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.

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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.

On the value of conspiracy theories: the Kennedy assassinations and “official versions”

For many Gerald Posner’s book, Case Closed, is the definitive word on Jack Kennedy’s assassination. Posner concludes that Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone shot Kennedy on 22 Nov 1963 in Dallas Texas. It is a widely shared conclusion. Vincent Bugliosi, a distinguished prosecutor who put Charles Manson in jail, concluded the same in his own consideration of the case. And this is of course the official verdict of the Warren Commission established by Lyndon Johnson to investigate the assassination.

And yet as the US gets ready to publish another trove of documents relating to the Kennedy assassination, a clear majority of Americans – in 2013 the Economist reported 61% – still believe that Jack Kennedy was killed in a multi-person ambush organised by high officials in the US government.

David Talbot’s 2007 book Brothers, goes some way to explaining why so many still think this way. Talbot recounts how two of Kennedy’s closest advisers, Dave Power and Kenny O’Donnell, both veterans of World War 2, both travelling in the same car behind Kennedy when they saw him killed, were both under the clear impression that their convoy was under fire from multiple directions, including the infamous Grassy Knoll ahead of them, as well as the Book Depository behind them where Oswald was located.

Furthermore the subsequent killing on live television of Oswald by Jack Ruby, a mob-connected Dallas night-club owner, reeks of cover-up: Ruby’s story, that he wanted to protect Jackie Kennedy from the trauma of a protracted trial, is as fantastical as any Brexit bus slogan.

Talbot alleges that a pivotal figure behind the assassination of Jack Kennedy was Howard Hunt, someone who became infamous in the Seventies for his part in the break-in to the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Building in Washington and the subsequent Nixon administration cover-up.

Talbot notes that in a memoir, American Spy, that Hunt wrote shortly before his death in 2007, Hunt included a “speculative” section on how the CIA would have gone about the killing IF it had been involved. In connection with the publication of that book Rolling Stone interviewed Hunt’s son who claims that, when he thought he was dying, Hunt described to him in some explicit detail the architecture of the conspiracy, which allegedly involved both Lyndon Johnson and senior CIA officials.

Talbot also claims that in spite of public statements that he believed Oswald was the lone assassin, Bobby Kennedy had been privately investigating Jack’s killing for years. Indeed, Talbot believes that, with the help of an FBI investigator, Bobby Kennedy had actually cracked the case, and it was his intention to have it officially reopened if elected president. That dream, of course, came to a bloody end in the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, California in June 1968 when Bobby was himself assassinated.

Robert Vaughn, the scholar and actor, was with Bobby that night, and Vaughn has noted that there were more bullets fired than Sirhan Sirhan, the convicted killer, had in his gun. So, he concludes, there must also have been a conspiracy to kill Bobby. Perhaps this was a further measure to ensure that the truth of Jack’s death never emerged?

Perhaps it is far-fetched to believe in a conspiracy behind the killings of Jack and Bobby Kennedy. And it is improbable that whatever the contents of the papers to be released this week that they will shed much new or definitive light on those awful days. But at a moment in history when it increasingly appears that the occupant of the White House is there as a consequence of a Russian backed coup, and when a cynical campaign of lies has been used to strike at the foundations of a strong and united Europe, then perhaps the Kennedy assassinations still have important lessons for us. Not least they show that, whatever the official versions of events, that power and the powerful must be constantly questioned by the citizenry because it is only upon a foundation of doubt and skepticism that democracy, human rights and the rule of law can safely rest.

Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life, by Malachi O’Doherty

In her book, Every Secret Thing, Gillian Slovo’s magisterial memoir of her parents, Ruth First and Joe Slovo, she reflects on the nature of clandestine life, how deceit becomes an all pervasive thing, a way of existence and a habit of living rather than something that can be easily compartmentalised.

This phenomenon may go some way towards explaining the inscrutability of Gerry Adams, a man who has lived much of his life clandestinely: while he has always denied even membership of the organisation most observers of the North of Ireland, myself included, believe him to have been a long-time leader in the IRA, including a period up to the atrocious La Mon bombing as Chief of Staff.

Malachi O’Doherty makes a serious effort with this book to understand what makes Gerry Adams tick. While he follows a straightforward biographical narrative the book is also something of a philosophical and psychological reflection upon the man and his choices to make war and to make peace.

Throughout his entire career there seems to be one constant with Adams: his belief in the IRA as a moral absolute. Any individual who had committed themselves to this is therefore entitled to unquestioning respect irrespective of what they have done, whether it is murdering a young woman teacher like Mary Travers, or a single mother like Jean McConville, or burning civilians alive, such as at the La Mon Hotel. Anyone who criticises the perpetrators and their actions renders themselves politically suspect and morally indefensible in Adams’ eyes. It is as if Pope Urban’s promise of forgiveness of all sins for those who went on Crusade in the Eleventh Century has been purloined wholesale by Adams in his perspective on those who waged his armed struggle.

Other leaders and generals, Adams’ own description of himself, have similar perspectives on their troops. Theresa May’s stated intent to remove the British military from the scrutiny of the European Convention of Human Rights suggests a similar attitude to another group of professional killers.  Perhaps they share the understanding that, as Sherman pointed out, “war is cruelty”. So, having asked men and women to wage it, it is perhaps hypocritical to demand limits on their cruelty once it has been unleashed in what one regards as noble purpose.

I don’t agree that war should ever be unconstrained and believe that those who make war criminals of themselves should be held accountable. But this book does remind us how many of those who were caricatured as evil villains during the Troubles were enormously courageous and self-sacrificing. But courage is not the highest of human virtues – I would say compassion is. And a further thing that this book reminds us is that the dark side of courage is how it can facilitate atrocity.

I was never an admirer of Adams during the Troubles. I found his thinking at best shallow and at worst cock-eyed. I found his justifications for war glib. Adams never seems to have recognised that having claimed for his army a quasi-divine right to wage war that this may give rise to a culture in which individual members regarded their personal right to use violence as a logical continuation of that mystical claim. Nor yet does he seem to have recognised that such a culture might have some relationship to the “unauthorised” operations – murdering civilians and covering up those murders – and the sexual violence that some members indulged in, and in which the leadership seems to have acquiesced.

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John Hume and Gerry Adams

I know that Adams has the reputation of being an intellectual amongst the IRA. But true intellectualism resides in rigorous engagement and testing of your ideas with alternative concepts and perspectives. Adams never had this until he began to sit down with John Hume in a protracted dialogue that gave rise to the peace process.

O’Doherty shows that Adams was indispensable in making the peace. So in spite of all his sins and flaws he does indeed deserve the gratitude of the peoples of Ireland and Britain. Certainly when history judges him, it should be more favourable to him than to those self serving clowns in the British Establishment who, at time of publication of this gripping and elegantly written book, have put the peace at risk with their thoughtless blundering.

Finally: The Benefits of Brexit

Over the past months I have noticed a recurrent question on social media asking users to name a single benefit of Brexit.

I have managed to think of a few. In future there will be access to duty free in Dublin Airport for the flights to London. And, when the UK government inevitably betrays the DUP and sets the border between UK and Ireland down the middle of the Irish Sea, as the desperate price they must pay to get a trade deal with the EU, that will be a significant step towards the reunification of Ireland. Though, of course, given that the path towards a reconciliation amongst the Irish people was already set by the Good Friday Agreement this particular benefit could probably have been happily forgone.

But aside from these the search for Brexit benefits has been a forlorn quest. Brexiters have long been flummoxed when challenged to name which particular European laws they objected to. And even the dimmest seem finally to have realised that the stories of bendy bananas were preposterous myths and the promises of £350 million a week for the UK’s National Health Service were cynical lies.

But of course there are enormous benefits of Brexit for some, though not of course the vast majority of those deceived into voting for it, or even the racists and xenophobes for whom economic concerns are secondary to ones of hatred.

No, those who will benefit are an entirely different stripe of ideologue. They are a political and social elite who campaigned against the EU to concentrate power more firmly into their hands, irrespective of the social and economic cost to the majority.

For all their talk of the sovereignty of parliament the first fruits of their labours will be obtained if the Repeal bills currently before parliament are enacted into law and they are granted the sweeping Henry VIII powers those bills request. Such powers will enable ministers, for years to come, to make law without recourse to parliament.

And these powers are then likely to be used to enable the political elite to reward some of their most cynical backers: those who have chaffed against the regulations from the EU that have protected workers’ rights, environmental standards and food safety. They will get the regulatory bonfire they have long craved and that leading Brexiters have been promising.

As the proportions and specific horrors of the catastrophe that will be Brexit become clearer by the day, it seems beyond rationality that the UK government still seems intent on embracing the disaster. But for some at the most senior levels of government this seems a price worth paying for supreme power in the devastated aftermath.

That the opposition Labour Party, wrapped up in its fantasies of some post-Trotskyist “People’s Brexit”, is so pusillanimously facilitating this careening towards disaster is even more bizarre. But then the careers of those, Left and Right, who are facilitating this mess, will naturally have come to an end as the reality bites, and they will be in comfortable retirement as the next generation scrambles to pick up the pieces.

PT 109: An American Epic of War, Survival, and the Destiny of John F Kennedy, by William Doyle

Summary: A gripping war story that gets to the heart of important truths about both war and Jack Kennedy

In 1945 John Ford made a cracking war movie called “They Were Expendable” about the exploits of a motor torpedo (PT) boat unit, including, of course, John Wayne, defending the Philippines against the Japanese onslaught.

The thing about the movie though, was that the capabilities of the PT boat therein portrayed were horseshit. The PT boat was a lousy weapon. Its torpedoes were close to useless as, due to technical flaws in their design, they rarely hit their targets let alone detonated. Few of the PT boats were equipped with radar though they were expected to fight in the darkest of nights. And these mahogany constructions were sent into conflict against much more heavily armed and steel armoured destroyers. This was only slightly more hopeful, in military terms, than sending a mime troupe to attack a panzer division, to borrow from Milan Kundera. Indeed in this book William Doyle notes that of the three confirmed sinkings of major ships by PT boats during the Second World War, one of them was American.

This was the branch of the Navy that Jack Kennedy, millionaire son of the former US ambassador to the Court of St James’s and best selling author of Why England Slept, joined in the Solomon Islands in 1943. It made him president.

Dave Powers, a friend and aide to Jack, once commented that, “Without PT 109 there would never have been a President John F Kennedy.” The legend of Jack’s fortitude and leadership following the sinking of his boat during a small battle in which 15 ill-equipped PT boats were sent to ineffectually attack a convoy of Japanese destroyers, was the foundation upon which Jack’s political career was built. But the story of this relatively brief episode in Jack’s relatively brief life is more important for a number of reasons, not least, after over half a century of muck raking and character assassination, it has proven pretty close to impossible to tarnish this truth of his heroism during those days.

Certainly it has been tried. Doyle notes the simmering accusation that it was Jack’s incompetence as a boat skipper that led to his boat being sunk, the only PT boat to have been sunk by ramming during the course of the war. However Doyle’s account of the ill-conceived battle in which the sinking occurs offers evidence that this is an unfair charge and that it was ill-luck on Jack’s part exploited by an imaginatively aggressive Japanese commander, Kohei Hanami, that led to the sinking. Later Kennedy, in a comment that gains enormous retrospective poignancy, noted his thoughts just before the moment of impact: “This is how it feels to be killed.”

He didn’t die then and went on to play a decisive role in saving the lives of his surviving crew. Doyle notes: “The longest Olympic swimming event staged before then, the men’s 4,000 metre freestyle race, was held only once, in 1900. Fourteen of the twenty-eight competitors… “did not finish” and the distance was promptly retired. On the afternoon of August 2, 1943, John F. Kennedy covered the same distance, plus a mile more, over open water, behind enemy lines in broad daylight…All the while he bit on a strap and towed a badly burned sailor along with him. Simultaneously … leading nine other men.. towards safety… it was an astonishing feat his crewmen never forgot.”

Once rescued with the crucial help of courageous Solomon Island scouts and an Australian Coastwatcher, he refused the option to return to the States but remained in the combat zone for months more. During that time he helped save the lives of 10 more Americans before ill-health forced him home.

For all his other flaws, these events, and those of the Cuban Missiles Crisis, more starkly than any others, show the greatness at the heart of Jack Kennedy. Indeed, it was almost certainly his experience of the chaos of warfare in the Solomons that stiffened Kennedy’s moral courage to face down the hawks in his administration and save the world from nuclear annihilation during that Crisis.

PT 109 is a gripping book about war, endurance and a young man leading in the most horrendous of circumstances. Would that there was someone with the qualities that Jack Kennedy displayed then in the White House today.

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.