Updated: Dec 28, 2021
I wrote and published this blog at Christmas 2018. At that time resolution of Brexit was the only political issue at the top of the agenda, to the detriment it seemed of other pressing domestic issues. Then prime minister May was unable to get the Brexit trade deal she had negotiated through parliament and as the relationship with the EU was at an impasse, the country was powerlessly looking towards an uncertain future.
Two twentieth century titans of light and shade are best placed to guide us.
CS Lewis wrote of the Narnia into which the children stumbled,
“It is winter in Narnia,” said Mr. Tumnus, “and has been for ever so long.... always winter, but never Christmas.”
We have now reached winter but there is little sign of Christmas. Ten years of austerity and
politically fuelled inequality so that the Christmas spirit has left us, just as the music died.
Of course, the winter of Narnia was picture-book snow and frost. Not so our endless season.
JRR Tolkein wrote describing living in Minas Tirith in the Lord of the Rings:
‘we have dwelt ever in sight of that shadow: sometimes it seems fainter and more distant;
sometimes nearer and darker. It is growing and darkening now; and therefore
our fear and disquiet grow too’
Our winter is grey even when the sun shines. The shadow is deepening.
And so this is no ordinary Christmas and no ordinary winter lies ahead. For most, Christmas has slipped away, and fear and disquiet is rife.
It’s like a bad dream as we live out the fatalism of those who believed that only they could thrive. In response any one of us can only do their best.
As the MP David Lammy recently tweeted :
‘I just want to run through the corridors screaming “ wake the **** up people” but I’m stuck in Parliament and would likely get arrested’.
Since 2018 the shadows have lengthened, and we have had winters without Christmas. And the need to wake up and confront the degradation in freedom and democracy has been repeatedly unheeded. This is a sample of observers on legislation that has passed into law in recent weeks.
George Monbiot wrote about the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill:
It's happening in front of our eyes: the stifling of democracy in the UK, with even more dictator's powers being slipped into the Police Bill. Yet the entire Establishment looks the other way. We must fight this as if our lives depend on it. They might.
Ian Dunt wrote about the same bill:
It’s hard to remember a piece of legislation in this country which provided such a far-reaching threat to our freedoms. It is, without hyperbole or caveat, a piece of law which would sit more easily in a dictatorship than a democracy.
And Kevin Maguire:
But this enormous power grab would shackle people in every community across the land, demanding obedience to Government diktats and huge commercial interests.
On top of this there has been the Borders Bill and the Online Safety Bill.
Last week Dominic Raab released his plans to consult on and reform the Human Rights Act and our relationship with, what he calls, the Strasbourg Court. This is the European Court of Human Rights.
David Lammy said in the House of Commons in December 2018:
‘The audacious idea of European integration was motivated by fear. But it was made possible by shared ideals: democracy, human rights, equality, freedom, and a refusal to submit to the tyranny of fascism, ever again.’
We agree, and we have a story that tells a little of how those shared ideals first came together after the world wars. DREAMS OF PEACE & FREEDOM is a powerful combination of film, text, and performance told through the eyes of Nuremberg prosecutor and champion of the ECHR, David Maxwell Fyfe. His words intertwine with Sue Casson’s musical settings of the poets who inspired him on his journey along his stream of natural law.
I concluded my original blog with our plans to spread some good dreams of peace and freedom with performances over the Christmas season. Three years on our story of the birth of modern human rights remains as topical and relevant as it was then.
Dominic Raab’s document is a summary of the other side of the argument on human rights. Over the past 75 years there has been a debate.
On one side those who have welcomed the mission creep of equality, the banning of capital punishment and the transformation of attitudes to race and sex hate. Much of this emanated from Strasbourg.
On the other side there have those who are anxious that these changes have not been managed by our government and parliament, that freedoms should be in the gift of the national community.
For example, Raab wants to manage the relation between universal rights and community responsibilities. He writes:
‘Whilst human rights are universal, a Bill of Rights could require the courts to give greater consideration to the behaviour of claimants and the wider public interest when interpreting and balancing qualified rights. More broadly, our proposals can also set out more clearly the extent to which the behaviour of claimants is a factor that the courts take into account when deciding what sort of remedy, if any, is appropriate. This will ensure that claimants’ responsibilities, and the rights of others, form a part of the process of making a claim based on the violation of a human right.’
As told in DREAMS OF PEACE & FREEDOM, The Nuremberg War Crimes Trials are an example of the need to respect natural justice and give fundamental rights to people whose behaviour was barbaric. The restoration of natural law, or at least an attempt at it, was the point of Nuremberg.
Universal and inalienable rights are. Civil rights are subject to society. It’s something that you have to learn about.
The Independent Human Rights Act Review was also published this week. Chaired by Sir Peter Gross this has already been superseded by Raab’s plans. The review’s proposals for reform were built on the foundations of the past, rather than wanting to erase it. We welcome their first proposal:
IHRAR strongly recommends to Government, for its consideration, a focus on civic, constitutional education on the HRA and rights more generally, including the difficult balances human rights questions often require, and on individual responsibilities.
English Cabaret, or rather Lily (25) and Robert (22) made their own submission to IHRAR:
We suggest that there should a basic education in human rights in schools and colleges, stressing the following curriculum:
- Human rights are universal and inalienable
- There are other rights which can be fought for and won. Human Rights can only be defended because they come to all humans as a right.
- They are subject to rediscovery so that they can remain vital in changing circumstances.
To achieve this curriculum we would suggest two modules:
o Theodore Zeldin wrote that ‘to have a new vision of the future it has always been necessary first to have a new vision of the past.’
o Human Rights have an ancient past, from Roman writers in antiquity through to the American constitution.
o More pressingly Human Rights have a recent history, born out of the wasteland that followed the Second World War. The Universal Declaration and the legally binding treaty that is the Convention in Europe were written in that moment. Protocols have been added to the Convention to reflect, for example a revolutionary and welcome change in attitude to capital punishment.
o In recent decades a number of the articles in the Convention have been severely stretched
o For example, the right to privacy is challenged by the present digital revolution.
o Another example is the way in which the right to equality before the law and the court has been applied widely to support a broader understanding of equality itself.
We fervently support the need for education and debate in human rights and other rights.
In his speech at Nuremberg David Maxwell Fyfe said:
"The Law is a living thing. It is not rigid and unalterable. Its purpose is to serve mankind and it must grow and change to meet the changing needs of society."
It is vital that this debate begins quickly before the consultation period is over. The Prime Minister is calling for a national debate on living with Covid. Before that we need to get our bearings about what matters most in society. After years of war, barbarism and depression, our parents and grandparents who fought in and lived through those wars were pretty keen to embrace the idea of freedom and the protection of rights. We should honour their legacy by keeping their dream alive.
Andrew Adonis recently described how the UK helped to forge that legacy in Prospect Magazine.
‘As the largest European state not to succumb to 20th-century fascism or communism, the UK - very much including thoughtful Conservatives, such as Churchill’s home secretary David Maxwell-Fyfe — has been the European Convention’s essential inspiration from the outset. It is a statement of fundamental liberal values, such as freedom from torture and arbitrary arrest or conviction, and in more recent decades by banning the death penalty too.’
In his document Raab writes a lot about Magna Carta, but doesn’t mention that it had to be published time and again (at least 42 times in the following 150 years) to satisfy people that the monarch hadn’t forgotten their commitment. Then a plague came, and it wasn’t published anymore, and England headed for the despotism of the Tudors.
We must embrace our international Magna Carta (this, of course, is the name that Eleanor Roosevelt gave to the Universal Declaration of which the Convention is a regional instrument) to treasure it and make sure that our plague doesn’t distract our attention from our rights and freedoms.
And to do this we need to know what it is and how it came about. There is still widespread historical haziness about the difference between the Luxembourg based ECJ, the supreme court of the EU from which we have Brexited and the Strasbourg Court, which exists to enforce the European Convention on human rights, and which pre-dates the European Communities (which became the EU) by almost decade.
We would like to contribute with our telling of the journey along the road from Nuremberg to Strasbourg. We want to perform and tour. For this we will require support and the calming of the present epidemic. But in the meantime, as we look towards another possible lockdown we have a recorded livestream of DREAMS OF PEACE AND FREEDOM available on demand at C Arts. It
‘celebrates the concept of natural law’ (LouReviews.blog) and
‘Tells a very necessary story of not only an amazing man, but also the hopelessness of man and mankind's hope for the future.’ (Derek Awards).
And in the forthcoming struggle over the future of our human rights and freedoms, it provides a background to why it’s worth standing up to be counted now – before it’s too late.