This is probably a first for me. I’m going to speak in support of some comments made by the Queen last week that have been interpreted as her commenting on the state of division, anger and chaos we find our society in as the aftershocks of the Brexit referendum continue. I want to take her comments regarding “speaking well of each other and respecting different points of view, coming together to seek out the common ground and never losing sight of the bigger picture” at face value and not try to over interpret her particular meaning.
I add this final caveat because in calling such approaches “tried and tested recipes” and “timeless” she not only suggests that they have always existed and been practiced, but she implies that this existence and practice is somehow intrinsic to a ‘British way’ of doing things, somewhat akin to the notion of ‘British values’ that did the rounds a few years ago and always seems to be lurking under the covers of an overly nationalistic reaction to, or interpretation of, a problem situation. I suggest that the interpretation that follows has not existed to any great degree in this country, and that further, it is very, very far from being uniquely British (in fact quite the opposite).
On the positive side, I think it very obvious that unless we want the social divisions that have been exposed as a result of Brexit to fester away and become infected to such a degree that open civil strife appears on the streets, or somehow naively believe that when which ever side we happen to support finally wins out everyone opposing it will finally see the error of their ways and fall into line behind us, that somehow, from somewhere, common ground needs to be found. It will be on this common ground that our future will be build. It needs to be as firm and as uncontested as possible. The problem is that so far all candidates for this foundation, candidates like ‘British values’ or ‘the national interest’ lack any clear articulation and are open to as many different interpretations as there are opposing factions. They are also too insular and naïve.
My suggestion is that we agree to the notion of universal human rights, or some variant of it, becoming this common ground. By definition, being universal these rights are common to everyone (there can be no exception) and as basic rights they form (or should form) the very ground of society. Let me illustrate my point with an example from a project that I am personally involved in. Here in Bridport (that’s in Dorset, UK, by the way, if you’re reading this from afar) we have declared our town a ‘Rights Respecting Town’. We have drawn up a Citizen’s Charter that has been adopted by the Town Council, and which we are encouraging both individual citizens and local organisations to sign and pledge their support to. In this Charter we have adopted / adapted the UN Declaration on Human Rights to what we think relevant to the citizens of an individual town. The first of our five key principle rights and responsibilities concerns the “Freedom of belief, thought and expression”. It not only says that “We have the right to make up our own minds, think and believe what we like, express our thoughts freely and discuss our thoughts with other people” but that “We are all responsible for respecting the ideology, thoughts and feelings of other people and defending their right to express them within the limits of the law. We have the right to safe and public spaces where people can speak and share ideas freely and with respect.”
I have written previously about the need to develop our skills in public debate and critical thinking, together with the need to foster safe environments to both speak and listen. This is a relatively easy thing to do within the confines of my Philosophy in Pubs group, but doing it on the public stage is both much harder and very much more urgent. Until we both feel able to freely express our thoughts and have them listened to, and until we learn how to both understand other points of view and have our own respectfully challenged, the social wounds that are now appearing could become deeply infected – infected to such a degree that they are resistant to all conventional forms of treatment.
But the Queen’s comment about “never losing sight of the bigger picture” should be interpreted on a much larger scale than I suspect it was meant. Universal Human Rights do not only apply to all the citizens of this country, they apply to the citizens of all countries! We need, as a matter of urgency, to stop thinking about the needs of just one nation state, and about trying to make our own nation independent of the of the needs and situations faced by citizens of the world. Particularly because of modern technology, all global citizens are highly connected and very interdependent upon each other. Our individual national economies are highly connected and influenced by the global economy, and the looming disasters associated with climate change and ecological degradation, together with those of terrorism (both physical and cyber), migration (from war zones, economic collapse or rising sea levels) and global epidemics require us to think collectively. We need to consider the rights of all global citizens and how we can collectively defend ourselves against the multiple developing global threats to our existence.