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I am minded to write something about both utilitarianism and human rights as a consequence of watching the news the other night. Two separate but linked news articles struck a chord. The first about police being heavy handed in applying the emergency laws surrounding the restricting of movement and the second about the emergency laws being passed to suspend jury trials in Scotland. Both have an impact in respect of human rights.
Turning to the first, the complaint is that the police across England and Wales have in some cases been disproportionate in their dealing with the public when attempting to manage the restrictions around movement. The example shown was the uploading of videos onto social media depicting people walking around the Peak District. The captions simply asked whether the trip was necessary.
The government guidance is pretty clear regarding staying at home but perhaps is a little less clear about travelling to a location to partake in exercise. I must admit though I am a little perplexed at the accusation of heavy handedness. The Human Rights Act 1998 provides for a right to life and it has been held that the government and its agencies have a positive obligation to facilitate this. There are of course some caveats as it would be almost impossible to ensure this in all circumstances. There is no doubt that people are dying from Covid-19. The approach to enforce social distancing, presently predominantly through information and the reliance on responsibility and good will, seems to be the only current viable approach to combating this killer. The curtailment of some Human Rights is it seems necessary to ensure the greater good and to preserve life. The latter of course is a primary duty that most police officers would recognise. The greater good for the many is it seems compatible with a key principle of human rights.
Turning to the second news article. The right to a fair trial is a fundamental human right. The suspension of a jury may be against longstanding legal principles but, the Human Rights Act does not specify that the trial should be before a jury, merely an independent judge. The argument could be made that trials should be suspended but this might be impinging on rights in respect of defendants being held in custody awaiting trial. The convening of a jury would flout the rationale behind current legislation in place to enforce social distancing and would quite simply be contrary to obligations to protect life.
The notions of utilitarianism are often viewed as in conflict with individual rights and therefore the Human Rights Act. Many see the two as incompatible, one relates to the many and the other the individual. This argument though fails to have vision, it is not truly consequentialist. Human Rights are utilitarian in their very nature. Is it not to the greater good that people have a right to life, a right to freedom of association, a right to a fair trail to name but a few? Should it not be considered that every individual case that is examined under the Human Rights Act has consequences for the many as well as the individual? A breach of the Act if unchallenged opens the way for abuses by governments and their agencies, it is utilitarian in nature, it is there for the greater good, not just the individual circumstances that are being examined. But should we also not consider that there is a need to prioritise rights, particularly in the circumstances the country and world finds itself in? Some parts of the Act are in clearly on occasions, incompatible with others. Curtailment of some freedoms and rights is necessary for the greater good but more importantly, it is necessary to save lives, perhaps even the life of the individual complaining of the curtailment. We can but hope that amidst all of this, good sense prevails.
So, we have a new prime minister Boris Johnson. Donald Trump has given his endorsement, hardly surprising, and yet rather than having a feeling of optimism that Boris in his inaugural speech in the House of Commons wished to engender amongst the population, his appointment fills me with dread. Judging from reactions around the country, I’m not the only one, but people voted for him just the same as people voted for Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky, the recently elected Ukrainian president.
The reasons for their success lie not in a proven ability to do the job but in notions of popularity reinforced by predominantly right-wing rhetoric. Of real concern, is this rise of right wing populism across Europe and in the United States. References to ‘letter boxes’ (Johnson, 2018), degrading Muslim women or tweeting ethnic minority political opponents to ‘go back to where they came from’ (Lucas, 2019) seems to cause nothing more than a ripple amongst the general population and such rhetoric is slowly but surely becoming the lingua franca of the new face of politics. My dread is how long before we hear similar chants to ‘Alle Juden Raus!’ (1990), familiar in 1930s Nazi Germany?
It seems that such politics relies on the ability to appeal to public sentiment around nationalism and public fears around the ‘other’. The ‘other’ is the unknown in the shadows, people who we do not know but are in some way different. It is not the doctors and nurses, the care workers, those that work in the hospitality industry or that deliver my Amazon orders. These are people that are different by virtue of race or colour or creed or language or nationality and, yet we are familiar with them. It is not those, it is not the ‘decent Jew’ (Himmler, 1943), it is the people like that, it is the rest of them, it is the ‘other’ that we need to fear.
The problems with such popular rhetoric is that it does not deal with the real issues, it is not what the country needs. John Stuart Mill (1863) was very careful to point out the dangers that lie within the tyranny of the majority. The now former prime minister Theresa May made a point of stating that she was acting in the national Interest (New Statesman, 2019). But what is the national interest, how is it best served? As with my university students, it is not always about what people want but what they need. I could be very popular by giving my students what they want. The answers to the exam paper, the perfect plan for their essay, providing a verbal precis of a journal article or book chapter, constantly reminding them when assignments are due, turning a blind eye to plagiarism and collusion*. This may be what they want, but what they need is to learn to be independent, revise for an exam, plan their own essays, read their own journal articles and books, plan their own assignment hand in dates, and understand and acknowledge that cheating has consequences. What students want has not been thought through, what students need, has. What students want leads them nowhere, hopefully what students need provides them with the skills and mindset to be successful in life.
What the population wants has not been thought through, the ‘other’ never really exists and ‘empire’ has long gone. What the country needs should be well thought out and considered, but being popular seems to be more important than delivering. Being liked requires little substance, doing the job is a whole different matter.
*I am of course generalising and recognise that the more discerning students recognise what they need, albeit that sometimes they may want an easier route through their studies.
Alle Juden Raus (1990) ‘All Jews Out’, Directed by Emanuel Rund. IMDB
Himmler, H. (1943) Speech made at Posen on October 4, 1943, U.S. National Archives, [online] available at http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/holocaust/h-posen.htm [accessed 26 July 2019].
Johnson, B. (2018) Denmark has got it wrong. Yes, the burka is oppressive and ridiculous – but that’s still no reason to ban it, The Telegraph, 5th August 2018.
Lucas, A. (2019) Trump tells progressive congresswomen to ‘go back’ to where they came from, CNBC 14 July 2019 [online] available at https://www.cnbc.com/2019/07/14/trump-tells-progressive-congresswomen-to-go-back-to-where-they-came-from.html [accessed 26 July 2019]
Mill, J. S. (1863) On Liberty, [online] London: Tickner and Fields, Available from https://play.google.com/store/books [accessed 26 July 2019]
New Statesman (2019) Why those who say they are acting in “the national interest” often aren’t, [online] Available at https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2019/01/why-those-who-say-they-are-acting-national-interest-often-arent [accessed 26 July 2019]
It is now nearly two weeks since Remembrance Day and reading Paula’s blog. Whilst understanding and agreeing with much of the sentiment of the blog, I must confess I have been somewhat torn between the critical viewpoint presented and the narrative that we owe the very freedoms we enjoy to those that served in the second world war. When I say served, I don’t necessarily mean those just in the armed services, but all the people involved in the war effort. The reason for the war doesn’t need to be rehearsed here nor do the atrocities committed but it doesn’t hurt to reflect on the sacrifices made by those involved.
My grandad, now deceased, joined the Royal Navy as a 16-year-old in the early 1930s. It was a job and an opportunity to see the world, war was not something he thought about, little was he to know that a few years after that he would be at the forefront of the conflict. He rarely talked about the war, there were few if any good memories, only memories of carnage, fear, death and loss. He was posted as missing in action and found some 6 months later in hospital in Ireland, he’d been found floating around in the Irish Sea. I never did find out how this came about. He had feelings of guilt resultant of watching a ship he was supposed to have been on, go down with all hands, many of them his friends. Fate decreed that he was late for duty and had to embark on the next ship leaving port. He described the bitter cold of the Artic runs and the Kamikaze nightmare where planes suddenly dived indiscriminately onto ships, with devastating effect. He had half of his stomach removed because of injury which had a major impact on his health throughout the rest of his life. He once described to me how the whole thing was dehumanised, he was injured so of no use, until he was fit again. He was just a number, to be posted on one ship or another. He swerved on numerous ships throughout the war. He had medals, and even one for bravery, where he battled in a blazing engine room to pull out his shipmates. When he died I found the medals in the garden shed, no pride of place in the house, nothing glorious or romantic about war. And yet as he would say, he was one of the lucky ones.
My grandad and many like him are responsible for my resolution that I will always use my vote. I do this in the knowledge that the freedom to be able to continue to vote in any way I like was hard won. I’m not sure that my grandad really thought that he was fighting for any freedom, he was just part of the war effort to defeat the Nazis. But it is the idea that people made sacrifices in the war so that we could enjoy the freedoms that we have that is a somewhat romantic notion that I have held onto. Alongside this is the idea that the war effort and the sacrifices made set Britain aside, declaring that we would stand up for democracy, freedom and human rights.
But as I juxtapose these romantic notions against reality, I begin to wonder what the purpose of the conflict was. Instead of standing up for freedom and human rights, our ‘Great Britain’ is prepared to get into bed with and do business with the worst despots in the world. Happy to do business with China, even though they incarcerate up to a million people such as the Uygurs and other Muslims in so called ‘re-education camps’, bend over backwards to climb into bed with the United States of America even though the president is happy to espouse the shooting of unarmed migrating civilians and conveniently play down or ignore Saudi Arabia’s desolation of the Yemini people and murder of political opponents.
In the clamber to reinforce and maintain nationalistic interests and gain political advantage our government and many like it in the west have forgotten why the war time sacrifices were made. Remembrance should not just be about those that died or sacrificed so much, it should be a time to reflect on why.