The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.

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15th Anniversary Meeting

Bruges Group events

Professor Kenneth Minogue


Bruges at fifteen


Is Britain a moral exemplar to the Nations
In its fifteen years of life, the Bruges Group, has sustained, against the odds, the reality principle that an alien power is taking over British life. There is, I think, no historical precedent for a notable power volunteering to hand its autonomy over to a foreign body - volunteering for impotence, one might say. What could possibly explain it? Well, certainly at least 1997, we have been struggling against the Blair bewitchment, which has persuaded millions of "ordinary people" - his phrase not mine - that the only things in public life that matter are hip operations and rising numbers in universities. The British have slumbered through most of the grand questions of politics. Being an optimist, however, I am hopeful, even confident, that they will soon awake.

They won't awake, however, unless they realise what is happening to them, and tonight I want to make a few remarks about one of the longer lasting narcotics that have blunted national awareness for much longer than the Blair bewitchment - indeed, for just about a century. It is a belief about us that can be detected even before the First World War, and which was unmistakably present from the moment the League of Nations had come into being. Since I think this particular narcotic is a power-substitute, I am tempted to explain it as a reaction to the evident loss of British hegemony in the years between the wars. There is no doubt that it has deeply religious roots, though many people who espouse it are pretty contemptuous of Christianity. I am talking about the belief that Britain has a destiny to be the moral instructor, or perhaps instructress would be the better term, or better yet, an example, to the nations. Other countries sordidly follow their national interest, but we British have the higher calling of becoming the model for the new order of things.

The idea that Britain must become a moral exemplar to the nations results from promoting a principle of individual morality to the international stage. Muddling individuals with nations would be bad enough, because states are quite different from individuals. What makes it worse is that this is a thoroughly bad moral principle in the first place.

The principle is that I must not criticise the moral conduct of others unless my own conduct has been immaculate. Otherwise I am being a hypocrite. I have no right, as it were, to expect people to behave any better unless I am myself a paragon.

Since none of us is a moral paragon, this would seem a sovereign way of shutting moralists up, but that is not how the principle works in practice. For these moralists have found a way of avoiding the charge of hypocrisy. Indeed, they have found a way of first supercharging our sense of historical guilt and then sweeping it away altogether, thus turning us into the paragons who would have the right to criticise others: all one needs to do is to recognise one's sins, and apologise for them, and perhaps make appropriate reparation. One must also, of course, turn over a new leaf. The trick is to become pretty humble - rather like Uriah Heep, you will remember, who was "a very 'umble man". In national terms, Britain must become a very 'umble nation.

Now humility may be a virtue, but as the example of Uriah Heep shows, it can be a paradoxical virtue. Indeed, it may be the mask for the worst kind of pride, saying (in a weird parody of Socratic wisdom) "I am great precisely because I am so humble." We would seem to be in the presence of moral megalomania. And the next step in this hysterical moralism is to insist that Britain must divest itself of its interests and lead the world into a selfless new moral era.

I am speaking here not quite of what people say (though some of the clergy actually talk this way, but of what they are assuming. The essentials can be clearly see in Tony Blair apologising for the Irish famine of the 1840s, or in those curious people who voyage to the Lebanon to hand out leaflets apologising for the conduct of Christendom during the Crusades, or in schoolteachers whose history lessons consist in wringing their hands about slavery and empire. In some countries in the new world, the search for moral immaculacy takes the form of apologising for the treatment of indigenous peoples in past centuries.

And some of you may even, in youth, have been involved in one of the great episodes of Britain as a Moral Exemplar, in the movement for unilateral nuclear disarmament. CND was the pure milk of moral megalomania: a great power freely divests itself of its armoury. Surely this would mark a whole new epoch in history!

Don't get me wrong: I am not attempting to say that we were never involved in disreputable episode in the past, nor am I denying that a world with nuclear weapons is pretty worrying. What I am denying is that these past events have any moral relevance to current international relations. And what I am particularly denying is that, as a result of the current movement to impose Western standards of public policy throughout the world, Britain has a responsibility to demand the highest standards of itself no matter what other states may do. And that is the crux of the matter. We have our own interests to be pursued, and in doing so we must respond to the way others behave.

Getting the moral pitch right is an important issue both for our relations with the United Nations, and with the European Union. So far as the EU is concerned, we often get ourselves tangled up in language and metaphor. We talk of other states in the Union as "partners", but you can only be partners in a common enterprise, and in many cases we are certainly competitors and often seriously in conflict. Again, we sometimes talk of it as a "club" and therefore as imposing upon us the responsibility of being good members of the club. And this leads even Eurosceptics to take a certain misguided pride in the fact that, in league tables of who is and who is not defying the directives of the Union, we are commonly "goodies" because we comply more than others such as France. Further, it is a common - and abundantly justified - criticism of our government that directives that are a dead letter in other European countries - among our "partners" so to say - are implemented in Britain with a thoroughness that certainly does not reflect their rationality. But at least we are showing what "good chaps" we are!

I judge that this passion to exhibit exemplary virtue is the reason why Britain's conduct over Iraq provoked quite the intense level of attack that it did, both internally and abroad. Internal critics demand to know if the Attorney General certified the war as legal, while other countries attack us as betraying the principles of the UN. Previous good conduct does nothing to mitigate the ferocity of these attacks, nor to induce moral critics to understand the wider complexities of international relations. To adapt an old Hollywood theme, you're only as good as your last principled renunciation of power. Being an example to the nations is full time work and there's no time off for good behaviour.

This violent criticism by friends from whom we might well expect a certain indulgence, incidentally, points to another aspect of the abstract morality to which we are thus subject to: it is a morality that does not distinguish between friends and enemies. In the passions of our own critics of the Iraq war, you might think that the USA as a friend and a benign constitutional state might be treated more understandingly than other states but you would think in vain: it is almost as if a sinning friend is even more hated than a constant enemy. But in this strange moral world, you have no friends, or even allies. You conform, or you are damned. It is a chilling parody of legal neutrality. Israel has suffered from the same abstract intolerance.

It has been reported that just before British troops went into Iraq last year, the British commander demanded in writing an assurance from the prime minister that the use of force against Iraq was legal. He regarded it as a resignation issue. The reason was, of course, that without that assurance, he could not have been sure that he was not sending his troops into a war crimes tribunal. It is remarkable enough that a British commander should be running scared of foreign lawyers, but one might go further: was even the assurance he got enough? When did one lawyer's advice ever foreclose the issue when another lawyer was looking for grounds to sue: that danger in fact remained, and remains. And we know that there are enough - what shall we call them? rogue jurisdictions? - in the Western world (Belgium? Spain?) to issue writs and cause a great deal of trouble.

What is the significance of this situation? And, more importantly perhaps, how did it arise? The significance itself is clear enough: our sovereign freedom to act as we choose had become hostage to the judgement of foreign lawyers, along with whatever countries (seldom liberal and democratic, and very much with interests often counter to ours) have rotated their way onto the Security Council. Britain has clearly been nobbled; more to the point, it has nobbled itself. An elected prime minister might judge what the national interest required, but the final decision was to be made elsewhere.

How did this new situation come about? The answer is that ever since the end of the Second World War, Western states have fallen into the practice of signing up to abstract principles of public conduct. Britain in particular has signed up to virtually every document that has been put in front of simple ministers eager to be photographed for making a historic commitment of Britain to virtue. That is how we have acquired the European Convention on Refugees, endless declarations of Rights for humanity, women, children etc., climate protection legislation and most recently the International Criminal Court - the most important bit of legislation that worried our military. It is notable that even the Americans, often very keen on abstract virtue, did not fall for that one.

Where do all these "legal instruments" come from, and why do we do it? The answer seems to be that proposed documents have generally been inspired by bevies of lawyers working for groups of activists. It is a fact of modern liberal life that abstract principles of virtue have remarkable power among educated Western audiences whose wealth inhibits them from considering very deeply what may lurk beneath professions of surface virtue. Such drafts infiltrate the zeitgeist and then slowly burrow their way through the bureaucratic and publicity machines, until a ceremonial occasion is set up in some newsworthy capital, and the ministers turn up and to receive their expensive and complementary Mont Blanc pen, and enjoy their moment of conspicuous virtue.

The reason they love to do it is no doubt their vanity, but the roots are deeper than that. Those roots have grown out of the soil of Western moral imperialism, fuelled by activists, whose purpose is to create a whole world subject to the rules of Western liberal states. Western moral ideas - on gender, civil rights, democracy and so on - are so plausible that Westerners often do not recognise that they constitute a (somewhat imperialistic) ideology rather than pure pronouncements of reason. As the Marxist Joan Robinson used to say: "ideology is like breath. You don't notice the fragrance of your own." Their instrument of action is often a schedule of rights, and they know that it will often take a long time to work its magic. But the educated find it hard to resist an ideal. And the rest of us, being convinced that our practices, especially those relating to the position of women, are obviously superior to the practices of others, are happy enough to embrace these universal declarations.

Why should we not sign up to legal and humanitarian rights, after all? Are we not the very source of these virtues? Is it not a matter of pride to be seen as conspicuous respecters of such rights. It is this passion for moral righteousness that is one major source of the impulse for Britain and others states have to act as exemplars to the nations.

But in time, we discover that abstractions can turn and bite, as Mr. Blunkett has found with the European Convention on Refugees, and as other Cabinet ministers discovered on the issue of interrogation of prisoners in Northern Ireland. Australia got into trouble over legislation in the Northern Territory to impose mandatory sentences for a range of crimes, said to be oppressive to the rights of Aboriginals. Perhaps the most dramatic example is the European Convention on Human Rights, which the British helped draft after the Second World War in the happy conviction that it would be good for foreigners, and which now, in time's whirligig, has been entrenched by Mr. Blair and his government in our very own domestic legislation. Lawyers are over the moon. But for us, the problem with abstract rights is that they hand over what the government leaves of our freedom to the lawyers.

It is, then, the lure of conspicuous virtue that has led us into our role as exemplars of international virtue, a role that bids fair to rob us of our capacity for independent action. We now find ourselves entangled in a forest of principles and commitments which masquerade as something called "international law." This is a stage on which the United Nations can pretend that it is a world government in embryo. If political wisdom consists in a deep understanding of the culture of the people being governed, this system, in which the ignorant generate the abstract, must rank as the very antipodes of wisdom. The concrete politics of Britain has been subject to indeterminate abstract principles interpreted by foreigners who lack all understanding of our traditions. Indeed, in one way, the reality is far worse.

I have suggested that talk of international law in the case of military decisions is an imposture, for in fact our moral and legal obligations in this area can rest upon nothing else but our own judgement of what the national interest requires. Here is a tissue of cobwebs, and we might imagine that its moral force would dissolve at the first challenge of reality. But there is another way in which the framework of supposed international law holds us in an almost unshakeable grasp.

The fact is that supposed international commitments are for all practical purposes unrepealable. Who can refute a right? Rights are, notionally, universal and timeless. To repeal them would not be, as repeal of domestic legislation is, a response to circumstances, because the whole point of universal rights is that they are circumstance-proof. To repeal a right is to create nothing less than an earthquake in the moral and legal world.

Britain has, then, carved out for itself a reputation for being relatively indifferent to its national interest (aberrant episodes such as Suez excepted) and to exhibit all the virtues demanded by humanitarians. Germany and Japan have also largely been exemplars, but that is because they have something to live down. No one expects too much from the French, and the Americans have long been restive about the attempt by UN majorities to take control of their military and economic power and use it for their, rather than American, purposes. No, it is Britain that is the supreme exemplar of virtue. But all these liberal democracies are under moralistic attack.

For example, Ronald McCoy is the President of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. This may sound like one of those Mickey Mouse organisations - Tots against Terror, Mums against Madness and suchlike - but this is an organisation that received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. Such a prize is a notable encouragement to conspicuous virtue. Dr. McCoy has recently been pontificating on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Such a treaty seeks to limit nuclear weapons against a background in which for the moment everyone accepts the five existing nuclear states for the simple reason that five is bad enough and it would be best if nuclearity went no further. It leaves ultimate nuclear disarmament for the far horizon. Dr. McCoy, however is a man in a hurry. He calls it "hypocritical righteousness" that the US and the other nuclear states are trying to deny these weapons to other states. These states, he argues, are still refusing to comply with their Treaty obligations, fifty-eight years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Synicated in the New Straits Times, 26 Feb. 2004.

The notion that these countries are bad examples to the rest of the world may indeed have some force, but the idea that if they (and a fortiori if Britain alone) were to give up its nuclear arsenal, the result would be a falling into line by nuclear-aspirant states is entirely visionary. States do not seek these weapons out of imitation, and even if all five states destroyed their weapons, we should not in the long term have solved the problem of nuclear proliferation. It is particularly true of weaker states (such as Israel, Pakistan and North Korea) that the possession of a military trump is peculiarly attractive.

That the British - or at least the English - were a people chosen for an exemplary destiny is not, of course, a new idea. Milton regarded the English as God's people, and any providentialist understanding of the world is likely to generate some version of this basic idea. But Milton's view was a kind of theological politics, in which England was quite positively to bring a better condition about rather than to influence others by her self-abnegation. CND and other such critics of foreign policy are on a different tack altogether: that organisation was engaged in leading us all into a make-believe world in which politics, as the negotiation of public rules between powers, had been transcended in favour of morality. Politics is a dangerous, messy business, in which conflict can lead to violence. Morality, on this view, is doing the right thing, in the conviction that this will make everything come out right.

In the case of CND, the practical consequences, up till now, that would have followed the implementation of its policies, would certainly not have been disastrous; they would merely been futile. Consider whether the Israelis or the Pakistanis or the Iranians or anyone else would have calculated: "We must follow the British example and refrain from building the bomb." It's a thought that belongs in some bit of political satire. But perhaps the basic moral "payoff" desired is different: perhaps it is merely to be able to say, righteously: We at least, did the right thing.

The movement for Britain to become a moral exemplar in world politics is at bottom the fantasy of living in a better world. In this new order, conflict and war would have been replaced by negotiation. Uncertainty would haves been replaced by a rule-governed world in which defectors from the rules would be punished for their defections. Fear would be banished from the world, and morality would replace power. Such a world is a long way from the way we live now, but those who believe in it hope that violent and prejudiced people might in time be taught how to be rational. I sometimes refer to these idealists, in terms of their feeling of superiority to the common clay, as "Olympians."

Confronted by an Olympian ideal of this kind, it is common for realists to say: it would be a lovely world, but it's too good for our rough-timbered world. I don't want to say that because I think it would probably be despotic, oppressive and dull. That is because I take my lead from the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

Hobbes was notably the man who turned one problem in political philosophy upside down. Instead of asking: Why are men evil? Why do they commit crimes? He asked: How is it that we in European states live our lives in relative security? How is it that we can hold a meeting like this without worrying about others breaking in and robbing us? And in case this question sounds a little unreal, let me remind you that in places such as Haiti or Liberia it has not been at all unreal. Indeed, in what Hobbes called "the natural condition of mankind" or "the state of nature", no man could rely on the just conduct of any other person. In such a state of nature, as Hobbes notably put it, the life of man was solitary, poor, nasty brutish and short. Such was the state of any group of human beings who had not managed to create a civil power to keep them in order. And it has always been an influential model of international society. How could mankind escape from it?

Hobbes saw only one escape: namely a contract between all the people (in a certain area) agreeing to submit to some third party who would be the sovereign lawgiver ruling over them, and whose decisions they would henceforth acknowledge as their own. In this civil association, freedom was nothing else than "the silence of the law." One was free to do whatever was not punished by sanctions.

Such would be the political solution to the problem of violence in the state of nature, which models, of course, the structure of international society. Is there any other solution? Well, yes, we can imagine one, though it has almost no relation to reallity. The state of war might be dissolved into a condition of peace if human nature were to change. Mankind would have to become moral and peaceable. And that would mean that individuals would take their bearings not from their own desires, but from the needs of society. This would not be a logically impossible world - indeed, it lies beneath the powerful dream of socialism. But it would not be a world in which we as individuals would be able to lives the lives that we enjoy.

During the Iraq crisis, the idea that Britain should be an example to the rest of the world has been recessive, and the indignation has limited itself to the explicit demand that Britain should "obey the law". This is however, merely a shift of tactics. Not far below the surface of the educated British is a certain pride in being good - indeed superior - according to current international standards of social accommodation. And that is the reason why the British have been so profligate in signing up to endless abstract specifications of virtue and why there is so strong a movement to dismiss anything so vulgar as British interests from foreign policy calculations and to replace them with the simplest kind of moralism. This kind of moral megalomania is a threat to our future. So here I am making a pitch for a bit of national humility. We need to recognise that for all our virtues we are as others, and we must behave the way they do: on the principle of tit for tat, helping friends and, where necessary, harming enemies. It is not a high form of the moral life, but it has been the way international politics has been conducted from time immemorial. Until something better really comes along, we had better make do with it rather than play out our moral fantasies on the international stage.