30 March 2006

Oxford Literary Festival continued

Cover of "Lawless World: America and the ...
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I convinced myself, largely by failing to look at my diary, that the session I was to look after today was two hours later than in fact it was. I realised my mistake when I should already have been at the Festival, i.e. an hour before the session started. By dint of some furious driving and a happy piece of timing on the part of the park-and-ride bus, I made it to the Green Room with ten minutes to spare, found my speaker and left him in the hands of the Festival photographer while I checked the room.
Philippe Sands is an academic lawyer at UCL and a practising barrister, in Matrix Chambers: I was tempted to say something about Matrix being second only to Fountain Court as a centre of political power, and after hearing his talk I am pleased that I refrained. He turned out to be a delightful man, pleased to have me look after him (as with the others, I did pretty much nothing) and happy to chat in the limited time available. I made a real mess of introducing him, which I could have done so much better, but at least raised a chuckle from the audience when I mentioned that Philippe was, like me, an author of legal textbooks for which he claimed sales of 'about 11 1/2', which I indicated made me rather envious. With Lawless World, he has something approaching a bestseller on his hands. I imagine it will comfortably be the highest-selling book on international law in history.
He has a fascinating and exciting story to tell, though he talks around the book rather than repeating it and concentrates on the government's handling of the run-up to the Iraq war. His thesis is that the Atlantic Charter, which underpinned the development of political and economic systems throughout the world and established the rule of law as the basis of government, has been dumped by the very nations whose leaders created it. It is compelling stuff, and I am ashamed when I realise that so much of it has passed me by.
Twenty or thirty years ago I would have been pretty well-informed about all this. I'd have read about it in the papers, heard about it on the radio, even seen something on the television. I'd have discussed it at political meetings, I'd have formed opinions (I tended to do that in my political days, although it went against the orthodoxy of Mrs Thatcher's Conservative Party), and I'd have expressed them. Which is part of the reason why, unlike many of my contemporaries, I advanced no further than fighting a hopeless seat, the essential starting point for all but the highest fliers. That, and other reasons too numerous to mention.
In the seventies and eighties, the only outlet for political interests was involvement in a political party. There were plenty to choose from, too, though only for those who wished to remain outside the mainstream, which never appealed to me. At university, where I made my first tentative steps in politics (leaving aside my triumph in my school's mock election at the time of the February '72 General), the Communist Party (by which I mean, of course, the CPGB rather than the avowedly Marxist-Leninist one) was pretty mainstream, and even some of the Trots were regarded as fairly moderate. Now, political parties attract little support, and political energy tends to be directed towards single issues. So I hear, anyway. I have no political energy left. It evaporated during John Major's premiership.
The Iraq War is just the sort of issue that clearly has got a lot of people engaged, hence the full room for Philippe's talk. And I love the tales of disarray in the Labour government, how the election would have been lost had the Attorney-General's opinion been leaked just four days later, and how the chief of staff refused to go to war on the strength of the original version of that opinion.
I enjoyed international law at university. I have always considered myself lucky to be practising intellectual property law, which seems to be so much more interesting and exciting than other areas of law, but here is something that's right at the centre of the most critical political issues of the time, legal questions on which governments might stand or fall. I was part of that once: now, it seems a long way away.
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