Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Political asylum and other improbable rights

We've been having a debate about political asylum over the last couple of days. It's not particularly comfortable to defend it in practice rather than on principle. As Vern asks:
Would we be so proud of this tolerance if it had been Hitler who had gone from King's Cross to Germany? 

We like to think we're more liberal and progressive than our ancestors. But on occasion I'm in awe of what they achieved with respect to creating and embedding English liberties such as allowing political asylum - hardly an unalloyed benefit to the host country. As Isaiah Berlin illustrated, liberty has a tragic element: upholding one liberty can involve the diminution of another or, indeed, the sacrifice of some other good.

I've remarked before how difficult it would be to introduce trial by jury into English law if it were proposed today. Political asylum would be near-impossible. The tabloids would have a field day: "Minister puts out welcome mat for foreign extremists" (or worse).

I wonder whether this is why I lean towards conservatism? I'm sceptical of the philosophical foundation for abstract and universal human rights so I tend to rely on traditional and conventional sources of authority to support rights and liberties. I guess that's how someone who's essentially liberal gets to think like a conservative.

UPDATE: An observation on liberty that supports my point above (and incidentally shows how a traditional English liberal can't help but be conservative):
Although "moderate" in policy, the Blair/Brown era is based on an essentially Marxist analysis of institutions which sees them as false superstructures. Yet the reason Britain is – or was – a free country is that people understood that institutions matter more than the people who happen, at any one time, to run them. We must recover this understanding, fast.


Brit said...

It's not particularly comfortable to defend it in practice rather than on principle.

Indeed. As Ambrose Bierce put it: "Predicament - the wage of consistency."

What do you do about people who preach the destruction of your fundamental principles when one of your fundamental principles is to let people preach whatever they like? The answer is: you fudge it. Fudge is another great British institution.

Gaw said...

I like how you've circled back onto traditional sweets. Fudge as the last refuge of a scoundrelly liberal. And no wonder the accusation of hypocrisy is so consistently levelled.

Gadjo Dilo said...

It's a fascinating debate and I'm glad to be in it. Not being a great scholar of this I can only speak a bit from experience, having lived for a long time in one of London's (supposedly) very worst areas (Tottenham) and never had any real trouble from any of the populations there (immigrant, Islamist, or whatever). Maybe I was just lucky, as has been Britain, so far.

Hitler spent time in Liverpool - didn't he?? - visiting his half-brother Alios and the latter's wife, Bridget Hitler.

Brit said...

Consistency is greatly overrated as a virtue and hypocrisy is greatly overrated as a vice.

Recusant said...

Spot on Brit.

It always bemuses me; people's ceaseless cry of 'hypocrite', as if it where a great and terrible thing. We are all hypocrites of one sort, or another or at one time or another: our actions fail to match our moral aspirations. The only one's who aren't are the completely amoral and I know whom I'd prefer to spend time with.

Emerson and de la Rochefoucauld had pithier commentary than me on these two states.

Gaw said...

The reverse is true of consistency, Recusant, isn't it? It's always proffered as a virtue: 'well, at least he's consistent'. Consistency merely describes the mode of a certain reasoning: there's no need to assume that this reasoning is good in any way. Stalin was admirably consistent in his attitude to mass murder? It's a weirdly persistent category error.

malty said...

Consistency is the defence of the dullard, be unpredictable, keep 'em guessing..what will his next move be?, they eventually become confused and retreat, leaving you in charge, works in most instances.
They can be anyone you wish, that lot next door, a traffic warden, plod, the spouse, AA Gill, anyone really.

malty said...

One instance where obviously this theory does not work is the English cricket team, their inconsistency ends mostly in defeat.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Woah, just realised how irrelevant my first comment was: if my neighbours had been planning the overthrow of Western Civilisation they'd be no reason why they'd involve me on any personal basis, except perhaps to sign for their recorded deliveries of Semtex and Direct Action magazine whilst they were away on holiday.

I think the 'at least' in 'at least he's consistent' is important: better the devil you know, type of thing. Or irony.

Vern said...

I think Brit is on to something here. My instincts in fact are for the UK's tradition of asylum and tolerance. But I suppose I balance that against our responsibilities to the people of countries less fortunate than our own. What we tolerate, which doesn't necessarily harm us, can cause a disaster for them. There's a thorny ethical dilemma in there, probably insoluble, and hence requiring much nuance, fudging, inconsistency and possibly hypocrisy.