More thoughts for the day

The death of the Duke of Edinburgh has the nation in mourning. We have something we, most of us, agree on. He was a good man, who, as Prince Albert before him, used his position to advance a wide range of good causes – the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Duke of Edinburgh scheme above all. He was also a fine cricketer, which does count for something.

And Rachael Blackmore won the Grand National quite brilliantly: the first woman jockey to do so.

The BBC ran tributes across all stations to the Duke. But elsewhere…

Hungary: ‘The last radio station that is critical of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government is due to go off the air.’ Poland: ‘Media freedom …now faces its greatest set of challenges since 2015 as the government continues to wage a multi-pronged attack on independent media … ‘ Both reports are dated February 2021. In the Czech Republic and Slovenia the independence of the state broadcaster is also under threat.

As for the BBC, we’re used to grumbles from left and right about bias toward the other side. Now the left, obsessed by its own squabbles and with a wholly outdated understanding of the working man, and with minimal support in the popular press, has lost all influence. Murdoch, on the other hand, that happy paragon of all that’s best in Aussie and American, is unchallenged. The Sunday Times on the Greensill collapse and David Cameron: hammering the Tory old guard might just suit Murdoch’s politics. Should I be suspicious?

Maybe now, with arch-disruptor Cummings consigned to outer darkness and Covid and the Red Wall north and big spending to focus on, the government will worry less about the BBC. They can burnish their social conservative credentials by insisting refugees go through official channels, as if any refugee has access to such things. They can espouse freedom of speech (in the face of ‘no platforming’) and mock wokery, but legislate to limit freedom of assembly. We will see how far they go.

I referred to ‘an outdated understanding of the working man’ on the left. That takes me to Red Wall seats ‘up north’, and the smart housing estates that are popping up everywhere, where houses are cheap, by comparison to London, and the standard of living, despite lower wage and salary levels than down south, relatively high. That is the new north, and it’s this that is probably driving the big increase in the Tory vote.

The old working class before the WW1 was instinctively conservative and Tory. They knew their place. The new prosperous working class has more confidence, they doff caps to no-one, and they’ve bought into what may or may not be the fiction that they have in the new Tory dispensation a recognised and valued place.

I’m reading Jesse Norman’s splendid biography of Adam Smith. Why would someone of Norman’s obvious sanity be serving in a government where pragmatism and the wide sympathies as evinced by Norman can be in short supply?Norman, on the way Friedmanite economics distorted and still radically distorts what Adam Smith really stood for, is revealing. Peter Kellner in the current edition of Prospect has a letter which suggests we should see the Tory party in terms of a Vann diagram, with old-style conservatism overlapping the new ideological variety. Norman maybe is the true conservative, and he needs to be in there to make certain the ideologues don’t take over.

And, finally, how the 18th century prefigured the 21st. Adam Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, which had been a major port serving Europe for hundreds of years. His father was Comptroller of Customs for Kirkcaldy. The big switch over to Glasgow and the Clyde, and the American trade, not least tobacco, was already happening. By the 1750s Glasgow was importing more tobacco than all the English ports combined. It was the American economy that intrigued Smith. He looked west, not east. We have that dilemma to this day. Do we look west, or east? Glasgow ironically is now a stronghold of support for Scottish independence, and the Scot Nats look to Europe. England on the other hand would love that US trade deal….

Genocide and crimes against humanity 

This may sound a brutal heading, but it is what this post is about.

I’ve just finished reading Philippe Sands’ East West Street, his remarkable, moving and very personal exploration of the concepts of individual human rights and genocide, and their two great advocates and protagonists, Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin.

The theme is human rights, in their broadest context. For too long, down the ages, the state overrode individual rights in the service of its own interests. On the one hand western European states developed social welfare programmes, on the other, when it came to war, they tyrannised populations, their own and others.

At the level of individual human rights – think of Erdogan’s Turkey, and China, where the interests of the party are paramount.

It begins with the very personal story of Lauterpacht and Lemkin, and takes us from the home city they both shared, Lemberg (also known as Lvov and Lviv), to Vienna, Paris, the USA, Cambridge, and ultimately Nuremberg.

Lemberg, at the time both men were born, was in Galicia, part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire – and later in Poland, in Russia, in Germany, and now in Ukraine. Sands’ grandfather, Leon Buchholz, on his mother’s side was also from Lemberg.

Lauterpacht and Lemberg both became international lawyers of repute and the great stage to which Sands story leads is the Nuremberg trials of 1945-6, when twenty-four leading Nazis were put in trial, including the governor-general of Poland, Hans Frank, who oversaw the destruction of the Jewish population of Poland, and of Austrian Jews sent to the deaths at Treblinka and elsewhere.

Lauterpacht and Lemkin both saw their families who had remained behind wiped out. So too Sands’ family.

The Nuremberg trial gave form and substance to the concepts of individual human rights and crimes against humanity. The British attorney-general Hartley Shawcross’s final statement for the prosecution relied extensively on the work on Lauterpacht, by that time a Cambridge academic of many years standing. Sands captured the intensity of the trial with great skill. Shawcross, basing himself of Lauterpacht, emphasised the individual as the ‘ultimate unit of all law’. There are limits to the omnipotence of the state… ‘the individual human being, the ultimate impunity of all law, is not disentitled to the protection of mankind’.

Both Lemkin and Lauterpacht ‘agreed on the value of a single human life, and the importance of being part of a community’. But genocide, the idea behind genocide, the reality of genocide, gaining acceptance for which was Lemkin’s passion and obsession, was never accepted by Lauterpacht.

The two men never met. But Nuremberg was in a very real sense a stage they both shared. And where they in a sense competed.

Lauterpacht argued that a focus on groups would take the focus off the individual victim, and encourage a sense of group identity in the perpetrator as well as the victim.

Sands sees the merit in both arguments. How could one not see the carefully planned and stage-by- stage reduction of the Jewish people to people without rights, without work, to forced labour, to ghettos, to starvation, to extermination, as actions against a race? As genocide. Likewise the Armenian massacres of 1915.

On other side of the argument, Sands quotes the biologist, Edward O. Wilson, writing in our own time, on ‘group-versus-group’ being ‘a principal driving force that made us what we are … people feel compelled to belong to groups and, having joined, consider themselves superior to competing groups’.

We may talk, some of us, of being citizens of the world, but that sense of competing groups, defined in modern terms as identity politics, is still very much with us. Nonetheless the framework of an individual and group-rights based international order is in place, as it never has been in human history. Sands lays out the sequence.

On 9 December 1948 the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, ‘the first human rights treaty of the modern era’. A day later, the assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document inspired by Lauterpacht’s work.

1998 saw the establishment of the International Criminal Court.

In 2015 the UN’s international law commission started to work actively on the subject of crimes against humanity, opening the way to a possible companion to the convention on genocide.

So we come right up against all the trials and evils of the present. Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Darfur. Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen. So much of it targeting groups, tribes, nations within nations. The latest UN report (February 2017) states that over 65 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes. According to the UNHCR a refugee is ‘someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence’. There are just under 16 million refugees.

And at the individual level, we have Turkey, China, Russia, and many another. We have a long lon way to go. Eternal vigilance, and engagement, is the only way forward.

The day after…

So we’re the day after. Theresa May has invoked Article 50, officially received by Donald Tusk. From a Brit to a Pole, a document that’s tantamount to a surrender of our status in the world. Ironic, remembering 1939, when we went to war for Poland.

I’ve often thought post referendum that this blog belonged to another age. Might a Zen approach to politics, bringing wisdom and compassion, as understood in Buddhist terms, to bear, no longer be of its time?

Engagement, street-corner politics, arguing, rallying, taking sides, contrasting opposites – we may seek to hold to the truth but when the other side embellishes or distorts then we have to counter – and the language of attack and counter-attack isn’t always sweet. I tried the counter-attack last year. But that’s for another blog. For now, a simple statement, from the Buddha, no less:

How wonderful, how miraculous that all beings are endowed with the wisdom of the Tathagata [someone who has achieved enlightenment]. Only sadly human beings because of their attachments are not aware of it.

The ultimate attachment is to ‘I’, which is out there all the time asserting its identity, in a state of more or less insecurity, seeking reassurance, arguing, shoring up its position.

24-hour news is part of this. Listening every few hours, even every hour. Always engaged with the minutiae, and responding yea or nay to each news item – agreeing, disagreeing. Encouraged, depressed. Even if we’ve escaped the high and lows we’re always in there with the buzz of it all.

As a contrast, take a simple image, water in a glass vessel, conforming to its size and shape. We want to change the moment, or change the world. We pour the water out, find another vessel.

But imagine the universe as a vessel, and the laws which govern it – the laws of the tao (see the Tao Te Ching), the Buddha wisdom, the Christian gospel message of love, which is universal – as the water within.

The day-to-day is about change. That is what life is, change and becoming. But chucking out the water, changing the vessel, endless agitation, that can never be the way forward. The way of wisdom moves more slowly, wisdom lies in silence and in a quieter, more measured understanding.

And that is not the mood or way of our times!