Transcript of the Gladstone Lecture 2014

This is a transcript of the Gladstone Lecture given by Shirley Williams on Tuesday 21 October at St James' the Less, Pimlico. An audio recording is also available on the website.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much, and let me first of all thank Matt and Claire for organising this which I think is very much to their credit and I am very grateful to them. I am also grateful the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum exists, because it is good to bring together Christians in the Liberal Democrat Party and to also confront Christians, both older and younger Christians, with some of the dilemmas of being a Christian today.

Let me begin by saying that I come from a complicated family. But one that has been involved, or was involved - the lives of both my parents very much - in the issues of peace and war. Some of you will know that my mother was a life-long pacifist, though her pacifism grew out of her own involvement in the 1st World War as a military nurse through almost the whole of the period of that war. I've spent this year talking a great deal about my mother because I've been invited by the BBC and others to be one of the people commenting on WW1 – the reasons for it, the experience of it, the consequences of it and so forth. I feel very close to that war, although I wasn't alive in any part of it, because of being told by my father and my mother about their experiences and the experience of their friends and acquaintances.

I'll come back in a short while to talking about the First World War and the kind of problems that it raised. To an extraordinary extent, and to an extent that we still don't recognise, the consequences of the First World War still shape our politics, and you'll see why I say that when I recount a bit about what those consequences have been – because we tend to forget after 100 years it seems so far away, it seems historic, like the Crimean War. But in fact the consequences of the First World War are much more significant even today than the consequences of earlier wars which belong to a different technological age.

The second thing to say about my parents is that both of them, all their lives, long engaged in what can only be described as a series of different moral dilemmas and issues which they had to try to sort out and confront, either together or sometimes separately. Both my parents served, as I said, in the First World War though my father was a member of something called the Artists Rifles which was regarded by other military persons as being not worth the paper it was written on. By definition, these were people who understood the easel and the pen, but were not very good at fighting. I think my father found that a rather embarrassing memory. The other point about them was that they both became deeply engaged in the issues they had to confront. One of these issues was my mother’s deep commitment to pacifism. That commitment arose, as I said, from her service as a nurse – and let’s remember for a moment that being a nurse in the First World War was not in the least like being a nurse in the National Health Service today.

There were no antibiotics, there were no blood transfusions, there were no proper anaesthetics. Being a nurse in the First World War was very close to being a butcher, except you were basically on the other side. So my mother experienced as a very young woman - being 21, 22 - what it was to hold the leg of a man that was being sawn off without anaesthetic because he had gangrene in his foot. What it was like to watch a man bleed to death because there was no such thing as a blood transfusion. They were not even known about until after the First World War ended. What it was like to make a man drunk as the only way he could be expected to get through the acute pain that he suffered. What it was like to die in your thousands, not by being shot and killed on the front – though that was clearly what often happened – but very often in the process of being taken out of the battle, into a hospital and being dealt with by doctors and nurses, most of whom were looking at people who had already died on the way to the hospital. Not forgetting that for the first couple of years of that war, the way you dealt with young men who were terribly wounded was to bind them up and take them back by ship back to the United Kingdom where they were nursed in the war hospitals of these islands, often hours after they had contracted serious wounds and therefore were likely to die of loss of blood or infection.

It was a very, very tough introduction into the elements of what human conflict can be about.

My mother became a pacifist because she was ordered by her senior sister to go and nurse the German prisoners of war. Now don’t forget this is a bit before the Geneva conventions, which were written in 1947 and ratified in 1949, which said very specifically that prisoners of war must be treated with respect, must be looked after, and must not be tortured or abused in any way. It was the first of the attempts to try to create what one might call an ‘ethic of warfare’ that was internationally supported. When my mother was ordered therefore by her senior sister to go and serve the German prisoners of war, she was rather shocked, somewhat resistant but recognised that this was part of what had become the new ethic of war.

So she served the way she would have served the British soldiers. But what was fascinating was that in that experience - don’t forget again she was only 22 - of working with and trying to save the German prisoners of war, two things happened. First, she felt a very strong sense of irony, which she writes about in her memoir, Testament of Youth. It seemed odd to be trying to heal the young men who her brother was trying to kill. That is part of the irony of war – the strange absurdity and contradiction of it. And as she dutifully tried everything she could to save these young German soldiers - she didn’t let them die - all the time she was very conscious of the fact that her brother and fiancé would have been trying to kill them in a different battleground, a different theatre of war. The second thing that certainly affected her very deeply was the sense she had that as men approached their deaths – young men who should have lived – the ways in which they behaved, the people for whom they cried out, their last calls to those they loved were almost exactly the same. Both German prisoners of war and British soldiers called for their mums, or if they were married for their wives, or sometimes remembered their children. But suddenly the sheer common humanity that they had together overrode almost every other difference. There was, therefore, this common core of humanity that might one day, my mother felt, enable us to put war behind us.

Let’s look back a little to where it all came from, but before I do so, let me just say that both my parents experienced wars and warfare and peace in very acute ways.  Both my mother and my father were on the Gustapo black list; they were, I think, the only Christian married couple who were on the Gustapo blacklist. They were on the list partly because of what my mother wrote in her book Testament of Youth, which was burnt at Nuremburg, but also partly because they went out to Germany as Hitler was beginning to rise on his way up to the election of 1933, which we all know he won. The Nazi government wasn’t imposed, it was an elected government; worth remembering that. And at that point my mother and my father were both regarded by the Gustapo as the most dangerous enemies. Why? Not because either of them were great military leaders, but in the case of my mother, because she challenged the very heartland of Nazism, which was the warrior code which believed that the only way you achieved in a sense, salvation – not a Christian sense of salvation, but warrior salvation – was by killing and fighting all your life long.

Let’s move on for a minute then. What are the basic causes of war? I think they broadly speaking come under two headings. The first of them is very old and it is essentially fear. When you walk for example in the North of England, or the fracture between England and Scotland, you see all round you the impact of fear. The castles, Hadrian’s Wall, the little enforcement areas sometimes around churches or around farmsteads – always the feeling of threat, the feeling of being at risk, the feeling that you might be destroyed if you didn’t protect yourself.

So what one saw all those years ago, centuries ago, what one saw perpetually were battles between separate communities, sometimes in the same broad countryside. Battles between people who were fighting for land. Battles sometimes between people who were scared stiff that if they weren’t careful, their farm, their property, or their animals would be taken from them. Fear. A very fundamental reason for war. But in most cases we are not talking about what we now call ‘state against state’ war. We’re talking about community against community war, and the ways of healing that are often to try and bring them together and to act as an arbitrator or mediator between the two. Very often, as you all know, in the Middle Ages it was priests, religious people, including the Pope at the time, who brought about mediation and commonality of this kind.

The factor that became more and more important, as gradually nations were built and people became more protected by their military forces, by their defences and so forth, was of course greed. Greed turned out to be at least as powerful a motivation for war as was fear. And in some ways of course, morally much more questionable. What is greed about? Well, the nature of what that greed was about changed with the passing centuries. At the beginning it was often, for example, an attempt to try and control resources. Look at the battles over the supply of water in much of Asia, for example the River Indus; in further parts of Asia, the South China Sea. And what you see is an attempt to have control over your own trade routes. Trade routes after all are very old, they go back many, many centuries, and they are very important for prosperity particularly of countries with large coastal areas, or islands like that of Japan, Indonesia and so on. Greed therefore leads people to want to control the travel routes around them. It could be the salt road if it was a land battle, but often it was a sea battle and therefore it was naval or maritime routes that really mattered.

But then greed became more complex as international markets began to be established. Countries increasingly tried to control, not just the trade routes, but the countries with whom they traded. And out of that grew of course the concept of empire. Of Imperial Britain, Imperial France, Imperial Germany which dominated most of the 19th and 20th Centuries. One cannot put the empires down to fear. In most cases, fear had long since gone away. But one can certainly put the empires down, to an extraordinary extent, to greed.

Pause for a moment and look at the situation of the world, or particularly of the European world, at the beginning of the First World War in the last century. People forget how many empires there were. How these empires between them carved up the continent of Europe and parts of Asia, so we have a very limited number of countries which dominated large tracts of land without regard to religious, racial or linguistic differences. Just pause for a minute and look at them. The biggest of all was of course the British Empire. Because it extended far beyond Africa to include most of India, the so called Raj – it went beyond that again to include countries like Malaya as it then was and a chunk of the Far East. It was in fact a multi-national empire before nations had really been thought through. Britain was a nation, but India wasn’t, nor were most of the other colonial possessions of the British. What was remarkable about the British Empire was the extraordinary multi-nationalism of it but based not on a common set of values, based rather on a common set of geographical and trade inclinations.

Ditto about the French empire, again France’s empire went far beyond France itself to include most of North Africa, parts of West Africa, and then don’t forget something called the French east indies which today we call Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. So France also had reach which went far beyond French culture, French geography and French values – all the way across the world. Now most of us remember those two, because most of those survived in some shape, the First World War. But now let’s pause for a minute and look at the empires that died, that were destroyed in the First World War. One of the empires that died which had been a very significant empire was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the so-called dual monarchy, which, when you think about it, actually controlled a very great deal of what today we call the Balkans. And it’s very striking that Austro-Hungary ran the Balkans in relatively peace and quiet and calm. Today the Balkans, to this day, are a story of endless battles about who controls what, about Kosovo, about Bosnia Herzegovana, just think of the names – each one on them associated with some kind of violence. Local wars, because the Austra-Hungarian Empire has gone and is no more.

Let’s take a third example, in some ways an even more significant one. You, like me, tonight are worried about ISIL; the attempt to establish rule in Iraq and in Syria. You are probably also worried, as I am, about the brutally savage civil war in Syria. You feel embarrassed, as I do, about the consequences for Iraq, of the invasion that has left it in pieces so there is no longer an Iraq, there are only battling groups within it; the Kurds, the old Iraqis and other small groups too – putting at risk, as you know, minority religions like Christianity in a very serious way.

What lived before the Ottoman Empire broke up was a relatively peaceful empire under the control of the Sultan of Turkey, and although one wouldn’t describe it in modern democratic terms as ideal, nevertheless it is the case that the Ottoman Empire maintained a long, peaceful era in what we today call the Middle East. Since the Ottoman Empire died, the Middle East has seen one war after another; not just Israel and Palestine, but all the warfare around it including places like Syria and Iraq and so on. We look at it and we say to God that the Middle East is an absolute mess, and so it is. But don’t forget it’s the result of a breakdown of what was once an Ottoman Empire into all kinds of quarrelsome, battling, conflicting countries – not really countries, places which themselves are used and exploited extraordinarily by other big countries for the own advantage and their own ends.

The final empire which died was of course the Russian empire. Again, we tend to forget that one of the reasons for the revolution of 1917, the Red Revolution, was the desperate plight of Russian soldiers during the First World War – killed in their thousands upon thousands. Because they could see no relief, no end to the warfare, gradually Russia began to break up into a major civil war between the Tsarists and the Communists which is ultimately why we have the communists.

Now this isn't an argument for Empire, but it is an argument for saying that if we want a world which is a world of law; a world of peace, we have to address the question of how we create groupings of countries that are able to live together, that are able to resolve these problems between them and do not find themselves in an almost endless story of war.

And whatever you may think about the European Union – I personally am passionately in favour of it – it has one huge achievement to its credit: the idea of war in Western Europe is simply nonsense today. None of us imagine that sometime in the next 5 or 10 years, Germany will once again threaten Western Europe with a third world war, nor do we imagine that Germany, or Britain or France, or any other major Western European country would once again pick up weapons in order to kill citizens or others. Why? Because we have a very beginning sense – very early – a slowly growing sense that we're something called Europe, we should live in peace with one another, we have a common culture and hopefully to some extent, common values. And we never thought of Europe in that way before; we always thought of Britain versus Germany versus France versus Italy and so forth, and somehow we got over that.

Now let me turn for a minute to one other factor which I think is important, and it’s a fundamental part of what it is to live in a democracy. The fundamental thought about democracy is that you can resolve conflicts peacefully. When you think about it, it is actually the nature of democracy. Next year we'll have a General Election, we'll have confrontation between the different parties, possibly some confrontation between Scottish nationalists and the English parliament. But what is absolutely true about democracy is the fundamental belief that people – intelligent, rational people – together can hammer out compromises with which none of them may be absolutely happy, but which enables one to continue with a society without destroying it because each part of that society has some part of what it wants – not all - but some part. And therefore it's worth going on discussing; going on arguing; going on debating; because you may get at some point more of it, or learn to live with somebody else's idea of what it should be. It's a very simple concept; most of us never think about it. But it's absolutely fundamental to the idea of the retention and continuation of peace.

 Let me look from that to what we've learnt from war and sum it up quite quickly.

The first thing that we've learnt from war is regrettably almost entirely technological. Wars motivate the rapid advance of technology rather more than peace time does. Partly because people are desperately looking for ways in which they may be able to crack the enemy. Going back to the First World War, one of the reasons that the British started off rather badly – and the French did too – was because most of them had never seen, and didn't know how to use, machine guns. And the Germans had produced machine guns to extraordinary levels of sophistication; a machine gun could kill 12 men in 12 minutes, whereas a musket would take a very great deal longer. The British army were still largely training with muskets up to the point of the First World War. When you look at the pictures at the Royal Officers Training Corp. they are all training with muskets because that was what they had done in the Crimean War and there hadn't been any wars in between except the relatively distant Boer War, which again was fought to some extent with ancient weapons.

Shells. Shells are a very long way away from those heavy iron balls you sometimes see next to a canon, which were known as mortars, which lobbed themselves or were lobbed across maybe a couple of hundred yards – which if they landed, would certainly hurt the person they landed on but would have very little effect on a wider area. A shell would lay absolutely bare - destroy - up to a quarter of a mile to a half a mile around itself. And of course the soldiers that went into the First World War spent their lives endlessly hearing shells whizzing past them, landing, breaking, and that's why you see pictures of the Somme, pictures of the First World War fronts which are full of skeleton trees with no life left on them, no leaves, no nature, no trees; just a dead landscape. That was a shell induced situation. So the technological leaps are one of the things that you learn from war. You may wish it wasn't so, but unfortunately it just is so.

The second thing that we learn from war is something that is of utter significance to this lecture, and to our understanding as Christians of what war is all about. In the First World War, broadly speaking, the proportion of soldiers who were killed to civilians was roughly nine to one. Nine soldiers - nine people in military uniforms - to every one civilian. By the Second World War that ratio had swept completely over; nine civilians to every one soldier.

Now why was that? Well the answer lay in the Spanish city of Guernica which in 1937 was blasted to pieces by the Luftwaffe and the Italian air force and was done deliberately by the Germans and the Italians at that time as a way of testing out aerial warfare. Aerial warfare in the First World War was limited to ludicrous great balloons and small bi-planes which were not terribly effective. But by the time you get to the Second World War – part of why they talked about it as the technological leap – we had full scale air warfare, most of it directed to kill civilians. If you've ever seen the dramatic picture by Picasso of Guernica, you look at the first stages of Dante's hell – Dante's inferno. It captures the agony of the dying. It captures the range of the people who did die; from children all the way through to elderly people. But Guernica was quite unique, because before Guernica nobody had thought of air warfare as being the fundamental way in which nations conflicted with one another.

You have therefore got two effects on the civilian society. First of all you've got the Second World War, not just volunteering to serve, as in the first, but conscription. So that every last civilian who was in good health, every last male and later on every female too, could be called up to fight – even though they might not have wanted to. Because war had now become a war by one set of civilians against another. And the second major effect is that civilians became the victims.

Now it is not an easy thought to have, especially if you happen to be a modern young man or woman, but the truth of the matter is that in the 13th Century the great divine doctor, Thomas Aquinas, lay down that a just war meant you never targeted civilians. He was quite precise. In his brilliant advocacy of what it is to be a just war, he lay down very precise rules, and I'll rattle through them very quickly.

Rule one: you had to have reason to believe that the damage done by the war would be less than the effect of not having a war at all.

Rule two: everything you did had to be proportionate; not greater than what was directed at you. So you didn't use weapons that were more powerful than the ones directed at you.

Rule three: crucially, you should never target civilians. Never. There might be civilians who would be killed as what we sometimes call one of the consequences of, for example, bombing a railway or bombing a barracks, but you never chose to target civilians; that was to make the war illegitimate.

Rule four: you had to be clear that there could be a peace afterwards. I wish we'd thought of that in Iraq. You had to know that that peace was likely to last and was better than what you had before.


Now those propositions when you think about them for a moment are extraordinarily civilised ones. They are a really serious attempt to limit, as much as you can, the damage done by war. And what a lesson; that that was in the 13th century and we imagine ourselves to be a more evolved and civilised human race than we were at that time.

What we did in the Second World War, and tragically what has happened since it consistently – and if you want examples, take Vietnam, take Gaza, take a number of other illustrations – what we've done is deliberately target civilians; made them the object of war. We did it too, in the United Kingdom. The Blitz was a deliberate attempt by the Germans to target British civilians. But tragically in 1943-4, the mass bombing of German cities was not about military targets; it was once again about breaking morale of civilians.

So we have in some ways evolved backwards - not forwards, but backwards - as far as war and peace are concerned.

Let's however look more encouragingly at one or two of the responses to that situation, the situation of civilians being essentially the victims and the targets of war. We have of course come back as a civilised species to try to deal with that. So let's look at some of the ways to deal with it.

One of the ways that I mentioned already is to try to set out, like Thomas Aquinas, limits and circumscriptions to war. In the case of Thomas Aquinas I've described what he meant by what he called a just war. But let us now say that, for example, the Geneva Conventions are part of what it is to try and circumscribe war. So you say you may not torture your prisoners; you may not torture your enemies; you have to live by certain civilised concepts. It's actually worked quite well the Geneva Conventions. Oddly enough it works best when it's looking at prisoners of war; it isn't so good when it's looking at civilians who are not engaged in the war at all.

The second thing that has happened, which is of crucial importance, was to try to establish the rule of law. So you dealt with unfairness and injustices without having to go to war to do it. That was essentially what Eleanor Roosevelt was all about when in 1945 she persuaded her husband, Franklin Roosevelt, President of the United States, to draw up the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which holds to this day - which sets out what it is that human beings can expect from the very fact that they are human, for the dignity of what it is to be human. So it said clearly that you couldn't torture people, that you couldn't abuse people, that you couldn't separate people from their families. That Declaration of Human Rights was a very long step towards a more civilised world than we'd had for at least a couple of centuries before.

We then had, as a development of that, the European Court of Human Rights – now at risk in this country – which was all about trying to develop the concept of human rights and make clear that it had to be an international concept and not just a national concept, because a national concept has no relevance to conflict - conflicts are not usually, except for civil wars, within countries, so a declaration of human rights which had nothing to do with one's relationship to other countries is rather pointless.

The third example and in many ways the most exciting and far-going one, was the so-called International Criminal Court. Some of you will know that under that, for the first time ever in the world's history, a leader – not just a wretched person – but a leader, could be summoned to stand before a court and answer for his actions. There have been a couple of examples already. Most of you will know that Milosevic who became the dictator of Yugoslavia had to answer for what he had done, particularly to the peoples of the countries around him. The other one, the great example was Charles Taylor, the dictator of Liberia who then extended his rule to Sierra Leone and tried to seize all the diamond mines; a very, very brutal dictator indeed. He too was called before the International Criminal Court to answer for what he had done.

The key point about that is that it places the responsibility for what we do firmly not with the people, but with the leaders who make the decisions, for which they should be held responsible. It is a long step towards a better world. Unfortunately it is such a long step that neither Russia, nor China, nor the United States has so far found it possible to accept it, because they are scared that if it was accepted their own soldiers and generals may be at risk.

The final example is of course the attempt to establish a world authority. Those of you who know and love history will know that the League of Nations – an idealistic attempt to establish a world authority back in 1919 – was essentially lost before it even started being born, because the major parties and the major nations of the world refused to join it. Once again, no America, no Russia, no China, and when it came to Britain, which was its strongest single member, the British government totally failed to condemn Mussolini for invading Abyssinia, the independent African country led by Haile Selassie, and stood by dropping their hands and apologising like Pilate for what was happening in their name of which they had no intention of stopping happening.

So that's where we are at the moment. The United Nations is one up on all that, and although it may be ambivalent in some ways, and although some of its responses and decisions have been much less than perfect, the key point about the United Nations is that it does contain all the great powers today. They have remained with it and that means it still has a certain legal power, and just as we find in this country, we find that other countries too are increasingly unwilling to act without United Nations support. It is very striking that in Britain, for example, the first question nowadays asked in Parliament of any new war, is does the United Nations support this or not? This is a true development from where we were at the time of the League of Nations.

Last question – people say, What can we do? What can possibly be done to end war in the world? There is no simple answer. Indeed there are certain forces that feed into war, one of them being a certain love affair between the human race and violence. Anybody who has bought up young children, especially I'm afraid to say, boys, will know that there is a certain kind of affection for violence to be seen in youngsters who want nothing so much than, to begin with, a cardboard gun. And to get on with, a computer game, that will enable them to wipe out their friends in a nice simple way by putting their finger on a button. All of that is part of what we are – we are quite a violent species.

But it is also true that there is a warrior code that applies particularly in patriarchal countries – some of them Muslim – which essentially is a code about warrior ethics. Warrior ethics put against the ethics of peace and often held as being part of a religious duty. A key duty which, don't forget, was much part of the Western world as well until not very long ago as the First World War too clearly indicates. So this feeling that you can only show yourself to be dutiful, a good citizen, a man, is wrapped up with the feeling that somehow violence is what shows, or is evidence of, that particular set of beliefs.

What can one do in the face of that? The real question is whether the new set of challenges overtakes the old. The old challenges were all about state against state. That was what the Westphalian system left us, long after Thomas Aquinas had gone to heaven. By which I mean that we saw the 18th and 19th centuries in terms of state against state, and our histories are coloured all the way through by that experience. That, for the reasons I have explained already, as nations break up, as empires are destroyed, will no longer do. A lot of the most serious challenges of war and violence today are not from nation states or governments, they are from groups. Terrorist groups often, small furious groups, people fighting against what they think is injustice relating to them. ISIL is a good example of that. It is essentially not a nation, but a group of extremely affected warriors who don't see any reason at all why they should not be free to work their way through the Middle East and achieve what they believe themselves to be their duty and their destiny.

Now the issue about this, and it is very difficult to deal with, essentially lies in the new set of challenges. That new set of challenges, which might actually bring the world together, are all about the challenges to the human species as such.

What is it that is going to catch our children and our grandchildren's attention? Climate change; the dangers of the rising of seas; the dangers of - here we go - worldwide massively serious disease; the dangers of the loss of water where we will have one country after another parched to the point where it can no longer grow food. If you don't believe me, look at the television pictures of California of all places, today – one of the most rich parts of the United States - burning up because people don't know how to get enough water to it. On the other side you can look equally at the battles of the Middle East over where water is to go because there is not enough to go round. And even Israel and the Palestinians battle for water because there isn't enough, and they fight bitter battles for rivers and fountains and sources of water.

So to sum it all up, we are now faced with a set of challenges to the human nature, to the human being, which are quite separate from the ones that split human beings. And the big question is whether we can build among ourselves, a sufficient coming together to deal with these huge challenges because they are at least as big as the old state to state challenges are.

And you can begin by forgetting the nuclear deterrent because on small groups it has no effect whatsoever. Far from being a deterrent, it is actually in many ways an attraction. If you happen to be in North Korea, the idea that the rest of the world will happily destroy itself is rather a good idea – it is exactly what you wanted to see happen.

So the old fashioned nuclear deterrent, or the 'major bomb' deterrent, doesn't work in the new situation; it only works in the old one, the state against state war. All that leads me to say two things: one is we have to put our old fashioned thinking to one side because it's no longer relevant or appropriate. And two, we have to start thinking much more than we do about that new set of challenges, of how we can bring peoples together regardless of their race, or their religion or their colour, in order to confront it. Because, to put it very simply, if we don't confront it, there won't be a human race in a couple of centuries time.

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