Peter Marshall was Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General 1983-88 and UK Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva 1979-83. He is a former Chairman of the Royal Commonwealth Society.
The Commons rose to the occasion when they met on Monday to pay tribute to Jo Cox. They had as inspiration the statement, of breath-taking composure and magnanimity, issued by her husband, Brendan: “Jo believed in a better world and she fought for it every day of her life. She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her” .
Belief in a better world is not mere fashion or hobby. It is a lifetime commitment. As a schoolboy living in Kent in 1940, I had a ring-side seat for the Battle of Britain. A year later, I joined the Home Guard (I was Pike, the “stupid boy” in Dad’s Army). Then I was a navigator in the RAF for three years. I had every reason to share the resolute determination in 1945 to learn from the past. That determination was expressed with matchless simplicity and force in the preamble to the United Nations Charter, devised by a group of Commonwealth Ministers meeting in London on the eve of the San Francisco Conference which adopted the UN Charter.
Beginning with words which have re-echoed since around the world – “we the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind” – it sets out in a mere two thousand words what has become a highly productive approach to the management of international relations. What was an aspiration is now a common place.
The Founding Fathers would be astounded at the success of what they set in hand. World population has increased threefold. The membership of the UN has quadrupled. Humanity has, in general, prospered. Never before has humanitarian concern reached such worldwide proportions; never before has its necessity been so generally recognised, in deed as well as in word. It hasn’t all just happened. It is the product of dogged persistence and expertise, all too often in the face of public indifference or hostility.
NATO has been the security guarantor of this vast co-operative effort. The OECD, originating from a dramatic US gesture to rescue postwar Western Europe from economic collapse, has been a key source of development resources. The Commonwealth, which has in the past been on the receiving end of abuse and derision, is now seen as a key to the spread of democracy and respect for human rights. It also understands better than anyone else how to get results from a combination of governmental and non-governmental effort,
Britain has been at the heart of all these endeavours. Our NGOs are second to none.
On the mainland of Europe, which has been so great a part of the trouble since the beginning of the nineteenth century, and which has brought so much suffering upon itself, the need was felt for more integrated structures to put a European roof on national sinews of war. That can scarcely be a matter of surprise. Whether we like it or not, we get involved in mainland affairs. We stood aside from the Coal and Steel Community in 1951. We came up with the much-underestimated alternative of Western European Union when, in 1954, the plan for a European Defence Community collapsed.
Despite the earnest pleas of our European partners, we again stood aside from what became Treaty of Rome, establishing the EEC, in 1957. We soon discovered our mistake, and applied to join the EEC. But by then de Gaulle had come to power in France. He kept us out for ten years. It cost us dear.
We were right to opt for opt-out from the measures of further deepening in the 1990s, animated by Jacques Delores. We were disastrously wrong in failing to grip opportunity for reshaping the EU contained in the stock-taking Declarations of Nice (2000) and Laeken (2002), on the threshold of enlargement. Instead, we tamely acquiesced in the EU losing its way. We would be no less misguided to quit the EU now, and thus destroy the chance to get it back on track.
In a recent article, the Archbishop of Canterbury gracefully reminded us that our vision for the future of Britain “cannot be only about ourselves”. Brexit is unrivalled as a self-centred prescription. Furthermore, I am not aware any of its chief protagonists ever giving an indication of respecting the interests of anyone else. Others do not count. Any expression of misgiving about its line is routinely denounced by the Leave Campaign as a part of Project Fear.
We can best honour the memory of Jo Cox by heeding her husband’s rallying call to unite to fight the hatred that killed her. But where should that struggle point us in the first instance? To a breakdown of trust between or within the major parties? To a loss of confidence in our elected representatives? Do electors feel that no-one is listening? There is a collective repair job to do at home, along with our quest for real reform in Brussels.
I spelled out in the third of these columns a fortnight ago what reform means in practice. Ultimately, it is about people. Just as there is no future in any job as such, but rather in the person who holds it, so there is no future in any institution as such: the future lies with the people who run it. With rare exceptions, the British have never got deeply and continuously involved in moulding the EU. That has now changed. We will start making real waves when we hold the EU Presidency in the second half of 2017.