Category Archives: Misc

Asking the Advice of Chris Heaton-Harris MP

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.

Professor Gearty


Vietnam – and Brexit: Avoiding disaster

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.

Asking the advice of Chris Heaton-Harris MP

Dear Chris,

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.

The Rule Of Law In Europe: Friend Or Foe Of Democracy?


The reaction to 11 September damaged the liberty of those living in Europe who found themselves targeted as suspect terrorists while seeming to do little to ensure the security of the wider community. More recently a second emergency, rooted this time in the financial and economic collapse of 2008 onwards, has caused a further unraveling of Europe’s constitutional project, even threatening the gains of past generations of European idealists. In today’s Europe universal liberty and security have no meaning for many even if their shape is retained in structures that in truth mock rather than deliver democracy and human rights. This talk traces the origins of the crises that have afflicted so directly the breadth of liberty and human security in the Union, demonstrating their roots in ‘viruses’ that have been present from the start of the European movement but which have now spiralled out of control. The lecture ends by asking what can be done to prevent the full decline of the region into a state of neo-democratic/post- democratic unfreedom, one in which capital unbound from democracy thrives at the expense of the people.

The state of freedom in Europe

What resources does Europe in general and the European Union in particular have to resist a world  in which as one scholar has put it ‘core democratic institutions, such as parliaments or recurring elections, stay formally in place while the substance of political decision making is no longer determined by active citizens and their representatives’? And we should add while the law comes and goes as neo-liberal exigencies demand, and human rights rhetoric grows ever louder as its real impact on the ground diminishes ever further?  Pushing the point even more, is it right that as the sociologist Wolfgang Streeck has said, ‘one cannot but be afraid of the possibility of a new, however temporary, settlement of social conflict in advanced capitalism, this time entirely in favour of the propertied classes now firmly entrenched in their politically unconquerable institutional stronghold, the international finance industry’?

This crisis in Europe has not come from nowhere: it is a creature of three fundamental weaknesses that have dogged the Community since its modest inception in the 1950s.  First there is the never-resolved question of national identity.  The European project has been strong enough to make progress towards the idea of a Union but never strong enough to make it matter on the ground.  Where once nation states pirouetted around their sovereignty while conceding enough to facilitate European progress, now increasingly states build walls – metaphorical and real – to defend their national interests, displaying chauvinism as a matter of pride rather than of reluctant electoral necessity.

Second there has been the unresolved question, raised when the issue of a European Constitution was mooted but left to one side at that time, of whether the European space is a Christian one or at least a culturally Christian one (whatever about belief in the risen Christ).  The antagonism to Moslem peoples that we see across Europe today reflects a deep-rooted sense of their being different, one that has been greatly exacerbated by the attacks of 11 September and the politically-inspired atrocities that followed within Europe in (for example) Madrid, London, Burgas in Bulgaria and Paris. Europe may not have re-embraced its Christianity but it has increasingly developed a tendency to articulate values rooted in the past and which reflect the post-Christian secularism of the moment in a way that for all its invocations of universalism is just as divisive (and marginally less honest) than the religious partisanship of the past.

Thirdly there is the Union’s long attachment to the moral force of the market, benign enough when it was a merely an aspirant Common Market seeking to make war impossible in a region that had been a killing zone for generations,  but deadly now when the neo-liberal virus of market power has not only destroyed the economies of many European states but then insisted on further destruction as a remedy for the damage it has already done: like asking a poisoner how to solve a problem which has been caused by his own application of strychnine; naturally he will suggest more poison.  It is the neo-liberal contagion wreaking havoc outside Europe that together with big-power-induced instability that has sent desperate people towards Europe in what looks like it might be millions.

Can Europe cope? The refugee crisis that burst fully in 2015 and just alluded to may indeed be the final straw for the Union, the point at which the three viruses of national selfishness, racist intolerance and the decay of life-chances produced by neo-liberalism the world over come together in a perfect and destructive storm.  There is pushback in the courts from time to time, both at Luxembourg and in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The European Parliament may be relied upon to raise the issues of democratic engagement that are missed elsewhere, indeed can sometimes manage the occasional bite despite the leash on its powers severely curtailing its movement.  Social movements influence public debate as well, though less than such aspirant social movers would like. The fact that for many the best way of moving forward is to rely on the democratic energy of ‘the people’ may be evidence of despair or determined optimism, or indeed both. We must hope that the high point of the fever is upon us and the patient is about to begin recovery. Optimism of the will is vital exactly when the intellect sees no escape from pessimism.

Stark Raving Starkey

I first encountered David Starkey in the late 1980s. We were debating freedom and civil liberties together in a BBC2 programme chaired by Jonathan Dimbleby. It was the first time I had ever been on TV as I recall, but even then my opponent seemed to be a seasoned media performer, holding forth to all and sundry before the show, assuming (as he always seems to) that everybody would want to hear him speak for as long as he felt like talking.

The debate involved me taking a civil libertarian line critical of the Thatcher government and Starkey saying things weren’t at all bad. Then an incredible thing happened. Starkey came out on TV – declared himself Gay but unpersecuted. Dimbleby turned delighted to me, ‘so what do you make of that then Dr Gearty, ah ha’ (or words to this effect). I sort of said ‘okay, good’… Clearly they all knew it was coming, a fab scoop on as live TV.

Then another amazing thing – Starkey didn’t know me, had never met me but had listened to enough of what I had said to detect an Irish accent, a sort of proper country accent not West Brit or even Dublin. ‘Now Conor like me comes from a poor background…’ he began to proclaim, on no basis other than how I spoke.

So there you have it: an obsessive self-publicist and casual maker of racist assumptions, even then over twenty years ago.