The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman is in Britain, and the argument over the next few days is as predictable as a wet bank holiday. The left will point to the immorality of Saudi Arabia oppressing its own population and killing Yemeni civilians with, on occasion, arms made in Britain. The right will say that is rich coming from a movement led by Jeremy Corbyn, the supposed supporter of women’s, gay and trade union rights, who has taken the money and appeared on the propaganda channels of Iran, a country that oppresses all three and much else besides.
No one should yawn, however. Familiarity breeds ignorance as well as contempt. It blinds us to the reality that the old world where universal human rights were valued is no longer the world we inhabit. Today hardly anyone left or right believes in them. Human rights are simply truncheons to beat one’s opponents with.
Try a thought experiment. Suppose a faction in the Saudi royal family were to seize power and declare it was no longer interested in Western support. A revolution in Saudi policy is not as inconceivable as it seems. Erdogan’s Turkey is a member of Nato, but its de facto dictator has decided his interests are best suited by cutting deals with Russia.
Don’t think for a moment that the loudest voices on the left would continue to care about the repression of women and the Shia minority, the religious police, and the monarchical tyranny if Saudi policy changed. I am not sure they care now. I was at a demonstration outside the Saudi embassy in London a few weeks ago in defence of Raif Badawi, the blogger sentenced to 1000 lashes for ‘insulting’ Islam. No recognisable supporter of Jeremy Corbyn was there. In their place were representatives of English PEN, Reporters Without Borders and other boringly consistent liberals who condemn oppression whether the oppressors are pro-Western or anti-Western.
Meanwhile all the arguments we now hear from Conservatives on the lines that Saudi Arabia is not such a bad place really and, say what you like about it, at least it’s heading in the right direction, would stop. They would stop, even if the recent gains in the position of Saudi women continued. For, like the left, the dominant voices on the right are not interested in the lives of living, breathing Saudis. They care only about the West’s strategic position and the chance to make money.
The world is dominated by leaders who do not give a damn for human rights. Far from becoming more liberal communist China is becoming ever more dictatorial, and Russia ever more gangsterish. Trump is tearing up post 1945 Western order, and across Europe in Hungary, Poland and now Italy misnamed ‘populist’ governments have not the smallest interest in universal principles. On the contrary, they are rebelling agains the notion that any principle should protect migrants and refugees.
Britain is no exception. On the right, Brexit means that what little pressure the government exerted will have to be sacrificed. In their desperation to cut any kind of trade deal, the Conservatives will barely mention oppression. If you look at the praise the Chinese Communist press gave Theresa May for ‘sidestepping’ human rights, you can see the retreat is already underway. An isolated Britain will have to ‘sidestep’ and tiptoe much more in future as it realises how small its place in the world it has become.
On the reverse side of the same debased coin, delineating Jeremy Corbyn’s hypocrisy would challenge a modern Dickens. But for all his pious preaching he is an authentic representative of the modern left. Labour has nothing worth saying about the atrocities in Syria or Iranian attempts to overthrow their theocratic masters because the left, or at least the dominant voices on it, simply does not believe that oppression by anti-Western regimes is worth fighting.
Human rights like Britpop and Friends are looking like a passing fad of the millennial West. I don’t mean to say that human rights are western: it’s that type of relativist thinking that has moved our times into such a squalid place. It’s just that, as events have turned out, without the support of a solid body of Western governments behind them human rights cannot stay on the international agenda. Governments, including Western governments, no longer even have to pretend to think about them.
Looking back, the insistence that Western governments should be expected to support global justice was always strange. Ex-colonial powers that had looted most of the planet became unwilling moral arbiters because of unique historical circumstances, whose moment has long passed.
The fight against fascism and communism meant that however badly the West behaved, its enemies were worse. The struggle also dictated that the West used moral arguments as weapons, and despite the long list of military juntas and dictators it supported in Africa, Asia and South America, governments had to live by what they promised to a small degree. Then the collapse of the Soviet Union left America, and by extension the West, as the sole superpower with the apparent freedom to promote democracy everywhere.
The standard form of foreign policy debate from 1989 until 2016 was conducted in the language of Western hypocrisy. How can the West be called moral after Abu Ghraib? And so on. I’m sure you can recite the script in your sleep, and I am not saying that was not truth in the lines only that they were repeated too often and with too much vehemence.
For now we have an American president for whom there is no West and no universal order. Every day he makes it clear that he will tear up the post-1945 settlement which gave Westerners what little moral purpose they had. Say what you like about Trump or Putin or Xi or Erdogan or Orban but there is nothing hypocritical about them. They are what we said we wanted: authentic leaders who do not try to bamboozle us with fake moral postures.
We are relearning the truth of the old saying that hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays virtue. Denounce it by all means, but remember that when governments and individuals no longer feel they need to pretend, no longer think anyone will care if they seem to be virtuous, what you get is what you see around you.