Baroness Helena Kennedy QC on dreams, responsibilities, globalisation and value #JHISS

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC opened the John Hewitt International Summer School on Monday morning with an eloquent lecture that looked at dreams, responsibilities, the challenge of globalisation, the need to look seriously at how we improve cross-border cooperation and recalibrate what we attach value to in society.

You can also watch back some of the other sessions in Armagh: the political panel with Seamus Mallon, Naomi Long, Steven Agnew and Doug Beattie; a panel about the art of conflict transformation; a talk about the future of borders across the islands by Dr Katy Hayward (referred to by one commenter as ‘the good doctor’); Dr Caroline Magennis’ discussion about intimacy in NI short stories; and Friday morning’s trip to Gibraltar, its border and Brexit.

The barrister and broadcaster has a track record of championing civil liberties and promoting human rights. As a Labour peer, she currently holds the record of rebelling more frequently that any of her other party colleagues in the House of Lords, and recently appeared– looking quite frustrated – on screen in Laura Poitras’ documentary The Risk that profiled Julian Assange.

Upon receiving the invitation, she delved into John Hewitt’s writing and admitted that “he spoke very strongly to me” as “a progressive … who wanted a better society”.

Kennedy picked up on the theme of that evening’s cultural gala – In Dreams Begin Responsibilities – saying that “the word ‘dream’ is ethereal, intangible, in signifying that which is not yet real whereas the word ‘responsibility’ is weighted with the very reality of everyday life … Every great project starts with a dream.”

“The fulfilment of any dream means accepting and working the responsibilities that go with that endeavour. Making dreams work requires work.”

She compared the building of institutions with the building of great cathedrals whose construction often outlasted the lifetime of the architect and designer.

“When you have grand ambitions to create peace, to create a better world, to actually work together in collaboration to create good things. Sometimes there will be disappointments on the way. I would be the first person to say that there are aspects of the European Union that I feel disappointed by – it hasn’t got there – but it has only been forty years and I do think that perhaps it takes longer to make things that are truly lasting and of wonder.”

Nothing great comes easily. All gains come out of struggle.

“In reality the real gains of freedom and liberty and equality came from the challenges to vested power from those who demanded their fair share, who demanded justice.”

While the Magna Carta “didn’t do very much for women or for serfs”, Kennedy explained that “it started a process in which we recognise that struggle is the only way that you seize some power back from those who are powerful”.

Her own dream was “to create a just world”, something she furthered through her work as a lawyer, often representing women and children, as well as involvement in asylum, terrorism and espionage trials. Her clients taught her about human rights and the abuse of human rights

Kennedy insisted that “the law has to keep writing itself and improving standards”.

She suggested that the “big challenges for lawmakers today involve globalisation” and moving beyond the “nation state” to be able to seek legal address and provide protection against abuses.

“There is an instinctive suspicion and resistance by many citizens to the idea of international courts and it is why current we have the political red line around the European Court of Justice and a lot of manoeuvring around the European Convention of Human Rights and a call for disconnection from both those courts.”

Tax avoidance, financial chicanery, environmental damage, the trafficking of people, the rule of law in mass migration all require cross border law and regulation.

“The spectre of foreign courts and foreign justice is so easy to stir up prejudice against and yet many of the big threats to our world span borders, grappling with their complexity, and it’s beyond the capacity of one nation.”

Grand scale dreaming had created valuable institutions that now required reform rather than abandonment.

“At the end of the second world war people dreamt on a grand scale. They dreamt of creating a world order that would deliver peace and security and justice. And they created things towards that end [like] the United Nations.

“They created conventions to protect the rights of people, so they couldn’t be stateless, to protect refugees, because we’d seen what the war did in dislocating people and how people fleeing war and conflict – we see it now in Syria – need protections.

“The creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The creation internal of the Council of Europe and then the European Union and of the European Convention of Human Rights.

“Now of course the challenge to us today is to reform and develop some of those institutions which were developed way back then because institutions do need to evolve and need to be shifted and changed. That is where our duties and responsibilities lie. [Those institutions] shouldn’t be weakened … we should be seeking to strengthen them and the ties that are necessary. We need to deal with the strengthening of international law not the diminishment of it.”

On Brexit:

“I’ll not pretend to you that the referendum result did anything but cause me deep sadness … and it’s not that I do not have my criticisms of the European Union. But I still believe in the dream.

“For me it was about not just trading together with our close neighbours and doing so in ways that were ethical and where standards were right … but it was also about peace and solidarity across borders and mutuality and a coalition of values in the larger goal of creating a world of peace and justice, to be an entity within that bigger whole.

“By being part of a trading bloc we do commerce together, one to the other, but in a community – with strength in our numbers – we trade with the world. In doing that we set standards … What are your supply chains? Are you employing children in your sources? Is there lead in your paint? Are your pharmaceuticals contaminated so they’re likely to lead to thalidomide? It’s about setting standards in the way that we do business and we do projects together …

“I think we’re making a grave mistake and it lies in the face of what is needed in a world which is, in many respects, in crisis. Going it alone seems like a retreat to me. Some wanted this for a very long time and I think that some of those harbour nostalgic ideas of a Britain of old, of a United Kingdom as it once was unaware that the world has changed. Others are ideologues who believe absolutely in untrammelled free markets and resile from any significant regulation of trading.”

Kennedy associated the crisis in the economy with a crisis in civilisation.

“The global economic crisis of 2008 is still having huge reverberations on the lives of people. The crisis affecting our economy is in fact the crisis of our civilisation. The values that we hold dear are the very same values that brought us to this point.

“The meltdown in our economy is a harsh symbol to me of the meltdown in some of our values. It’s as if our house is on fire and the flames are coming through the second-floor windows and we thing that that’s where the fire is raging but in fact the fire’s raging somewhere else.

“The economic crisis is a symptom of things that have gone wrong in our cultures which are increasingly about individualism which has been raised now to a religion. And the idea that somehow appearance matters more than substance. Success seems to justify greed. And greed justifies indifference to our fellow human beings.

“We thought that our actions only affected our own sphere, but with globalisation the consequences are felt much further afield. We saw appalling financial decisions made in the United States, but also made here, and they’ve had a domino effect down through our communities. And that’s why it’s necessary to have a fundamental rethink about the prevailing neoliberal economic model.

“The most important thing to know is that we are more connected than we ever suspected before. A visible and invisible mesh links economies and cultures around the world. And we took the success of our economy as proof of the rightness of its underlying philosophy. And that underlying philosophy was of course that the state should be smaller, that the state shouldn’t be looking after those who might need help at times of joblessness, at times of age, at times of sickness, at times when things are not going well.

“I’m afraid the philosophy of neoliberalism has been arid and cruel. The idea that a small state is going to be a happy state, we’re seeing, might not be true. The idea that taxes have to be ever and ever and ever reduced for the wealthiest and for corporations, imagining that somehow wealth trickled down without the need for support and assistance from an enabling state. And we’ve seen welfare being cut to the bone.

“We’ve seen parts of our societies abandoned. Places that once were pit towns having no pit, and therefore no work. Places that were steel towns having to steelworks, and therefore no work. Places that were based on the notions of factories manufacturing things and those factories being closed, and people have no work. Somehow little being done to help replace that and so it led to a great deal of indebtedness for people and immiseration because indebtedness was encouraged.

“We’ve also seen the hoarding of wealth. For many the quality of life has been deteriorating and there is anger. The only hope is a fundamental re-examination of the values that we’ve been living with for the pasty thirty years. We are at a crossroads. I think people are right to feel angry and ask questions about what brought them to this state. What meant that there had to be austerity policies which they shouldered, they felt, unjustly?

“So to whom do we turn for guidance? People feel that most politicians have been part of the being let down. They feel that they’re being disembowelled by their sages.

“Then we see that teachers and people who are involved in important aspects of our family’s lives, professionals that have been deprofessionalised, teachers demoralised, people in our health services not valued as they should be, experts dismissed, scientific rationality described as ‘false news’ by people like Mr Trump.

“We have to rediscover the creative ability that we have to reshape our world. We need better one planet thinking. We have to think about bringing back a deeper sense of living. What are we here for? Why are we here and what’s it all about. The unhappiness in so many lives ought to tell us that success alone is not enough. We only have to look at the high levels of loneliness, of mental illness, of abuse of drugs and alcohol, of suicide amongst the young and particularly young men, at the neglect and abuse of children in our society, our failure towards the elderly.

“Material success has brought us to a strange spiritual and moral bankruptcy in many parts of our country. The more society has succeeded, the more it’s heart has failed. So we need a new social consciousness and the poor and the hungry and the young generally need to be the focus of our economic and social responsibility.”

Kennedy suggested some actions, in line with Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1948 call for the claiming of global values.

“We need to restore the pre-eminence of character over show, and wisdom over cleverness. We need to be more a people of the world. We need to see that outcomes are better when we work together in solidarity, and that tolerance and mutual respect are fundamental to peaceful coexistence. Democracy and law are fundamental to it all. I say that because I do believe that law is the twin pillar with democracy that sustains societies that are decent and civilised. Law that is suffused with human rights. That sometimes means that you have to sacrifice a level of sovereignty for a higher purpose.”

Later in her speech, Kennedy predicted that “automation is going to mean that more and more jobs in our world are going to disappear”.

“We have to be ready for that because of the effect it will have on the lives of our children and grandchildren. But the jobs that will not disappear are the jobs which require our humanity … The jobs of nurturing, of real teaching, of caring for each other as well as the jobs of invention and creativity: they are not going to be done by machines. Yet the carers in our society are some of the least well-paid and the most undervalued. We’re going to be forced to recalibrate the things in our society [to which] we should be attaching value.”

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