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Fully at Liberty

Fully at Liberty

Can you begin by saying a bit about your family background and your personal history and how that has shaped you?

My parents came to this country from India in that wave of New Commonwealth immigration in the late Fifties. I was born in north-west London, where my parents still live, went to state schools and then on to the LSE. I trained as a barrister, but within a year of being called to the Bar I think I decided that maybe I wasn’t cut out for the tough life of a junior barrister – getting up at five in the morning to go and repossess somebody’s house in Folkestone, in the hope that one day you might do some great and noble human-rights case, or just something interesting.

And so one day I applied for a job as a lawyer in the Home Office – and then had to wrestle for a bit with some issues of conscience, because Michael Howard was the Home Secretary at the time and he was just starting down the road of being nasty to asylum-seekers. Ultimately I decided I believed that everyone was better for good legal advice, whether it was a murder suspect or a Home Secretary, and there was an opportunity to do really interesting and potentially influential work.

What was your specific role?

I was helping to advise ministers and civil servants on policy and on legislation. I worked on a lot of very nasty, and sometimes quite foolish, legislation on immigration and asylum and criminal justice – but also some things I’m a little prouder of, like the equalisation of the age of consent for gay people. I also worked on some high-profile human-rights litigation in the domestic courts and in the Court of Human Rights in Strasburg, so it was a fantastic opportunity to learn.

It sounds as if you already had a coherent and quite robust moral universe. What had formed that?

There was the experience of being part of a minority family growing up in the Seventies, with Enoch Powell and the National Front and so forth. I have memories of sitting on the Tube with my parents while people in the same carriage were singing stupid, drunken, racist songs, and feeling worried for my parents – and walking down the street and seeing racist graffiti and thinking, ‘I hope my mum and dad haven’t seen it,’ and thinking ‘That’s ridiculous!’ – I was a really small child.

There was a lot more overt politics and morality (if you like) at home. There were always conversations around the dinner table, and heated debates. But the one thing that really struck home early on – I don’t think I even had the language for it yet but I developed an instinct for it very young – was some notion of the importance of the individual human being, of the sanctity or inherent dignity or precious nature of an individual human life.

Was that something you learnt from your parents?

I think it must have been – partly their experiences, partly their politics. I remember them talking about how they had witnessed riots between Hindus and Muslims in India after Partition and actually having seen people’s throats being cut. I remember phrases like ‘Human life was cheap.’

Possibly the strongest early political memory I have is of a conversation with my father while the hunt was on for the Yorkshire Ripper (I guess I was about 12 years old). I can remember my stomach turning as I watched the Ten o’Clock News each night – as I did, because it was quite an aware family – and I remember a throwaway comment to my father about what they should do to ‘that monster’ when they caught him and my father saying, to my surprise, ‘We can’t possibly do that. You can’t kill people, even convicted murderers.’ I asked, ‘Well, why not, after what he has done?’

And what he said was: ‘No criminal-justice system in the world is perfect and you have to imagine what it would be like to be the person who was unjustly convicted, marching to the scaffold and saying to yourself’ – I think he actually said ‘saying to God’ – ‘“What do I do? These people don’t believe me but I know I’m not guilty and I’m about to die.”’ Just repeating it now, I feel quite moved, even now.

Of course, there are deeper reasons not to support the death penalty than the miscarriage argument, but that was something that just stuck with me. Later, my father and I had arguments about politics and this, that and the other, but, looking back, it was all peripheral after that.

In a sense, it is that conversation that has been driving me ever since. It doesn’t mean I’m obsessed with the criminal-justice system, but it does mean that my most important political, and to some extent moral, driver is about the individual, and sometimes the individual in the face of a baying mob. Which is kind of what it’s all about for me.

Liberty’s website says you believe that human rights should be at the core of society’s value system. Can you explain why?

Intellectually, the reason is that democracy is (pretty much by consensus in the modern world, I think) a good thing, and the best way for human beings to live with each other. I think people too often forget that democracy is not just majority rule: if it were, there would be little difference between it and the rule of the mob. And what distinguishes democracy is this small bundle of non-negotiable, fundamental rights and freedoms that actually preserve it. If you start ignoring them, democracy itself will not survive, because very quickly there’ll be no free speech, free elections and so forth.

But I also believe that every individual human life is precious. I’m not a utilitarian – and so much of politics and political discourse around the world and in this country is essentially utilitarian. ‘The end justifies the means,’ ‘It’s about the many and not the few,’ ‘Nothing to hide, nothing to fear,’ all of those slogans point to human beings being worth something only if there are millions of them, and that’s dehumanising. That’s dehumanising.

You don’t weigh human life in terms of numbers or whatever. Once you start doing that, I think you lose sight of something. And I think that the post-war human-rights consensus is the ideology for the modern world, the moral system that is capable of uniting people of all faiths and none, people left of centre, right of centre, First World, Third World… I do believe there is some universal truth in that.

And in an increasingly uncertain world, where there’s too much utilitarianism – or moral relativism, actually – I think that human rights are a really powerful antidote. They’re the antidote to both dictators and terrorists, a vital check to (if you like) the baying mob.

It seems to me that intrinsic human worth and dignity are axiomatic in your moral system, but some people would argue that, in the light of the neo-Darwinian consensus that there is essentially no difference between human beings and other species, these moral axioms on which secular humanism is based are castles in the air. How do you respond to that?

To some extent I don’t care, because it doesn’t really matter. I suppose there is an element of faith here. My dear, dear friend Francesca Klug wrote a really important book a few years ago called Values for a Godless Age and she is a – what is she? – a secular Jew, quite left-wing originally, who has gone on a political journey and ended up as this great proponent of fundamental human rights; and her answer is almost quasi-religious.

On the other hand, Conor Gearty, who works at the LSE with Francesca, gave a bravura Hamlyn lecture recently that addressed just the point you’re making. The great moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham said that natural law was ‘nonsense on stilts’, and what Conor was saying was that in a godless age we don’t even have the stilts any more and we need to go back to Darwin and work out what it is that’s so special about human beings.

And so you’ve got two great advocates of human rights and two different approaches that get you to the same place. Conor tries to rationalise why it is that human life is precious and why human rights matter; and Francesca almost takes it on faith.

But if you just take it on faith, doesn’t it lend a kind of vulnerability to the whole exercise?

I’m not so sure. I’m not so sure. Increasingly, I find myself, on public platforms and in conversations, in perhaps strange and wonderful alliance with people of faith who talk about the inherent dignity of the individual and take certain things as not negotiable. And I always say to religious audiences, ‘You don’t have to be a Jew, or a Christian or a Muslim or a Hindu or whatever, to believe in fundamental human rights. It just helps.’

Most great world religions find a natural resonance with human-rights principles, but if you’re not religious, I don’t see that you have to go on Conor’s journey to understand why it is, post-Darwin, that nonetheless we should believe in human rights. We can just say that without them democracy cannot survive.

Is it fair to call it more of a pragmatic than a philosophical response?

Well, you’re still starting with a kind of fundamental, which is that democracy is good, tyranny is bad. But why? I’m sure that philosophers and historians will tell me about all sorts of wonderful benign dictatorships in history that suggest that they can make people very happy. Ultimately, you’re always taking something as read.

And in the work that I do I am not a philosopher, I’m a campaigner, and I see that this message resonates with people of faith and people without it, for essentially good reasons. And good comes of it. So, yes, you can say that to some extent is pragmatism, but it’s not pure pragmatism, which says, ‘Well, today we’ll be against 90 days’ detention but tomorrow we might change our minds’ or which might suggest, ‘Well, maybe a little bit of torture in this instance…’ You know?

Ultimately I guess I’m slightly more in the Francesca camp: it doesn’t completely come from reason or from proof or from pragmatism. I just think that if you indulge in torture you have stripped yourself of a bit of humanity. I can’t prove it, I guess I take it as read.

In your recent Hands Lecture at Mansfield College, Oxford you talked about ‘the sanctity of each individual life’. It reminded me strongly of the language of those who are on the pro-life side in the abortion debate. Do you extend the notion of the sanctity of life to the unborn?

One of the things I tried to do in that lecture was to some extent to compare Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 3, the right against torture, is an absolute – never, never, never ever, even in a time of war and public emergency threatening the life of the nation; Article 2, on the other hand, the right to life, is not an absolute (just as most articles in that convention, and in every other post-war human-rights convention, are not). In the human-rights framework you can sometimes take life to protect life. So, that’s where we begin.

And in terms of the unborn there is also a difficult question, which becomes more and more difficult as medicine develops, about when life begins. I don’t think the law should draw the line at conception but nor can it draw the line at birth. (When I was a student, I can remember friends of mine who were very radical feminists who even thought that a newborn’s life had limited value – which is a shocking thing to say, perhaps, but is perfectly rational. But I think that most people who are honest will say that their views evolve when they become parents.)

So, I am pro-choice but within some (necessarily arbitrary) constraints about where we say life begins – which does change according to what we have learnt about the viability of life and what we can do to make it viable.

In her 2002 Reith lectures, the philosopher Onora O’Neill said, ‘We fantasise, in my view irresponsibly, that we can promulgate rights without thinking carefully about the counterpart obligations.’

Doesn’t too heavy an emphasis on human rights erode precisely that civil society from which states that are supposed to guarantee our human rights draw their authority and power in the first place?

No, no, no. You’re not surprised to hear me say that.

You know, that’s the elegant exposition of some things I hear every day of my life. I used to hear it an awful lot from David Blunkett, but you hear it from politicians of most persuasions – and they are just wrong. It’s based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what human rights are about, and certainly a fundamental misunderstanding of the post-war human-rights instruments themselves.

New Labour ministers put it more bluntly: ‘For every right there must be a corresponding responsibility.’ Tory politicians say: ‘Too much talk about rights and not enough talk about responsibilities or obligations.’ And this is why I think they’re wrong. If you actually look at the instruments themselves, they do talk about individuals but they also talk about other units of society – and ultimately there’s a recognition inherent in almost every right (except for the absolutes, like the right against torture) of this thing called ‘democratic society’. Those words appear in the European Convention probably more than any other concept.

The idea that this is some sort of selfish, individualistic creed that allows everybody to run around asserting their rights is just not borne out if you actually read the Convention, which sets the individual in the context of these other groups and allows and promotes interferences with individual rights if they’re necessary and proportionate and lawful in the context of various other goods to other individuals or to society.

Nonetheless, it’s incredibly important to have a notion of individual rights, rather than saying ‘For each right there is a corresponding responsibility,’ because if you move towards this notion that it’s a balance or a contract, what do you do about people who have absolutely abrogated their responsibility? What do you do about the Yorkshire Ripper? If there is a heart of darkness where you do not go, you have to believe, whether you take it on faith or you take it on reason, that whatever someone has done you cannot strip them of their basic human dignity – even if they’ve debased it themselves, even if they’ve taken other people’s lives, even if they’ve tortured other people.

Otherwise, the whole edifice of individual rights crumbles, which I believe is wrong – I take that on faith – and it brings democracy down too, because it goes down this utilitarian road. You know, you don’t have to cite the example of the Nazis to scare people, you can take a popular, liberal, progressive prime minister like Indira Gandhi in India and suddenly we’re into states of emergency and dragging people off to be sterilised.

I also say, frankly, ‘It’s all very well philosophising about this stuff, but I believe I’ve lived a life very much of social action, that has been very much about engaging in civil society, very much about the ties that bind as well as the things that separate.’ So, I hope that my actual work, and Liberty’s, demonstrates that it’s not just selfishness: there’s a lot of altruism in this, too.

In a recent address to the European Policy Centre in Brussels, Rowan Williams said that ‘Western modernity and liberalism are at risk when they refuse to recognise that they are the way they are because of the presence in their midst of that partner and critic which speaks of “alternative citizenship” – the Christian community.’

Do you agree that Western liberalism is the way it is because of Christianity?

Yes, I suppose I must. There’s no question. That has to be Christianity in the broadest sense, though, because part of it has been about conflict within Christianity. You know, we’d probably have no democracy but for conflict within Christianity.

But what we must guard against is any notion – which does come up occasionally, particularly in the context of the ‘war on terror’ – that there really is a clash of civilisations here. Just because the Europeans arrived at the post-war human-rights consensus via a philosophical, religious and cultural journey in which Christianity played a major part doesn’t mean that other people didn’t arrive at the same place via different journeys. Many of the people who signed up to the universal declaration have been on that Judaeo-Christian journey in the West, but others are Confucianists or Muslims or Hindus and they’ve come to the same place. These values were not imposed by some kind of religious or cultural imperialism.

We’ve got to really guard against people, both hawks and doves, who inadvertently or deliberately present human-rights values as belonging only in the West and having no place in parts of the developing world or in the Muslim world. That would be a real mistake and a loss to everyone, I think.

If Christianity dies out in Europe, and so ceases to be an effective partner in dialogue with the human-rights or the politically liberal consensus, will that consensus suffer the lack of it?

It might well do. It might well do. Not necessarily, because it is possible, as I’ve said, to get to the kind of views I’m espousing via a secular route, but for a lot of people it’s harder, because the one thing that human rights are not is relativist or utilitarian.

I think that having a Christian voice in Europe helps. I’m not saying that if Christianity were in terminal decline in Europe, other thinkers and communicators couldn’t take on the values; but I think it would leave a hole, no question.

Moving on from the sublime Rowan Williams – He gets it wrong on human rights, though, as well. I’ve heard him asserting that human rights are too selfish and too litigious, and he misunderstands, I think. She says, arrogantly, of the Archbishop of Canterbury!

Tony Blair said recently, ‘Let no one be in doubt, the rules of the game are changing.’ He said it at a press conference at lunchtime on August 5 of this year.

The really, really pithy response is, one, national security and public safety and trying to ensure that more lives are not lost is not a game. Nobody thinks it is – him included, I would have thought. The metaphor was in pretty poor taste, so he should sack the spin doctor who wrote it.

And, two, the rules do not change, because they are not just rules, they are the fundamental values of our society. If you throw them away, what have you got left?

To what extent do you feel that your campaigns express the attitude of the population as a whole?

I think politicians underestimate popular opinion. Of course, people are worried about crime and terrorism and they do have certain instincts that we all sometimes have – lock ’em up and throw away the key, that kind of thing. But they have other instincts, too. I think it’s a mistake to think that what we’ve been talking about is airy-fairy intellectualism and if you leave people to their natural, unfiltered instincts it will always be hanging and flogging and torture. In my experience, it won’t.

The sense of justice and fairness is as instinctive as any baser instincts that tell you to go and kick the asylum-seeker or whatever. People are more decent (to use that word as shorthand) than some politicians give them credit for. A lot of people come up to me on the streets and say, ‘Look, I don’t always agree with everything you say, but it’s really important that Liberty keeps going, because 90 days is a bit much.’ Of course, that’s completely anecdotal and maybe the people who hate us just don’t tell us.

But there are also some interesting polls. I don’t do this ‘I never read opinion polls’ thing, as if I’m sitting on some morally superior cloud: I do look at some of these polls. The BBC did one about multiculturalism, not long after the bombs [on July 7], at a time when even the chair of the [Campaign for Racial Equality], let alone politicians and polemicists in the tabloids, said that multiculturalism was dead; and something like 80 per cent of the people polled said that multiculturalism made Britain a better place to be. It’s not all grim.

How optimistic are you for the future?

I’m not miserable all the time, so I must be an optimist. There are a lot of quite serious challenges in this work, but I think there are also reasons to hope, such as Parliament growing a backbone [in rejecting 90 days’ detention]. OK, I don’t feel euphoric about 28 days but, given the way the Prime Minister put such a personal stake in it and they got chief constables to campaign, I think that was a source of optimism.

Also, the more general cultural climate is not as awful as it is painted by some newspapers and some politicians, I think, and so I think the tide will turn, I really do. And I have to believe that, don’t I? Otherwise you can’t be an effective campaigner.

I heard someone talking at a conference recently – a scientist, actually, rather than a politician or a campaigner – and she was talking about how to motivate people and change their behaviour to the good; and she said, ‘It’s important to remember that Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream.” He didn’t say, “I have a nightmare.”’ And that really stuck with me, and I have resolved to talk about dreams and not nightmares a little more often.

This interview was conducted in the offices of Liberty in south London on November 15, 2005, and was first published in Third Way magazine.

Posted 11 August 2011


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