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Clive Stafford Smith: ‘They Just Don’t Get It: British Politicians and the Lessons They Learn from America’

3rd December 2006

A dual passport holder, British-born Clive Stafford Smith has represented prisoners on America’s Death Row and in Guantanamo Bay. He founded the charity Reprieve.


Introduction by Judith Kazantzis, poet and daughter of Lord Longford.

There are many ways to describe Clive Stafford-Smith. Ebullient, provocative, just plain wrong or profoundly right, unreasonably stubborn or brilliantly determined. Recently in the UK he has become a well known public figure in the fight against Guantanamo Bay. He even earned a snide portrait in the rightwing press to prove his credentials as a fighter for human rights. Yet even that interviewer could not resist a certain engaging quality about this year’s Longford Lecturer. And we saw it in action on the night. There was plenty of legal challenge but this was no dry as dust lawyer.  A dual passport holder, British-born Clive has spent twenty-five years as a US defence attorney fighting for prisoners on America’s notorious Death Rows. He told us about friends who were men about to die, and legal foes whose whiskers he clearly enjoyed singeing.

Based back here since 2004, he is Legal Director of Reprieve, the anti-death penalty campaign he founded. He and his colleagues have fought vigorously for the habeas rights of Guantanamo detainees, the great majority of whom are transparently innocent of any connection to terrorism, and all of whom have been arbitrarily denied their rights under international law. The death penalty, and lack of due process, these are two great campaigns fought against the overweening power of the state, whether it is US states power or a murky international torture gulag of which Guantanamo has proved the iceberg tip.

Typical of the man, his talk breaks his own mold. He chose not forensic detail but broad views. His subject was not America wrong but for all his experience America basically right. He was wide-ranging, thoroughly unpredictable, enjoyable, and finally inspiring, ending as he did on a moving statement of hope, the need to keep hold of the good while fighting the bad. Stafford-Smith is married to an American and has spent his working life in the States. Engagingly, he introduced his method on the night as that of a ‘hopeless ranter’ who trusted everything would make sense to us in the end. And so it did, though rather differently than some of us in the large audience might have expected. Nevertheless our lecturer got a big hand afterwards and general satisfaction in a full hall. This was the Longford Lecture with a political flourish we hadn’t seen before. Here was a ‘rant’ maybe, but a rant with a light touch. Despite his long experience of Death Row, despite the ongoing lawlessness of the current administration, here, from one who spends his days opposing that lawlessness, was an enduring faith in the heart of America: the checks and balances provided against absolute power by the American Constitution. Commentators have suggested that the great American ‘project’ for democracy has ground to an end with the so-called ‘War on Terror.’ Not, apparently, the man who has seen more of its ill-doing than most of us. Not only that but we got a weighty condemnation of the Cabinet system thrown up by our own unwritten constitution. This led on, for a penal reform audience, to the most enjoyable rocket of the evening, a swingeing attack on  ‘dabbler’ Home Secretary John Reid, the all-purpose minister. The other rocket sent up with gusto was over our current scrimmage on Lords reform. It was splendid to hear Clive Stafford-Smith spontaneously offering to fight the case for an all-elected second chamber in the European Court, should it come to that. My father Frank Longford presented the first, long ago scheme to reform the House of Lords, and he would have listened to Stafford-Smith on Lords reform with particular relish.

Whatever we make of the various challenges he flings at us, Stafford-Smith’s challenging mind combined with his readiness to act, his love of argument combined with his steady adherence to the rule of law is wonderfully striking. He articulates his central principles, and as a man of action – an advocate whose arguments are his actions – he has made these principles his fixed star. How many politicians can claim the same? Politics is the art of compromise, I was taught. But for what purpose, if the basis of the compromise is not ultimately governed by principle?

Mulling over this, I was struck by a simple, personal comparison: like my father, Clive Stafford-Smith has been attacked for stubbornly going to the aid of the most outcast, those we condemn as hopelessly ‘evil’. Or to put it positively (as he exhorts us). As my father did in his time, Stafford-Smith talks as he acts, with a brilliant and inspiring determination. And like my father he continues to act, not an easy act, but according to what he has decided is the right. For Clive Stafford-Smith the right is the rule of law: where it upholds the deepest principles of human decency and in particular where it protects the ‘puny’ individual from the abuse of power, the overwhelming’ power of government.

The 2006 Longford Lecture Text

People often argue which is the true British national sport.  Today, I want to settle that debate.  It’s not football, cricket or even darts.  It is ‘America Bashing’, ridiculing the latest absurd policy of the Bush Administration.  America Bashing is an easy sport, often entertaining, and one that the least athletic among us can enjoy.

In contrast, Tony ‘Yo’ Blair, as we know, is a great fan of Bush’s America.  I am not convinced that he has spent the time there necessary to make that judgment, but there is a curious aspect of Blair and his government when it comes to the British national sport:  While the majority of British people may lambast a particular American fault, the response of most British politicians is to copy only the worst aspects of America.

I speak as someone with both a British and an American passport, and it irks me that British politicians rarely emulate the positive aspects of the great experiment that is the United States.

The bad ideas that are being imported across the Atlantic are legion.   Take the introduction of tuition fees at universities.  After 26 years in the U.S., I have seen that future and it does not work.  Student loans turn into golden handcuffs for young Americans – law school graduates must pay off more than $100,000 in loans, which pretty much precludes them from taking a job helping those in need.  When I graduated from law school in New York more than 20 years ago, a dozen of my friends sadly confessed that they had to sign up to a corporate law firm to pay off their loans rather than fulfill their dream of going forth to deliver justice and to save lives.  They promised to return to their dreams as soon as they could;  none ever did.  What a tragic loss of their talent.

Yet now, promoted by a Labour government, the idea of tuition fees has seeped across the Atlantic.  Anyone who believes that the fees will not grow and grow is simply delusional.

Another incredibly bad idea is Labour’s effort to privatise aspects of the NHS, all in the name of market efficiency.  Only someone who has never suffered the American medical system could want to forsake the NHS in favour of paying $5,000 a year to a private insurer for inferior health care.  Being pretty decrepit in my dotage, I get rather more experience of the NHS than I would wish, and the quality of the service outstrips the U.S. by a mile.  Also, it is generally delivered on the principle of concern for the patient, rather than concern for the hospital’s bottom line.

While many of Mr. Blair’s cabinet ministers are guilty of copying that which they should most condemn, the Home Office is the worst offender.  Here, there are simply too many examples to list.  There is the Scarlet Letter law in many U.S. states where a range of sex offenders are named and shamed on a public website, and required to send postcards around the neighborhood advertising the fact that they have moved in.  In my old hometown, New Orleans, we have such a law.  Vilifying those who seek re-integration into society is an idea that should be left where it belongs — in the Seventeenth Century.  The U.S. experience teaches that which anyone with common sense would already know:  The law drives sex offenders underground, and further endangers their potential victims.  Nonetheless, last summer John Reid wasted our tax money sending a subordinate to the U.S. with a view to copying this nightmare.

Recently, the Queen’s Speech setting out the Labour agenda for 2007 was chock-a-block with unwise ideas about criminal justice.  Reid spoke about ‘rebalancing’ the system with the populist rhetoric of victims’ rights, borrowed directly from America.  He argued in favour of limiting judicial review of criminal convictions, copying the Bush Administration’s assault on habeas corpus.  As these terrible ideas spewed out onto the pages of the nation’s newspapers, one could only wonder why Reid wanted to emulate the extraordinary levels of incarceration in America.

Two weeks ago, I was visiting some of my clients on Louisiana’s Death Row.   One was James Baldwin, who has been awaiting execution for twelve years.  Instead of copying America’s mistakes, I asked him whether he thought there was anything positive that Britain could learn from the U.S.

“This is a country that has put me on death row because they say I’m not fit to share this earth with them,” James said to me.  “It’s easier to say what I hate than what I like, but whining all the time is pretty pointless.”  He then went on to describe the attributes of America that still make him proud.

British politicians should listen to James.  It is a modest idea, but perhaps it might make sense for this country to copy the best aspects of the United States, rather than the worst.

So I canvassed James and other American friends for suggestions that they would make to Tony Blair and his cabinet:  How Britain could be improved, rather than reduced, by copying America.

In many ways, America is a remarkable country, with political institutions that were carefully planned, much better designed than the hodgepodge of British evolution.  I should emphasise two things:  One, that any system is only as good as the people who run it.  I don’t advocate offering a place in the British cabinet to Donald Rumsfeld now that he’s out of a job.  Sometimes Britain reaches a more sensible, gentler result in spite of our political process, rather than because of it.  But there are plenty of improvements still to be made.

Two, I should also emphasise that while I don’t think our politicians have much of an idea how to run a country, I am no expert either.  I, too, am an amateur.  I am merely an observer who has lived on both sides of the Atlantic, and I only offer a few suggestions for us to mull over.

That said, the first improvement Britain could consider would involve copying the U.S. system for selecting a cabinet.  American cabinet members are not elected politicians, they are appointed by the President subject to a Senate confirmation hearing, and in theory they should be leading experts in the relevant field.

In contrast, I find the design of the British cabinet extraordinary.  For the most part, it seems to be filled with politicians who have few relevant qualifications, and very little training for their jobs.  Blair bangs on about efficiency and effectiveness in government, yet he does not question placing the most complex and difficult work — running the country — in the hands of amateurs who play musical chairs every time one of them has an affair.

Let me focus on my own area, criminal justice – which again involves John Reid and the Home Office.  Please, someone tell me, what makes Reid qualified to hold eight different government posts in the space of seven years, running three of the government’s largest departments in just the past two years – Health, then Defence, and now the Home Office?

To be fair, I very much doubt Reid himself honestly thinks he has any expertise in these three areas.  When he became Secretary of State for Health, his reported response was, famously: “Oh fuck, not health!” This hardly reflected a belief that it was a post for which he had carefully trained for decades.  What he said when he was shuffled over to run Defence for a few short months seems to have gone unrecorded.  Most recently, the evidence that Reid is the most qualified person in Britain for the job of Home Secretary must have passed me by.  We have sixty million citizens to choose from, and presumably we could select someone with incomparable experience.

So why don’t we?  My football team, Ipswich Town, may be languishing at fourteenth place in the Championship, but if the Tractor Boys were to fire their coach, they would want someone who knew about football to replace him, not some random politician.  Reid is, like many politicians, a dabbler.  He might just be getting the hang of the job when he is next moved on.

There may have been a time when Victorian aristocrats could muddle along in cabinet jobs.  But now, we not only have ministers with no relevant training running departments, but they are amateurs inspired by tabloid headlines and opinion polls, in an era when the stabilising influence of the civil service has been much diminished.  It is a recipe for catastrophe.

So what about copying America in how we constitute our cabinet?  Gordon Brown recently proposed adopting a portion of the American system:  He suggested public hearings, where the Prime Minister might nominate a cabinet official, but the nominee would have to be confirmed by a cross-party parliamentary body with the power to ask probing questions. That’s a good start.  It would be a fine idea to question John Reid publicly on his qualifications for the job of Home Secretary.  I’d like to hear him defend himself.

But it only goes part of the distance.  The American cabinet is recognized to be an executive group – they run the country;  they conduct the business of government within set rules, and they may propose changes, but they do not make the laws.

The British cabinet conflates the role of the executive with the role of the legislature:  John Reid is meant to be running the Home Office, but he is really out there trying to get re-elected.  He rushes around condemning his predecessors as incompetent, and his staff as dysfunctional, without any obvious sign that he knows what he is doing himself.  How dispiriting it must be for the morale of the Home Office to have a leader whose loyalty is to the next election rather than to genuine improvement.  Is not the most basic rule of leadership to inspire those working with you?

Members of the British cabinet are now almost invariably drawn from the tiny and generally under-qualified pool of Members of Parliament.  In the U.S., a true expert, selected by the President and confirmed by the Senate, may serve in the cabinet.  The cabinet officer remains accountable, serving at the will of the elected President.

The U.S. system, so excellent in principle, sometimes falls down in practice.  But choosing experts to run the shop is better than what we do in Britain, and we should not be ashamed to copy it.

For example, were I the Labour PM, I’d nominate David Ramsbotham to run the prisons, someone who has intimate knowledge of the system from all sides, with commonsense, who is willing to stand up against populist government.

Once we have cabinet ministers who know what they are talking about, perhaps they will see their way clear to proposing other positive American ideas that Britain should copy.

There are many of them.  Several relate to the U.S. Constitution, an incredible Eighteenth Century document that created a framework for individual rights that is more advanced than anything Europe has come up with in the 217 years since.  The central thesis behind the U.S. Constitution is beautifully simple:  the checks and balances between the executive, the legislative and the judicial branches of government prevent the passions of the moment from stomping on the weak.  They prevent the tyranny of the majority.  Recent history has demonstrated this, where the all-powerful President Bush trampled on a few hundred prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, only to have the Supreme Court slap him down, not once, but twice.

I am perplexed at resistance in Britain to a bill of rights, or the European Convention on Human Rights, documents designed to protect the puny individual against the might of the government.  Britain should embrace the idea of empowering the powerless.

The first constitutional principle I’d like to discuss was recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in Baker v. Carr – the notion that any legislative body must be elected with a political process where each citizen gets an equal vote.

The House of Lords is such a legislative body.  I find myself bemused by the back and forth over the proposals for restructuring it.  Obviously, the fact that there are hereditary peers is a relic of feudalism, but to include in a legislative body a bunch of appointed Tony’s cronies is not much better.  I can’t even subscribe to Tony Benn’s recent suggestion that only twenty percent of the Lords should be hand-picked by the politicians.

None of these ideas would pass the laugh test in the United States — and they shouldn’t.  The principle of one-person one-vote is crucial to the legitimacy of any legislative process.  Any legislative (as opposed to executive) body must be elected.  That is the nature of a representative democracy.

Of course American democracy is far from perfect.  I was glad to see that Fidel Castro has maintained his sense of humour:  In 2000, while Bush was taking over the White House with half a million fewer votes than Al Gore, Castro suggested that he send election observers to Florida.

2000 was actually the third time a presidential candidate had won with fewer than half the votes.  But nothing the Americans do is as incomprehensible as the British system: Labour won 66 percent of the seats in 1997 with just 42 percent of the votes; in 1951 the Tories won the more seats than Labour, with 1.3 million fewer votes.  And now the ‘proposal for change’ in the House of Lords includes appointing legislators.

No matter what system the Labour Party may gerrymander, I would very much like to be a part of the team that challenges it through to the European Court, to see whether we cannot establish a true democracy for Britain.  The mother of Western Democracy cannot be allowed to lag behind in Democracy’s development.

Another constitutional principle that Britain would do well to copy is Freedom of Speech, enshrined in the U.S. Bill of Rights, in the First Amendment.

Efforts to suppress free speech in Britain are troublingly routine, and almost always end in tears.  There are no winners when it comes to censorship.

The notion that the Guardian and BBC’s World in Action might have faced enormous legal costs in a defamation suit by Jonathan Aitken is hard to fathom in an open society.  Who can forget Aitken’s words in 1995, when he pretended he had been telling the truth:

“If it falls to me to start a fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play, so be it. I am ready for the fight, the fight against falsehood and those who peddle it. My fight begins today.”

The Guardian was courageous that time and fought back, eventually winning.  But every time I deal with British lawyers on media issues, I am horrified by their conservative attitude, dictated by Britain’s libel laws; the media should be the guardians of free speech, not its censors.

Then there are the racists who are prosecuted for their hateful messages. Nick Griffin, leader of that band of BNP bigots, described Islam as a “wicked, vicious faith” and said Muslims were turning Britain into a “multi-racial hell hole”.  He faced two trials in Leeds Crown Court, and was recently acquitted.  Predictably, he received enormous publicity for his obnoxious views.  Predictably, he boasted that BNP membership and donations soared as a result of the case.

So what was Gordon Brown’s response?  That we should consider changing the laws, to ensure Griffin’s conviction next time.  I despise Griffin’s revolting views, but to prosecute him for speaking merely makes him a martyr.  It’s not just wrong, it’s stupid.

There are struggles that are taking place in Britain today, with far too little debate: a vaguely defined sense of privacy versus freedom of the press; and, criminalizing ‘hate speech’ versus protecting free speech.  Far more censorship takes place in Britain than could happen in America.

The American slogan is an excellent one:  “The only answer to bad ideas is better ideas.”  Not censorship, and not imprisonment.

Another element of America’s First Amendment is Freedom of Religion.  There are plenty of religious extremists in the U.S. and there is plenty of Islamophobia — often, of course, levelled at Sikhs because they wear those confusing turbans.  But if a U.S. politician suggested to a Muslim woman that she should not wear a veil in his presence, he would find himself on the wrong end of a lawsuit.  Although I respect Jack Straw personally and think he has generally been one of the more sensible members of the cabinet, his recent comments seemed to me to be profoundly unwise.

Of course, Straw is probably correct to suggest that some British people are uncomfortable in the company of a Muslim woman in a niqb because they can only see the woman’s eyes.  But that says more about the British experience than it does about the Muslim practice.  I certainly don’t find dealing with a woman wearing a veil as alienating than dealing with an armed American traffic cop in reflecting sunglasses.  And there is an immense danger when those in power turn upon an unpopular religious minority.

True freedom of religion involves allowing people to make their own choices, whether they want to wear a Christian cross at a British Airways desk, or a Muslim veil at a politician’s surgery.

The basic recognition in the U.S. Constitution is that government holds overwhelming power, and the individual needs protection from the potential abuse of that power.  This is a very important principle and one I was able to put into practice every day in my work defending prisoners on death row in the Deep South.  When my black client Sam Johnson was accused of killing a white police officer in Mississippi, we could haul the local sheriff into court and prove that he was racially motivated (his name was ‘Goon Jones’ and, while he swore under oath he no longer called black people ‘niggers,’ I got him to admit that he now called them ‘coloured boys’).

When the Mississippi Supreme Court told prisoners on Death Row that they had no right to a legal aid lawyer for their appeals, we could sue the elected justices and threaten to make them explain under oath how a mentally disabled prisoner like Willie Russell was meant to represent himself, without even being given a pencil.

When Georgia locked my client Jim Moseley up for five years for the heinous crime of having consensual oral sex with his wife, we could accuse the prosecuting lawyers of cunning linguistics in their legal arguments, and demand public assurances from them that they were not guilty of the same offence.  (But that is a long story for another time.)

In short, in the U.S. the law brings power to the powerless, no matter what a politician thinks the electorate wants to hear.  The case of United States v. Nixon established that a lowly lawyer with a subpoena could compel even the president to appear as a witness in court to explain his actions.

Certainly prior to the European Convention on Human Rights, British politicians resisted establishing rights that could override the whims of politicians.  Margaret Thatcher abolished the right to remain silent, first for unpopular Irish terrorists, then for everyone.  She could not have done this in America – it is protected by the Fifth Amendment.  Even today, there are calls to renounce the ECHR.  Meanwhile, Tony Blair wants to authorize 90 days’ of detention without charges.  He just could not do this in America (at least not on U.S. soil) as the Fourth Amendment prohibits holding any criminal suspect for more than twenty-four hours without charges, a rule with which no politician may meddle.

It is important to remember that looking to the American experience means more than analyzing how the Americans protect the individual from the state. There is more to life than being free from oppression.  Indeed, my most sincere criticism of British politicians is that they are so negative, and so wedded to fear mongering.

In 2001, the Conservative party claimed on its website that Britain was Number One in the Premier League of crime.  How can anyone say that with a straight face?  In the US I have been held up five times at gunpoint, which must make me centre forward for the British team.  When I lived there, the small city of New Orleans had a murder rate fifty times higher than Britain.  The U.S. has crime that clearly puts it in a totally different division to Britain.

Why on earth do politicians make such miserable and false allegations about the country they are meant to govern?  How about doing something to inspire British people – perhaps make them want to live, instead of being afraid of going out of doors?

Take the inspiration of charity.  Americans bubble with ambition when it comes to solving social problems. I am not a fan of governments that try to pass off their social obligations to the private sector, and the idea that the U.S. can justify resisting a welfare state by pointing to the thousand points of light of the philanthropic community is reprehensible.  But, that said, America is worlds ahead of Britain when it comes to charity.  There are 865,000 charitable organizations in the U.S. and charities raised roughly $212 billion in 2005 from all sources.  That is about £115 billion.  To set this in perspective, this would be roughly the combined GDP of Israel and Egypt.

Compare this to Britain, where the total raised by charity last year was just £8.2 billion.  Adjusted for population, this still means that Americans give more than three times as much to charity as the British.

The figures reveal some surprising misers:  The most generous group in Britain are the Scots, of whom more than 60 percent gave to charity last year; the meanest are from London.

The Americans are also better as what I call ‘difficult philanthropy’.  Overwhelmingly, British charity goes to popular causes.  The top ten areas of giving are: medical research, children, animals, religious organizations, overseas relief, the blind, the disabled, the elderly, education and rescue services (like the RNLI).  Even the homeless can’t break into the top ten.  In America, people like George Soros have dedicated their philanthropy almost exclusively to unpopular causes –  like representing those we tag as criminals.

The U.S. also leads the way in innovative philanthropy and government support for voluntary service.  Take Americorps and the Peace Corps, organizations intended to provide an opportunity for Americans to work on behalf of those less fortunate than themselves.

Americorps operates inside the U.S., serving the most needy Americans, and was launched by President Clinton in 1993. The government underwrites part of a modest living allowance, and volunteers are eligible for an education award at the end of their service.

The Peace Corps is equally ambitious, aimed at inspiring Americans to reach out overseas.  Americans of all ages can serve – the average is 28 years old, but current volunteers range up to 79.  Volunteers have been sent to 138 countries.

In 2007, the two programmes are jointly slated to receive a total of $1.2 billion in government funds, paying for as many as 50,000 Americans who volunteer on behalf of the needy.

I don’t need to tell most people that President George Bush has lost the plot:  Most of his policies encourage people to be in service to themselves rather than to others, But to give credit where credit is due, he has been strongly supportive of Americorps and the Peace Corps, and has proposed doubling the size of the Peace Corps within five years.  He also wants to launch new Peace Corps programs in Islamic countries.  He’s got a little work to do there.

Of course, Britain has the VSO, which is itself a wonderful organization.  I notice they list Jon Snow as an alumnus.  But I called VSO last week to compare the level of government support for their programme.  They got a DFID (Department for International Development) grant of £28 million last year.  The U.S. government invests roughly thirty times as much in Americorps and Peacecorps, and will help to fund more volunteers next year than the VSO has in the past 48 years put together.  And while the VSO was launched in 1958 as a private charity, the U.S. government was responsible for starting both Americorps and the Peace Corps.

To me it is obvious that government has an enormous role to play in encouraging human decency, and I see no reason why the government shouldn’t fund large swathes of charity and good works.  Nationalise some of charity, if you will.  It is paradoxical that we should learn this lesson from an American government that is so dedicated to acquisitive individualism.

The U.S. Declaration of Independence encourages its citizens in the ‘pursuit of happiness’.  When British politicians brush their teeth at night, how often do they look in the mirror with a twinge of pride, knowing that they have advanced that pursuit, that they have made people happier?  Rather than trying to frighten folk with horror stories about hoodies, how often do they encourage young people to devote their lives to the less fortunate?  Rather than pretending that greater personal wealth will lead to greater personal happiness, is it not vastly cheaper, easier and more sensible to inspire young people to covet less and contribute more?

America invests in inspiration.  Take space exploration.  There are various moments in life that everyone remembers.  Some, we might like to forget – the assassination of President Kennedy, or the attack on September 11th.  But some memorable moments are inspirational – as with the first time a human being walked on the moon on July 20th, 1969.

Take a look on the internet at the pictures that America’s Hubble telescope is sending back: you will see the wonders of strange things like ‘light echoes’ and amazing pictures of galaxy clusters with slightly unimaginative names like MS0735.6+7421 – which, in case you didn’t know, is located a mere 2.6 billion light-years away in the constellation Camelopardalis.

The Hubble is being overhauled, so it will continue beaming back pictures that open the up the universe to us all. Talk about expanding our horizons: Space exploration makes up look optimistically at the stars, instead of gloomily at our feet.

We should ensure a real debate whether we want British taxes spent on rockets that explore the universe, or on a new generation of deterrent Trident missiles that will have to go in search of someone to deter.

In trying to suggest positive aspects of America that Britain might want to copy, I know I have only just touched the surface.  I probably should have included such incomparable American exports as David Byrne, the New York Review of Books, Pizza (particularly V&T’s, at 113th and Amsterdam), Zabars Deli on Broadway, the Blues and perhaps even Amtrak — the American passenger railway that remains nationalised to this day.

At the same time, America obviously has its faults, and there are many more positive ideas that both Britain and America should adopt from elsewhere.  The ultimate discussion I hope we hold tonight is a broader one: whether we are not all guilty of focussing on the negative, rather than the positive?  Politicians do it all the time, but so does the media, and so do civil rights advocates.

Yesterday, I was at Addenbrookes hospital in Cambridge, visiting my father, who is desperately unwell.  Yesterday, when I asked him how he was feeling, he said wryly:  “Not too bad for someone who is almost dead.”  But when I was young, he used the word ‘enthusiasm’ every second sentence.

For a couple of hours, I read him his favorite poems.  We got to the poem ‘Abou Ben Adhem’, about a man who was told by an Angel that he was not on the list of those who loved the Lord.  Abou spoke cheerily still, and said: “I pray thee, then, write me as one who loves his fellow men.”  My father smiled at that and nodded.

If there is one thing he has taught me, it is that life should not be one long complaint; it is about enthusiasm, about inspiring happiness.  Let’s have that debate, instead of the miserable discussion that so many politicians seem to want.