Dear Mr Heaton-Harris
I have written to you before seeking help from you with regard to my forthcoming lecture on Brexit and Human Rights – but I have not received a reply. The thing is that the lecture is very soon – at LSE next week and I still haven’t got much clue about the benefits of Brexit! Now I know you are dead keen on scrutinising what we academics say about Brexit for bias and so on which is why I really need your help. I’ll do my best to find good things about Brexit – I have found one possible and one potentially. But I need more.
You are doing a book I know and are a kind of scholar I am guessing. Let me tell you about a well-known feature of free speech. It is called the ‘chill factor’ – someone in a position of authority (like you, a member of the government say) writes to the bosses of a bunch of people (vice-chancellors for example) asking for details about what those people are doing (say giving lectures) when everyone knows (but no one says) what is really going on is deliberately raising a doubt in the minds of these junior people whether they should do or say or write the thing of which they know the powerful person disapproves (that Brexit is a stupid self-destructive act of national suicide for example) in case they get moved against by the bosses. McCarthyism started this way – people thought the junior senator from Wisconsin was a second rate nobody but he went on to wreck people’s lives. Check out Campus Watch in the US for another example. I doubt you could possibly have intended this kind of thing, but it risks being an effect. I genuinely want your input so that if anyone moves against me for bias I can say you were invited to engage – better still come to the lecture! I’ll give you an immediate right of reply.
I am nearly finished watching Ken Burns’s epic documentary series on Vietnam. David Thomson, writing in the London Review of Books , is surely right to talk of it in terms of being (one of?) the finest documentaries ever made.
So what is the connection with Brexit? Am I being an obsessive?
Well of course the casualties from Vietnam were direct and the horror immediate. The deaths and destroyed lives from Brexit will take longer and envelop people with no drama. But that’s not the point I want to make now.
A late episode in the series details the impact of the leaking of the Pentagon Papers. I’d forgotten quite what they signified. Commissioned by an at-this point departed Secretary of State (Robert McNamara), they were designed to get into writing the lessons of the disaster that was Vietnam. The Nixon administration tried hard to stop the New York Times running them, even fighting (and losing) a case all the way to the Supreme Court. They showed successive administrations knew that Vietnam was a disaster and consistently lied to the public while things went from bad to worse.
Remind you of anything? Exactly: those 58 studies of the impact of Brexit that David Davis refuses to publish. These are Brexit’s Pentagon Papers. They must come out.
I hope you don’t mind my writing. I would appreciate your advice please. I am giving a public lecture on Brexit and human rights at LSE in mid November – gosh, sorry no power point to send you! – and obviously I want to include all the good things about Brexit’s impact on human rights. Trouble is I can’t think of any! Can you help me achieve government-approved balance? Now maybe it is simply that Brexit permits the destruction of human rights and that is thought by you and others to be a good thing. If so let me know and I’ll include it! But if there are things that work for human rights do let me know them. Need to avoid the thought police, eh?!
Very sincerely yours
Professor Conor Gearty FBA, MRIA, Bencher Middle Temple, Irish and European citizen.
Well it was a special thing to give the After-Dinner talk at the Society of Legal Scholars Conference in Dublin last night. Here is the hall being set up and full as it was last night it is a glorious space. The conference itself is being held at UCD where I was a student many years ago and this is the first occasion the Society has ever held its annual event outside the UK. All very moving for me.
Inevitably I talked about Brexit and argued that in Ireland there is a special obligation to assist the UK at this hour of terrible need. (As those of you reading this who know my work will know I am an ‘extreme remainer’!) Ireland’s common law traditions and its long close association with Britain (or do I mean quasi-colonial domination?) will post Brexit make it a powerful bridgehead between a declining Britain outside Europe and the rest of the EU. To be effective, it is vital that somehow or other Irish-British relations survive the horrible years of rupture that inevitably lie ahead, so that when common sense returns the Irish are ready to assist.
Is this unduly provocative? Or patronising? I don’t think so. In the speech I identified six arguments for BREXIT, and found none of them persuasive. The first three are more or less the same: Brexit proponents frequently explain themselves by attacking the EU (either (i) ‘it is corrupt, venal, hopeless’ or (ii) ‘it is about to fall apart’) or (iii) attacking the people in favour of remain (‘liberal elites’; ‘experts’ etc) as out-of-touch with the people. None of these positions is an argument. They are just ways of changing the subject since all might be true but the question of whether the EU is so important that the costs – if they really exist – need to be accepted is as a result of this shift invariably dodged. The fourth (‘taking back control’) has been laid to rest by the Government itself whose key white paper has admitted that parliamentary sovereignty was in truth never subverted by the EU but that ‘it just felt like that’. The fifth – the people have spoken – is another procedural trick to avoid any discussion of substance; deployed by the other side it would render all argument after the 1975 referendum illegitimate, an idea that would have been rightly rejected by all those pushing for the more recent referendum. Democracy is by definition about fluid decision-making. The sixth argument is the strongest – we need to disrupt everything to make progress. Brexit throws all the cards on the table, the game of Britain begins afresh – all will be fine even if there are short term hiccups. Maybe. But how things will be fine and what fine will mean are never defined. This is some risk to take with a people no longer able to rely on colonial territories for the easy accumulation of wealth.
Sinn Fein means ‘Ourselves Alone or ‘We Ourselves’ in English. How will the UK enjoy being the new Sinn Feiners? Not very much I confidently predict. That’s when the old Sinn Feiners (of all contemporary political persuasions), now confidently cosmopolitan, will be needed to help rescue a country drifting aimlessly ever further out into the north sea.
My book On Fantasy Island. Britain, Strasbourg and Human Rights will be published by Oxford University Press in July, with the proper launch being in September. I did a lecture a while back with this title – a summary of which you can read here . The book explores the various myths, illusions and occasional downright deceptions that have marked the attitude of our two main political parties, but especially the Conservatives, to the Human Rights Act since it was enacted in 1998. After going through these fantasies I outline the facts behind the Act and then end with some thoughts about the future. About 80,000 words – an antidote, I am hoping, to the infections of noisy nonsense that the Act has attracted. The test of the value of a law lies in the sort of enemies it attracts. On this basis alone the Human Rights Act would be worth defending!
Watch out for my new web site devoted specifically to the book, coming soon. I’ll be including long extracts from it there, and comments on the latest speeches on rights as and when they emerge – like Theresa May’s yesterday, on which as well more later (very soon in fact).