each of us is saying with our presence that we are not prepared to silently allow the denial of the rights of our friends and neighbours to contribute to the flourishing of this society simply because they come from a different part of Europe.

Each of us is saying with our presence that we are not prepared to allow the peace forged at great effort in Ireland to be jeopardised through the racist blundering of the buffoons who currently occupy Downing Street: people who for all their crass talk of world wars have never seen the effect of a bullet or a bomb on a human body, or the devastation that a battle can inflict upon a community or a war upon a society.

The spirit of British decency is alive on these streets today. It has forced the political leadership of this country to accept that Brexit is not a done deal. We have shown them all, from Boris Johnson to Jeremy Corbyn, something they should never have forgotten. That when citizens are outraged, united by our common humanity and repudiating the hatred and racism of the bigots around us, then no matter what injustice we may be confronted with, we will always overcome.

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The Problem of Jefferson: political inaction and the continuation of slavery in the world

My remarks to the Slavery Panel during the Women’s Forum in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting

It’s highly appropriate that slavery is on the agenda of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting this week. Because while London is sometimes thought of as the cradle of the anti-slavery movement, the anti-slavery movement truly started years before the meeting in 1787 that set up the Committee to Abolish the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. It started the first time west African men and women rose up to fight with their bare hands for their freedom from the slave ships, and whose actions disrupted the slave trade to such an extent as to save hundreds of thousands of others from such trafficking.

That is a tradition that has continued across the centuries and across what is now the Commonwealth. From Caribbean leaders such as Mary Prince, to African leaders like Equiano and Cugano, to Asian leaders such as Dr Ambedkar, to contemporary organisations like Piler in Pakistan, OKUP in Bangladesh, Centre for Education and Communication in India, and the Global Alliance against Trafficking in Women. All these have asserted and continue to assert the principles of human rights in opposition to the way the world dehumanises and enslaves others.

So after these centuries of struggle why are we still discussing how to end slavery. Well it is because we, as a human society, still permit slavery to exist.

While I have rarely met anyone who is in favour of slavery in principle, I have met many people who are in favour of slavery in practice. Slavery provides benefits to the powerful, in terms of cheap commodities, cheap construction workers, vulnerable domestic workers, advantages in terms of trade, opportunities to sexually abuse women and children, or simply to indulge prejudice.

So while we all bear a moral responsibility for this continued existence of slavery, the greatest responsibilities must be borne by those with the greatest power to end the power.

A recurrent problem through history is what I have come to think of as the problem of Jefferson. Jefferson was possibly the most brilliant man to hold the US presidency and a vocal opponent of slavery. But all he used that brilliance for was developing excuses why he couldn’t do anything about slavery.

Today politicians and business leaders across the world, including within the Commonwealth, find, in the name of convenience and prejudice, all sorts of reasons not to stand up for the children of their nations and citizens everywhere to end slavery and its causes. Migrants are vilified and exploited in the countries where they live and work and are too often ignored by the governments of the countries from which they originate. Governments make inadequate provision for education, particularly of girls, and both women and girls are denied their most basic rights. Civil society activists and trade unionists who lead the struggle against slavery and for decent work are isolated and persecuted. Police corruption is tolerated. Rule of law is undermined.

The struggle to end slavery is a political one. And yet it is not a coherent political priority for any of the governments of the Commonwealth, even those most voluble in their antipathy towards slavery. So long as this remains the case, it is ordinary Commonwealth citizens who will pay the price with their lives and liberty.

Rule of law, Brexit, and the World Turned Upside Up

The idea of rule of law is not a new one. It is frequently dated as far back as Aristotle, who said “It is better for the law to rule than one of the citizens.”  But the idea is at least a hundred years older. Sophocles dramatized it in Oedipus Rex, in which, as a result of his own investigation, the King finds himself responsible for the plague on Thebes and realises that he must be held accountable, just as anyone else would be, to his prior judgement.

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The Daily Mail reminds readers of its long-standing association with fascism

Rule of law then is the idea that it is the law, independently administered, that governs a people not the whims of any monarch or minister or mob, and that no one is above the law. So, when the mob gathers with flaming torches and pitchforks outside the “witch’s” hovel, or the minister wants rid of his mistress’ husband, the law should protect the basic human rights of the wise-woman and the cuckold, and restrain human excesses, or punish them when they transgress the law.

It is this concept, one that in British law can be traced back as far as Magna Carta, that is most fundamentally under attack with Brexit. It began with press and political denunciations of the independence of the judiciary. It has continued with British government proposals to use the excuse of Brexit and the “will of the people” to grant sweeping Henry VIII powers to ministers. If these powers are granted they will permit ministers to make law without reference to parliament.

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Tom Bingham, Baron Bingham of Cornhill, who served as Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice, and Senior Law Lord

In his magisterial book on the subject, Tom Bingham sets out the fundamental principles of rule of law, noting that these include a requirement for compliance of the state with its obligations in international as well as national law. Bingham quotes Professor William Bishop as describing the international rule of law as including, “the realization that law can and should be used as an instrumentality for the cooperative international furtherance of social aims in such a fashion as to preserve and promote the values of freedom and dignity for individuals.”

But this ideal has long been anathema to powerful sections of the Conservative party. In 2015 David Cameron removed from the ministerial code the requirement for ministers to adhere to international law. Theresa May has never been shy about her wish to remove the UK from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, an entity separate to the EU.

Brexit furthers this ambition to remove the constraints of international law from the UK government. As part of the Brexit process, the Government intends to remove the UK from the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union. This, if it happens, will further remove constraints on ministerial power. A side effect of this will be to put in jeopardy the UK’s continued law enforcement and intelligence cooperation in Europe. But while this would undoubtedly increase the risks of terrorism for ordinary UK citizens, there is little that the pathetic foot soldiers of Islamic State can do that will pose an existential threat to the nation. However, the cynical might comment that, as in the past, an upsurge of terrorist attacks on the civilian population would provide a convenient excuse for a further concentration of power in the hands of ministers and further erosion of the civil rights of the British people.

Since the Brexit vote in 2016, the British Government have sought to find common ground with some of the most unsavoury governments and anti-democratic leaders on the planet. As well as Theresa May’s supplication to Donald Trump and the leaders of the bloodthirsty Saudi Arabian government, she has also proven herself a ready apologist for the governments of Poland and Hungary as they also strike at the foundations of human rights and rule of law in their own countries. Disgraced former Defence Secretary Liam Fox, gave more away than he intended with his declaration of “shared values” with Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines leader whose repudiation of rule of law is so absolute that he promotes indiscriminate murder as a central tenet of his so-called “war on drugs”.

But all this should not be surprising. Because, for the empire-dreaming elite whose money and lies obtained the soiled “mandate” for Brexit, the diminution of rule of law is their central purpose. It will facilitate an environment in which ecological and safety standards, workers’ and consumers’ rights are negated. Capital will once more be given pre-eminence over labour, as newly empowered ministers ensure that the wealthiest are permanently put above the law, at least as far as their tax affairs are concerned. No matter what fantasies are spun by the leadership of the British Labour party about the possibilities of a “People’s Brexit”, they will not alter, one iota, the vital essence of this project, irrespective of who is in government.

So, the prospects of Brexit for the UK are not simply of economic decline, international isolation and irrelevance. British democratic standards and human rights, a tradition that can be traced back to Runnymede, are themselves under threat as the UK continues to seek its future alliances with new dictatorships and old autocracies.

As Shakespeare’s Falstaff reflects while Prince Hal prepares to repudiate their friendship and put him back into his lowly place, these are the “chimes at midnight”. They ring again today for any British subject not wealthy enough to indulge in tax avoidance. The lower orders have had their day. Now they must know their place.

Another fine mess: politics since the Brexit vote

Also published in Left Foot Forward 

When I worked in Angola in the late 1990s, towards the end of the Civil War, I discovered an important truth: just when you think things can’t get any worse, they can. So has it proven with British politics since the 23 June 2016 when the UK narrowly voted to leave the European Union.

Before the 2017 UK General Election I had thought that a hung parliament was probably the best possible outcome, to force some sanity and compromise into the UK’s intent to exit the European Union. Instead, Theresa May has sought a de-facto coalition with the Irish Democratic Unionist Party, a group so extreme that for them the witch burning scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail is not so much comedy, but a utopian ideal.

For many observers the UK’s attitude to the EU in general and to its putative departure from the Union seems profoundly irrational. The government’s stated intention to leave both the Single Market and the Customs Union, ignores the vast economic cost of such moves. Instead Brexiteers fall back on the slogan “take back control”, dreams of a British Empire 2.0, and cooked-up alternative numbers that have little basis in reality. This is a position that has gone broadly unchallenged by the opposition Labour Party who promise the fairytale of a “People’s Brexit” if the electorate were only to entrust them with the levers of government.

To “take back control” of what the government has never really been clear. Certainly immigration, in spite of the UK’s need for immigrants, in order to satisfy the xenophobic amongst the government and its voters.

The government is also intent to “take back control” from the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union, in spite of the threat that this poses to security and justice cooperation in Europe at a time of rising tensions and increasing violence across the continent. This perhaps gets to the nub of the matter. Because it suggests that rather than the government’s approach to Brexit being only economically incompetent and politically delusional it rather suggests that the government’s intent is profoundly ideological.

Taken alongside the antipathy of Theresa May to the European Court of Human Rights, and the former Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to remove from the Ministerial Code an obligation for ministers to comply with international law, the UK’s intent to quit the European Union indicates an enduring colonialist instinct in the government that still bristles at the idea of international rule of law. They seem to regard it as an affront to the primacy of the UK parliament, which some seem to believe still should rule the waves.

But, of course, the supremacy of the UK parliament has already taken a kicking in the Brexit process as dozens of MPs, contrary to their judgment as to what is best for their country, voted to uphold the notional “will of the people” as expressed through a blood-stained and, it now increasingly appears, a corrupted referendum.

But this is as nothing to the intent of the Great Repeal Bill, to invest ministers with Henry VIII powers that will enable them to make vast swathes of law for years to come without reference to parliament. In other words the intent of the Great Repeal Bill appear less to do with withdrawal from the EU and more to do with a significant repeal of democracy itself.

The UK may appear to be blundering towards the exit of the EU like a drunk staggering towards the door of a bar. But all citizens must beware that the pantomime shenanigans of Davis, Johnson and Fox, the three Brexit Stooges, mask a much more sinister domestic agenda. And Labour needs to stop being the government’s poodle on Brexit.

 

 

A Selfish Plan to Change the World: Finding Big Purpose in Big Problems, by Justin Dillon

img_1203Summary: a self-help book like no other I have read, concerned with identification of personal purpose, and giving some important insight into contemporary slavery

I must begin with a declaration of interest: Justin Dillon is a pal, someone I got to know and like over beers and years in the margins of conferences and meetings in different parts of the world.

Justin’s warmth, enthusiasms and likeablity come through strongly in this book, which is part memoir, part reportage, part philosophical treatise.

The book begins, rather disconcertingly, with an account of a performance by the Clash in Dublin. This inspired U2 to become who they are, who in turn inspired Justin, an accomplished musician, to change direction to become the filmmaker and anti-slavery activist that he is today. I think Joe Strummer would be pleased by that.

It is an important book in a number of respects. First of all at a time when much of the global discourse on slavery focuses simplistically on the minority of cases that relate to organised crime, Justin shows with illustrative cases from Haiti to Ghana to India that slavery is a complex issue of power, poverty, human rights and international development, not simply one of law enforcement.

Given this, a further theme of the book is even more apposite. This is the importance of purpose. Even before I got to the section in which Justin discusses Victor Frankl I was reflecting that the book could be considered as an application in the field of activism of Frankl’s remarkable work on humans’ search for meaning. Justin discusses how the lack of resources and power that impoverish so many across the world, their “poverty of means”, is echoed in the “poverty of meaning” in the lives of so many who in other respects seem wealthy. His “selfish plan to change the world” then relates to addressing this poverty of meaning by engaging those who lack purpose with the challenge of empowering those who lack means. In honour of Joe Strummer he exhorts his readers to find their “riot,” the struggle for justice that they they wish to be part of.

Justin describes the book as a “self-help manual”, but I doubt there are many other self help manuals like this, because it is one with a profoundly social purpose. Justin recognises that in order to change the world we may first have to change ourselves, and he shows the desperate needs that still exist across the world that demand we all look beyond ourselves.

Reflections on St Patrick

For many, if they think of him as anything other than an excuse for a party, St Patrick, a Fifth Century priest, may seem a remote figure. But his life still has some powerful contemporary resonances.

Patrick was not born Irish. He was a Briton. Different parts of Britain claim him, but he came from a Romanised family somewhere on the west coast. As a young man he was kidnapped by an Irish raiding party and trafficked across the Irish Sea into slavery. After six years he escaped and returned to his family, and his studies, in Britain. Eventually, after study in other parts of Europe, he became a priest.  His story would probably not be one that is remembered by history but for the fact that after this, in a remarkable display of personal magnanimity, he decided to return to Ireland, the land that had enslaved him, as a missionary.

Are you all right in the back there lads?

There are many fanciful legends associated with Patrick, including how he rid the country of snakes. But he left two written documents: his Confessions, a spiritual auto-biography from which many of the details of his life are known; and his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus, a furious protest against the murder and enslavement of members of Patrick’s congregation by a raiding party of pirates, probably composed of Patrick’s fellow Britons. The anger of this protest was doubtless further sharpened by Patrick’s own bitter memory of the violence of slavery.

There are many powerful echoes from Patrick’s life with the contemporary world: For example, in a world where poisonous xenophobia seems to have taken hold in so many places the story of Patrick’s transformation from immigrant to an emblem of the country he adopted as his own stands in counterpoint. And in his protest against the war crimes of Coroticus and his men Patrick, the former slave, gave nascent voice to the ideals of human rights and anti-slavery in Western Europe.

Across the world today other immigrants work to make their adopted countries better places, other slaves and former slaves resist the systems of slavery that still persist. St Patrick’s Day is a good time to remember them, and remember that after today’s parties a long struggle lies ahead of us to fulfil some of the ideals that they, and Patrick, represent.

Jefferson, Hamilton and moral courage in the struggle against slavery.

Excerpt from a lecture to Gresham College, London, 23 Feb 2017

To this day political figures across the globe covet the title “the new Wilberforce”, in recognition of the towering role that he played in efforts to bring the trans-Atlantic slave trade to an end. This, perhaps, shouldn’t be too surprising. In any given age there are no shortage of people who feel that slavery is wrong.

But, as Batman teaches us, it is not what we feel, but what we do, that defines us. So, anyone who dips their toe into the slavery debate today with dreams of future glory should be aware, that if they lack the necessary moral and political courage, they may become merely “a new Jefferson” rather than a “new Wilberforce”.

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Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was one of the great geniuses of his age and a declared opponent of slavery. Some of his writings on the subject were described by contemporaries such as John Adams, the United States’ second president, as being more valuable than diamonds in the anti-slavery cause. And yet the vision of the American Republic that he offered was impossible without slavery, and as President he did nothing to end slavery save for a mealy mouthed assertion that it was a task for later generations.

That argument may have comforted him as he sat in his study on his Monticello plantation in Virginia overseeing his own enslaved children. But it was not an argument which impressed Jefferson’s contemporary Alexander Hamilton, who sought, as the United States’ first treasury secretary, to put his anti-slavery convictions into practice by establishing an economic system that would reward free labour over slavery in the hope that that would erode the slave economy and hence end the brutal system.

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Alexander Hamilton

While that did not directly bring an end to slavery in the United States the economic system Hamilton put in place did ultimately provide the North, under Lincoln, with the economic capacity to crush the South and obtain the legal abolition of slavery half a century after Hamilton’s own death: So if Lincoln is the Father of Emancipation in the United States, I would argue that Hamilton is its Grandfather.

And in spite of his incredible gifts Jefferson did not confront the fundamental systems and institutions of slavery when he had the most power to do so. And across the world we see that still.

It will perhaps be a matter for comment by some future historians that at this shameful period of European history some of the most vocal European leaders on the issue of slavery have been noticeably negative with regard to the formulation of an effective pan-European response to the refugee crisis.  It is the absence of this, more than anything else, which has contributed so much to increasing the risks of human trafficking to Europe from the wars of the Middle East. Furthermore the xenophobia and prejudice that have been allowed to poison the political environment against migrants have further betrayed the struggle against slavery by increasing the opportunities for violence and exploitation.

It is a hard lesson of history, that when the moral courage of political leaders fails in the face of prejudice and vested interests, it is almost always the vulnerable who are the ones to pay in the bloody routine of violence that ensues. And, as was true in the days of Jefferson, it is not rhetoric but moral courage that defines leadership and shapes the history of the times.