Skinny size me: some women dramatise their inner conflict by shedding weight. Photograph: Ben Stockey
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The anorexic statement

Trust me, notice me, feed me: every female body conveys a message. So, when a woman starves herself, what is she saying?

I knew a woman whose job it was to take anorexics to the swimming pool. She was an occupational therapist: eating disorders were her field. She worked at a nearby clinic and we bumped into one another from time to time.

I found myself curious about her work, or more truthfully about her patients, those singular modern-day martyrs to the cause of their own bodies. Without quite knowing why, as I have grown older I have become more interested in – it could even be said, more respectful of – what might be called the anorexic statement. Perhaps it’s because, as the 45-year-old English mother of two children, my body has little power of provocation or utterance; or rather, that what it’s said or tried to say through the years hasn’t seemed to have added up to all that much. Quite what constitutes the anorexic statement I’m not entirely sure. All the same, it has a great power of disruption. It’s a stray spoke under the wheel of things that otherwise have the capacity to hurtle on headlong: family life, fashion, the destiny of the female body. The statement might be: help me. Or it might simply be: stop.

My therapist acquaintance herself had not been allowed to be picky in life, growing up in a family of brothers on a farm in the Australian outback. She knew how to shoot, drive a tractor, ride a horse bareback. She had left that rough home and come to the UK, where every couple of years for the sake of change she moved job and town – Slough, Birmingham, Chelmsford – though her solitude and her line of work did not alter. She neither sought nor seemed to expect much in the way of pleasure. In the evenings she made a sandwich and read a book in her rented room; her main meal was lunch in the canteen at the clinic, where food was plentiful and cheap. This somewhat joyless attitude to nourishment could come as no surprise, given that she spent her days among females who regarded the ingestion of a teaspoonful of peas as a physical and spiritual crisis. Once a week she led them to the poolside, skeletal and pale, for all the world to see. Even at the swimming pool these curious beings detected the threat of penetration, of the outside coming in. They didn’t want to get in the water, not, apparently, because they felt self-conscious or exposed, but for fear that they might swallow some of it without its calorific content having been established.

The easiest thing that could be said about my acquaintance was that she herself was impenetrable. Her choice of career must have sprung from some initial attraction to or sympathy with the anorexic state, but most often what she appeared to feel for her waifish charges was irritation, even anger. Anger is a common response, it seems, to the anorexic statement. At the very least, returning from a day spent on the receiving end of that statement, my acquaintance was hard put to feel – as they say – good about herself. If the anorexic is someone for whom the relationship between female being and female image must, on pain of death, be resolved, it may be that she denies that resolution to those who cross her path. They become the witnesses of her vulnerability; as such, she is more real than they. Like with the ascetic of old, her self-denial is a form of chastisement, yet the extremity of her appearance is confusing. Being female, it seeks attention, but of an unusual kind. It asks to be mothered – yet what if its aim is indeed to challenge the reality of the mother-figure and overpower it, to triumph over her, to consign her to flesh and steal her image? The anorexic is out to prove how little she needs, how little she can survive on; she is out, in a sense, to discredit her nurturers, while at the same time making a public crisis out of her need for nurture. Such vulnerability and such power: it brings the whole female machinery to a halt. My acquaintance had tales of rudeness and tantrums and sulks, of behaviour more commonly read about in childcare manuals (of the kind whose purpose, we are told, is to “test the boundaries”), even of a degree of personal insult which at the very least, I suppose, mothers aren’t paid to tolerate. She had no children of her own. And so, in an admirable interpretation of the social contract, she recognised she had something in that line to give.

Jenefer Shute offers some riveting descriptions of such interactions, between the anorexic inpatient Josie and her carers, in her novel Life-Size. “In the body,” Josie chillingly muses, “as in art, perfection is attained not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.”

Armed with this credo, she can exercise contempt on everyone around her (“They say I’m sick, but what about them, who feast on corpses?”), in what becomes a radical reliving of her primary experiences of nurture. And it needs to be radicalised: this is the moral value of the anorexic statement, that it asks questions not just of mothers or fathers or fashion editors, but of the whole societal basis for the female image. This time around, Josie can speak her mind. She can criticise the people who care for her; she can re-experience the powerlessness of childhood and know it for what it is. So unpleasant is she to the “freckled cow” who nurses her that she finally gets the reprimand she has apparently been asking for:

“Josephine, I must ask you please not to speak to me like that. I’m not your servant.” And then, unable to contain herself: “And would you please look at me when I talk to you? It really gets on my nerves.” Coldly, victoriously, I remain precisely as I am. She really should have more control.

Soon after, however, the 68-pound tyrant, having agreed at last to eat something or be force-fed through a tube, makes a revealing request of her nurse: “I want you to feed me,” she says.

My acquaintance found it hard to muster much interest in herself at the day’s end. She rarely went out or saw people: it was as though her work had bled her of confidence. She sought not public interactions but the determined security of her private boundary. In the evenings she changed into loose clothes, shut herself in her room, shut herself into a book. She wanted to be where no one could demand anything of her, like a depleted mother, except with none of the prestige of motherhood. She never kept company with men, and her female world was wholly predicated on an insidious notion, that certain women are there to give attention and others to receive it. Sometimes it seemed that her patients had indeed stolen her image and left her with nothing to trade, nothing to barter with for some share of the world’s interest. They had stolen her image and left her a mere body that could find no reflection or definition for itself. She went back home for a few weeks on holiday and returned browner, more animated, and heavier. All that meat they went in for, meat roasted over a fire and served at every meal. But more to the point, a world in which food was an entitlement and a human bond.

In her own world food had become a weapon: her evening sandwich and her indifference were a kind of savourless pacifism she exercised against it. She spent her days among people who denied themselves food in order to experience, perhaps, power, whose apparent intention to make themselves invisible made them, in fact, visible, who had discovered that by becoming less they became more. And no­where was this clearer than in the fact that they required her as their witness, for disappearing was no fun unless someone noticed you’d gone. But if anyone was disappearing, if anyone was becoming invisible, it was she.

The question of how she had come to be stranded in this place remains difficult to answer, but its source may lie in the very practicality – the tractors, the horses – she had crossed the world to escape. Denied her own experience of femininity, she had perhaps embarked on a kind of pilgrimage to find and serve these notable victims to the riddling perversity of feminine values. She could help them, sit with them while they wept and shrieked over a teaspoonful of peas, she who had never had the temerity to question or refuse anything she had been given; she who was not important enough, as it were, to be anorexic, for the hieratic significance of the anorexic body depends on it having been ascribed a value in the first place. Had she tried to starve herself on the farm where she grew up, she might simply have died: her protest, in any case, would not have been understood. She had taken photographs of this place, on her recent trip home. In order to capture its isolation, she had photographed it from a distance, recording the miles of surrounding scrubland in a sequence of separate frames that she laid one next to another across the table in a long connecting strip. Amid these featureless wastelands she defied me to locate her home, and though my eyes searched and searched the landscape it was true that I could find no evidence of human habitation. She laughed, with an unmistakable and strangely exhilarated pride, and laid her finger over a low brown shape that crouched amid the boulders and bushes that extended all around it, on and on to the white horizon. It was so small her fingertip covered it. “There it is,” she said.

It may seem superfluous for a 45-year-old mother-of-two to say that she does not exult in the life of the body, but let’s just call it a place to begin. At the very least, as a statement, it raises numerous lines of inquiry. One might be: is it obligatory, or even a moral duty, to take pleasure in one’s own physical being? Leaving aside for a moment the question of what definition of pleasure one could possibly arrive at in this particular hall of mirrors, is the value of the physical quest in any way comparable with that of the artistic, the emotional, the spiritual?

I understand the anorexic’s notion of pleasure far better than the hedonist’s. Sometimes it has seemed to me that the second kind of pleasure is consequent on the first, that the life of sensation can be accessed only from a place of perfect self-discipline, rather as strict religious practices were once believed to constitute the narrow path to heaven. The anorexic, like the ascetic before her, publicly posits the immolation of the flesh as a manifestation of a primary physical discontent she is on her way to escaping: she represents a journey whose starting point is disgust. Body is found to be not only intolerable to but weaker than mind – how, then, can its desires and yearnings be taken seriously? The anorexic statement suggests a second body, one that will be painstakingly encroached on and attained; and hence, a second template for desire. This second body will belong to its owner as the first did not: its desires, therefore, will be experienced as not shameful, but true.

The female form is inherently susceptible to this duality, but the difficulty with the anorexic statement is that once it becomes open to other readings it breaks down. At some point in the journey a line is crossed: the slim body becomes the freakish starved body, and one by one the anorexic’s grounds for superiority are discredited and revoked. She is not beautiful but repellent, not self-disciplined but out of control, not enviable but piteous, and, most disappointing of all, she is publicly courting not freedom and desire but death. Even she may find these things difficult to believe. How to go back, on that journey? How to retrace one’s steps? For in getting where she needed to go the anorexic had to sacrifice the concept of normality. In a manner of speaking she sold her soul. She can never be “normal” about food or flesh again. So, how is she meant to live?

If the anorexic arouses irritation, even anger, it may be this quitting of normality that is to blame, because the female management of normality is a formidable psychical task from which most women don’t feel entitled to walk away. By quitting it she exposes it, she criticises it as a place to live, and moreover she forces each woman who passes her way to choose between denial and recognition of her statement, disgust.

Is it disgusting to be a woman? Menstruation, lactation, childbirth, the sexualisation of the female body – in recognising these things as her destiny, a girl is asked to forget everything that her prepubescent instincts might formerly have suggested to her. In becoming female she must cease to be universal, and relinquish the masculine in herself that permitted her as a child to find the idea of these things disgusting indeed. Likewise that masculine is now embodied for her in men, so the question becomes – do men find women disgusting? The anorexic statement dispenses with that perspective. It returns the woman to the universality of the child, and from that fusion formulates itself: I find myself disgusting.

If it has become a cultural cliché that women want to be thin more than they want to be loved (the three most cherished words these days, so the saying goes, being not “I love you” but “You’ve lost weight”), and moreover that they want to be thin not for men but for one another, the general observer might be tempted to view this as making the case for male innocence (at last!), even male redundancy.

Yet, looked at another way, the male and the preponderance of male values are perhaps more culpable in the incrimination of the female form than ever. An eating disorder epidemic suggests that love and disgust are being jointly marketed, as it were; that wherever the proposition might first have come from, the unacceptability of the female body has been disseminated culturally. Is it possible that disgust has finally got, in the famed male gaze, the upper hand? From whom, after all, has a woman ever wished to hear the words “I love you” but a man?

In Life-Size, Jenefer Shute posits the anorexic state as having two separate sources, one in the female (subjective, mother) and the other in the male (objective, father). Between them they engender in the anorexic subject the confusion between being and image of which one might suppose her to be merely an extreme cultural example. Mother – the female body – is indeed the source of disgust, but it is father – if one can be permitted the leap of seeing father as analogous with male and, indeed, with society – who makes that disgust public and hence catalyses it into shame. Without father, mother might merely have passed her disgust silently on to daughter, where it would have remained as an aspect of her private, interior being. But father brings it to the surface: it is something not just felt but now also seen. These confirmations, in Shute’s narrative, of interior suspicion (am I disgusting?) by outward commentary (yes, you are) are fatal to female self-perception in ways that might seem obvious but are none­theless intractable.

Outside and inside – image and being – are now held to be one: the girl/woman revisits and tests this impossibility by becoming the observer – the male – herself, looking at and remarking on the bodies of other women. Naturally, the discovery that image can be changed is not new: it is and always has been part of becoming a woman, in a sense that, although slenderness has long been a feminine ideal, self-hatred and the compulsion to starve oneself to death have broadly not. The question of disgust returns, accompanied by its shadow, the question of pleasure.

A personal admission: not long ago, in a period of great turmoil, I lost a considerable amount of weight. The first thing to say about this is that I was unaware, inexplicably, that it had happened. That my clothes no longer fitted passed me by: I noticed it only because other people told me so. They appeared shocked: each time I met someone I knew, there it would be, shock, a startled expression on the face. At first, I was startled in turn. They were not seeing who they expected to see; who, then, were they seeing? After a while I got used to it: indeed, I came to expect, almost to require it. A newborn baby needs to be mirrored by another human being in order to grasp that she has an outward surface, that this “self” has an appearance, that her image speaks. Through the shock of others I learned that I, too, had been shocked, that I was no longer the person I once was. My image was speaking, to me as well as to other people, telling me things I did not yet appear to know or realise.

But eventually the question of “normality” returned, as it must in the life of a 45-year-old mother-of-two. Stop, help me, feed me: this may have been my cry, but the truth was there was no one, any more, to answer. There could be no illusion, as an adult; I had left it too late to stage this apotheosis, this defeat of the first body, predicated as it is on the expectation of rescue. I had to draw back from it myself. And this was where the problem arose, because, like the anorexic, I found I could not retrace my steps, could not, as it were, go back to sleep. For years I had lived in my body half-consciously, ignoring it mostly, dismissing its agendas wherever I could, and forever pressing it into the service of mental conceptions that resulted, almost as a by-product, sometimes in its pleasuring and sometimes in its abuse. People were always telling me I should do yoga: this was one of the running jokes I had against my own flesh, for the idea that I would suspend the intellectual adventure of living even for one hour to dwell in the dumb and inarticulate realm of the auto-corporeal was as unappealing as that of spending an evening with someone I disliked. Now, as the weeks passed, instead of shock, my appearance was beginning to elicit milder manifestations of concern. I didn’t know what it meant: had I changed again? Was I no longer fragile and vulnerable? I had no idea. Never before in my life had I dared to be fragile, and all I knew was that I wasn’t ready to leave what I had become. “Have you ever thought of doing yoga?” someone said.

As a teenager I had been tormented by hunger and by an attendant self-disgust, for I saw in other girls a balance, an openness of form, that suggested they had nothing inside of which they need be ashamed. Their bodies were like well-schooled ponies, handsome and obedient, whereas I had a monster inside me whose appeasement was forever disrupting the outward surface of life. It craved so many things it could barely discriminate between them, and so indiscrimination – the failure to distinguish between what mattered and what didn’t, what helped and what didn’t, what it needed and what just happened to be there – became its public nature. It wanted, in fact, what it could get, in the light of what it couldn’t.

How thoroughly the tangible and the in­tangible confused themselves in those years. Creativity, the placement of internal material into space, the rendering tangible, became my weapon against that confusion.

When I left my boarding school – the blue serge uniform and the Cambridgeshire drizzle, the plates of stodge that were so predictable and real, the torturing sense of female possi­bilities that were not – I learned to manage the monster, more or less. Like the first Mrs Rochester it had a locked room of its own, from which it sometimes succeeded in breaking free to rend into shreds my fantasies of femininity, but I had set my mind on higher things. By locking up the monster I was making myself at heart unfree: what did I know of freedom in any case? I was accustomed to fantasy and to the safety – albeit uncomfortable – it supplied, and the notion of an integrated self was the most uncomfortable fantasy of all. In a sense, it was the monster: I could neither kill it nor live with it, and so there it remained, caged, bellowing and banging intermittently through the years, creating perhaps the sense of something amiss in those who came close to me, but caged all the same.

Yoga, understandably enough, was out: nothing could have persuaded me to enter that cage armed only with a sun salute. But my sudden emaciation in middle age did bring me into contact with the monster again, for, amid all the other losses, there in the rubble of the desecrated life, I appeared to see it lying dead at my feet. The Jungian notion of the “middle passage”, in which at mid-life all the templates for self expire or fall away, in which with sufficient destruction one has a chance to return to the blankness of birth, might have explained that death well enough to avoid detection: it simply went up in the fire, the horrible secret, along with everything else. And here, after all, was a chance to be free of my own image, the bind in which my body had held me for all these years, because, while wanting more than anything to be feminine, I had only and ever found my own femininity disgusting. This image, knitted together over time by questions and confirmations (Am I disgusting? Yes, you are), was one I was now prepared to sustain: I was poised to make the anorexic statement, to vanish, to let image and being finally become one.

But of course, no such thing occurs: there is no “letting”, no seamless transposition of the flesh. The anorexic body is held in the grip of will alone; its meaning is far from stable. What it says – notice me, feed me, mother me – is not what it means, for such attentions constitute an agonising test of that will, and also threaten to return the body to the dreaded “normality” it has been such ecstasy to escape.

For the first time since my teenage years I found myself tormented again by hunger: the monster had awoken from its slumber, bigger and more ferocious than ever. The route back to normality being blocked, I have had to devise other ways of getting there, or of seeming to. My occupational therapist acquaintance tells me that many of her patients are women of my age, women who have suddenly tried to slip the noose of their female flesh once its story – menstruation, lactation, childbirth – has been told in all its glory and shame.

When I relate this to my female friends they take it humorously, rolling their eyes and laughing, gallantly owning up – oh yes, they say, we know – to monsters of their own. Most of them haven’t delivered themselves into its jaws quite so thoroughly as I have; their dislike of their own bodies is a kind of low-level irritant, a necessary component of the female environment, but to think about it too much would spoil everyone’s fun.

I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun, either, though for now I have spoiled my own. It did seem, for a while, as though the death-state of physical denial might contain the possibility of transcendence, the chance to step out of my self-disgust and make true contact at last: contact of my “real”, my second, self with the outer world. That I felt this had always been denied me, that in the negotiation between being and image all, for me, had been lost, was a stark kind of truth to face up to. Passing other women in the street these days, I seem to hear their bodies speaking. A lot of what they say is unclear to me, or at the very least so foreign that it takes me a moment to translate it. For instance: I accept myself. Or: respect me. The ones I like best are the ones that say, trust me. What I will never be able to hear unequivocally, whether whispered or shrieked, is: desire me. Notice me, feed me, mother me. Passing by the anorexic girl, stepping lightly and silently in the shadows, I hear her message and in a way I salute her for it. Other bodies have other messages, but for this one I have ears.

Rachel Cusk is most recently the author of “Aftermath: on Marriage and Separation” (Faber & Faber, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

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Humanising hell

Our restless conscience and the search for peace.

This essay is based upon the One People Oration I delivered at Westminster Abbey in October 2014. I have made hundreds of speeches in the House of Commons as a Member of Parliament for 25 years, but this was the only one I had given in Westminster Abbey. In its early days, in the early 1300s, Parliament actually sat there, in the Chapter House and then in the Refectory of the Abbey. So as an MP I felt very at home, but there were important differences. 

The Commons is a scene of noisy disagreement, while in the Abbey we were surrounded by a thousand years of reflection and calm. In the Commons I would be cut off mid-flow if I went a minute over my allotted time, but in the Abbey I spoke for as long as I needed to and had some hope the audience might actually have been listening. When I spoke in the House of Commons I was just yards from where my hero William Pitt the Younger (Hague 2005) debated with Fox and Burke and Sheridan, but he was actually buried in the Abbey, with his father, in what I believe is the only grave in our country to contain two prime ministers.

People often comment that politicians are becoming younger, but Pitt was prime minister at the age of 24. There has never been a younger occupant of Number 10 before or since, and I doubt there will ever be one again or one as peculiarly gifted as a parliamentary orator. Pitt was prime minister for 18 years and 11 months, and for half that time Britain was at war with France and frequently at risk of invasion.

Another hero of mine, William Wilberforce (Hague 2008), is also buried in the Abbey, thanks to his family and friends countermanding his wish to be buried elsewhere. His house, Number 4 Palace Yard, stood just over the wall and was by every account a veritable pandemonium of books, pets, visitors and hapless servants he never had the heart to let go. From amid that ferment of ideas and activity he spent 20 years converting the people and entire political establishment of Britain to the cause of abolition. Year after year he moved motions in the House of Commons that were defeated. But in 1807, two decades after he began, he finally succeeded in turning our country from a slave-trading nation into one that bullied, harassed and bribed other countries into giving up their own detestable traffic in humans. And he did this without ever holding any office in any government.

Although I am not an intensely religious person, in writing my book on Wilberforce I came to admire the unquenchable determination to succeed in a cause that religion – in his case evangelical Christianity – inspired in him. Because he believed he was accounting to God for how he spent his time, he actually recorded what he did with it. His papers include tables detailing each quarter hour of the day. One typical entry describes seven and a half hours of Commons business, eight and a quarter hours in bed, five and a half hours of ‘requisite company &c visits &c’, three‑quarters of an hour of serious reading and meditation, 15 minutes unaccounted for or dressing and one hour described as ‘squandered’.

While few in his age had his gift with words and his obsessive drive, Wilberforce was not alone in being inspired by his faith. He was part of the Clapham sect, a small group of politicians, lawyers, merchants, churchmen and bankers based around Clapham Common, who were responsible for one of the greatest varieties and volumes of charitable activity ever launched by any group of people in any age.

Their primary goal was the abolition of the slave trade and the founding of Sierra Leone, but on top of this they set up a staggering array of charitable causes: the London Missionary Society; the Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor; the Church Missionary Society; the Religious Tract Society; the Society for Promoting the Religious Instruction of Youth; the Society for the Relief of the Industrious Poor; the British National Endeavour for the Orphans of Soldiers and Sailors; the Institution for the Protection of Young Girls; the Society for the Suppression of Vice; the Sunday School Union; the Society for Superceding the Necessity for Climbing Boys in Cleansing Chimneys; the British and Foreign Bible Society; and two with particularly wonderful names: The Asylum House of Refuge for the Reception of Orphaned Girls the Settlements of whose Parents Cannot be Found and, finally, the Friendly Female Society, for the Relief of Poor, Infirm, Aged Widows, and Single Women of Good Character, Who Have Seen Better Days. And we think we live in an age of activism.

***

I know that for many people today religious faith of all kinds remains a great inspiration and channel for charity and altruism. And whatever faith or creed we live by, inherent in our democracy is the idea that our freedoms and rights are universal. Oppression or conflict or poverty or injustice anywhere in the world has stirred our consciences, as individuals and collectively, throughout our history. I want to argue that maintaining and building on that national tradition is absolutely vital in the twenty-first century, both as a moral obligation and in order to prevent wars at a time of growing international instability.

The year 2014, when I delivered my lecture in Westminster Abbey, saw us marking 100 years since the First World War, in which so many of our countrymen perished because conflict was not averted. Remembering that dreadful conflict should inspire us to maintain our restless conscience as a nation and be determined to do whatever we can to improve the condition of humanity. We should have faith – in the broadest sense – in our ideas and our ideals as a country, and in our ability to have a positive impact on the development of other nations and the future of our world.

One of the most moving sights I have seen in some time was the sea of poppies encircling the Tower of London, commemorating each and every British and Commonwealth military fatality in the First World War. It was a silent exhortation to remember, to be grateful for what we have and to learn the lessons of those times when peace had to be restored at so great a price to humanity. So too is the revered Grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, ‘buried among Kings’, as his gravestone says, as one of the many who ‘gave the most that man can give, life itself, for God, for King and Country, for Loved Ones and Empire, for the Sacred Cause of Justice and the Freedom of the World’. The remains of 15 British soldiers from the War were reburied in Belgium in October 2014, 100 years after they were killed in battle, reminding us that we are still counting the cost of that terrible conflagration.

As Foreign Secretary, for four years I occupied the office used by Sir Edward Grey, with its windows overlooking Horseguards and St James’s Park. Standing at those windows, as he contemplated the catastrophe about to engulf the world, he famously said, ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime’. The failure of diplomacy on the eve of the War ushered in greater suffering than Grey and his contemporaries could ever have imagined: war on an industrial scale, ‘the butchery of the unknown by the unseen’, in the words of one war correspondent, in which 10 million soldiers died on all sides, 20 million were severely wounded and eight million were permanently disabled; in which appalling massacres, rapes and other atrocities were committed against thousands of civilians and millions of refugees were created; and which was all to be followed by the Second World War, the massacres in Poland, the gas chambers and extermination camps of the Holocaust, pogroms in the Soviet Union and the slaughter of war and revolution in China.

It is tempting to look back on the horrors and evils of the past and to think that these things could not happen again. It would be comforting to imagine that we have reached such a level of education and enlightenment that ideologies like Nazism, Fascism and Communism that led to mass slaughter, and the nationalism that leads states to attack their neighbours or groups within states to massacre their fellow citizens, have all seen an end. Sadly, I believe this is an illusion.

There is an additional illusion that sometimes takes hold, as it did before the First World War, that a permanent peace has arrived. Then, Europe had enjoyed 99 years without widespread war. The Great Powers had found a way back from the brink of conflict several times, and Grey and his colleagues can be forgiven for thinking that crises would always be resolved by diplomacy, when in fact they were on the edge of the two greatest cataclysms in history.

History shows that while circumstances change, human nature is immutable. However educated, advanced or technologically skilled we become, we are still highly prone to errors of judgement, to greed and thus to conflict. There is no irreversible progress towards democracy, human rights and greater freedoms just as there is unlikely to be any such thing as a state of permanent peace. Unless each generation acts to preserve the gains it inherits and to build upon them for the future, then peace, democracy and freedom can easily be eroded, and conflict can readily break out.

***

It is true that there is more education, welfare, charitable endeavour and kindness in our world than ever before, that we have reached extraordinary diplomatic milestones like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and that we have a United Nations (UN) system carrying out responsibilities from peacekeeping to the protection of our environment. We should never lose faith in the positive side of human nature and always retain our optimism and belief in our ability to shape our destiny. But my argument is that it is also true that the capacity of human beings to inflict unspeakable violence upon others, of ideologies that are pure evil to rise up or for states that are badly led to wade into new forms of conflict are all as present as ever.

We often read about massacres as if such barbaric things are only to be found in the pages of history. But the short span of our own lifetimes tells a different story, from Europe to the Middle East, to Africa and Asia. Only in 1995, in Europe, 8000 men and boys were massacred in Srebrenica in a single week. Over five million people have been killed in the Congo in the two decades up to 2014.

In April 2014, when I attended the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan massacres, I and the other international representatives were standing where nearly a third of a million people are buried in a single grave, a third of the million women, men and children slain in cold blood within 100 days. Also in 2014, two of Pol Pot’s henchmen, part of the Khmer Rouge regime that killed more than a million people, were convicted and given life sentences. In Iraq and Syria, in a perversion of religion, ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is currently terrorizing communities with beheadings and crucifixions. And think of the barrel bombs that have rained down on schools in Syria from the Assad regime and the pitiless desperation to hold on to power needed to produce such utter inhumanity.

Aggressive ideology, despotism and fanaticism live on, despite all our other advances and achievements. This is the human condition. Our optimism and faith in human nature will always have to contend with this harsh truth, at the same time as being essential to overcoming such evils. That is why it is so important for us to have a strong sense of history so that we never lose sight of how fragile peace and security can be. And so we understand that diplomacy and the peaceful resolution of conflicts is not an abstract concept but our greatest responsibility.

In our information-rich, media-saturated world, history can be caricatured as a luxury, not least for those who have their hands full running the country. But I could not imagine having been Foreign Secretary without drawing on the advice of the Foreign Office historians, who were able to offer historical precedents for every conceivable revolution, insurgency, treaty or crisis, and who produced maps and papers that shed light on the most intractable of modern problems. It is as important to consult the lessons of history in foreign policy as it is to seek the advice of our embassies, our intelligence agencies, our military and our allies. History is not set in stone and is open to endless reinterpretation. But the habit of deep and searching thought rooted in history must be cultivated: not to paralyse us or make us excessively pessimistic, but to help us make sound decisions and guide our actions.

It remains as true today as it was when Edmund Burke first expressed it that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men and women to do nothing. We cannot in our generation coast along or think it is not our responsibility or that it is too difficult to tackle conflict and injustice that bring misery to millions. However pressing the crises of the day, we have to address the fundamental conditions that lead to armed conflict and reduce the human suffering it causes. This means not only maintaining Britain’s global role – living up to our responsibilities, protecting our interests internationally and being able to project military power where necessary – but also consciously encouraging and developing the ideas, concepts and strategies needed to address poverty, conflict and injustice.

All our advances start with an idea. Powerful ideas can then become unstoppable movements as indeed the abolition of the slave trade did in the eighteenth century. For that to happen governments have to adopt the best of these ideas, and leaders have to be prepared to be open and radical.

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The title of my essay is taken from a remark by Admiral John Fisher, First Sea Lord in the early nineteenth century and commander of the Royal Navy at the start of the First World War. In 1899, he was sent as Britain’s representative to the first Hague Peace Conference, called by Russia, to discuss the growing arms race and place curbs on the use of certain weapons in war. As these proposals were discussed at the negotiating table, he is said to have remarked with some passion that one could sooner talk of ‘humanising hell’ than of ‘humanising war’. While he was, of course, right about the hell of war, in actual fact the traumatic experience of conflict and great idealism have often gone together. It has frequently been the very experience of war that has spurred mankind’s greatest advances in international relations, based on ideas that were radical when first presented. 

When Henry Dunant observed the agonizing deaths of thousands of injured men at the battle of Solferino in 1859, his outrage and activism led to the 1864 Geneva Convention, the founding text of contemporary international humanitarian law, which laid the foundation for the treatment of prisoners in war. After the First World War, there was a vast and intensive period of institution building, leading to the League of Nations, International Labour Organization, the prohibition on use of chemical weapons and the creation of the High Commissioner for Refugees to find a way of returning millions of European refugees to their homes, which supports over 50 million refugees and displaced people worldwide today.

While the Second World War was raging, Roosevelt and Churchill spent hours discussing the creation of a new international body to prevent conflict in the future, which led to the United Nations itself, the Security Council and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. More recently, in our lifetime, the outrage at atrocities in Cambodia, Rwanda, Liberia and Bosnia led to the creation of the International Criminal Court and the concept of the Responsibility to Protect. Since 1990 our country has played a leading role in securing international bans on the use of cluster munitions and landmines, and I was proud to sign on Britain’s behalf the ratification of the International Arms Trade Treaty, the culmination of ten years of advocacy begun here in Britain.

The humanising of the hell of war is a continual process. While our goal must always be to avert conflict in the first place, except as a last resort as provided in the UN charter, it is also essential to establish norms of behaviour about what is unacceptable even in times of war. This is vital so that if conflict breaks out despite our best efforts, governments feel restrained by the threat of accountability for any crimes that are committed, we have mechanisms to protect civilians and peace agreements take account of the need for reconciliation and the punishment of crimes against humanity. The crucial point is that while the international bodies we have are the result of diplomacy, they do not simply arise on their own. They are the product of ideas generated by individuals, groups or governments refusing to accept the status quo, such that then, with enough momentum, public support and political commitment became reality.

I think of this ‘restless conscience’, as I call it, as an enduring and admirable British characteristic. Our nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), lawyers, academics and Crown servants have had an extraordinary impact internationally. In my time in the Foreign Office I found our diplomats a powerful part of this tradition, from their work on the abolition of the death penalty, to improving the lot of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities worldwide, to helping negotiations as far away as the now‑successful Mindanao Peace Process in the Philippines. This is part of our country’s distinctive contribution to the world, and it involves the power of our ideas as much as the skill of our diplomats. We must always cherish and encourage that flow of ideas and idealism and those rivers of soft power and influence that form such a large part of our role in the world.

It is also true that diplomatic negotiations for peace do not simply arise automatically. They require extraordinary effort by individuals. US former Secretary of State, John Kerry, for example, deserves praise for his tireless work on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. He chose to devote weeks on end trying to restart and conclude those negotiations, rather than taking the easy route of not attempting such a difficult task. Individuals and the choices they make have an immense impact. Sometimes the individual is someone in high office, like William Pitt, who did his utmost in the early 1790s to avoid war with France and whose State Paper of 1805 was the basis for European peace for most of the nineteenth century. Or it is someone like Wilberforce, who was never a government minister, but whose ideas and energy brought relief, an end of suffering and ultimately freedom for millions of people.

Choices are motivated differently. The coalition to end the British slave trade was driven not just by moral considerations, but also by political and economic factors. Adam Smith argued against slavery because he saw it as an inefficient allocation of resources. British naval supremacy in the world meant that in simple political terms, abolition was possible because we had the diplomatic and military muscle to enforce it. And Wilberforce was outraged that slaves had no opportunity to embrace Christianity, so their souls were being lost. So his key argument against the trade was neither economic nor political, it was religious. It is inevitable that in this way governments, like individuals, are motivated by a number of different factors. But we must pursue the issues today that bring together the moral interest and the national interest, using the combination of powerful ideas, our strong institutions and our global role.

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We should be proud that, so far, our country has kept its promise to spend 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) on international development, not just because it is morally right, but also because it is profoundly in our national interest to help other nations lift their citizens out of poverty. We have to continue to lead global efforts to stop the illegal wildlife trade, which destroys the natural heritage of African nations, undermines economic development and creates instability. It is vital that we promote a rules-based international system, because it nourishes the commerce, trade and stability that are the lifeblood of our own economy as well as strengthening human rights internationally. And it is essential that we support political reform, civil society, women’s rights and economic progress in the Middle East, because it is vital to our long-term security that that region becomes more free, more stable and more prosperous.

The pursuit of policies that bring stability in the world, and the moral authority for them, are inseparable. Any idea that we should retrench, withdraw or turn away from these issues is misguided and wrong for two reasons. First, the world is becoming systemically less stable. This is due to many different factors: the dispersal of power amongst a wider group of nations, many of whom do not fully share our values and our objectives in foreign policy; the diffusion of power away from governments, accelerated by technology; the globalization of ideas and ability of people to organize themselves into leaderless movements and spread ideas around the world within minutes; our interconnectedness, a boon for development but also a major vulnerability to threats, from terrorism and cyber crime to the spread of diseases like Ebola; the growing global middle class, which is driving demand for greater accountability and more freedom within states designed to suppress such instincts; and the rise of religious intolerance in the Middle East.

Global institutions are struggling to deal with these trends. It is not enough to ensure there is no conflict on our own continent, although sadly the crisis in Ukraine has shown, once again, that even Europe is not immune. Conflict anywhere in the world affects us through refugee flows, the crimes and terrorism that conflict fuels and the billions of pounds needed in humanitarian assistance, so we have to address these issues.

Second, the pursuit of sound development, inclusive politics and the rule of law are essential to our moral standing in the world, which is in turn an important factor in our international influence. As I pointed out in 2006, the US and UK suffered a loss of moral authority as a result of aspects of the War on Terror, which affected the standing of our foreign policy and the willingness of other countries to work with us, and which both President Obama’s administration and our own government worked hard to address. We are strongest when we act with moral authority, and that means being the strongest champions of our values.

Thus, neither as a matter of wise policy nor as a matter of conscience can Britain ever afford to turn aside from a global role. We have to continue to be restless advocates for improving the condition of humanity. This means continuing to forge new alliances, reforming the UN and other global institutions and enforcing the rules that govern international relations. But that will never be enough by itself, so we also have to retain the ambition to influence not just the resolutions that are passed and the treaties that are signed up to, but also the beliefs in the world about what is acceptable and what is not.

A powerful example of an issue on which we need to apply such leadership is the use of rape and sexual violence as weapons of war. I have been surprised by how deeply engrained and passive attitudes to this subject often are. Because history is full of accounts of the mass abuse of women and captives, and because there is so much domestic violence in all societies, it is a widely held view that violence against women and girls is inevitable in peacetime and in conflict.

But when we see ISIL foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria selling women as slaves and glorifying rape and sexual slavery; when we hear of refugees, who have already lost everything, being raped in camps for want of basic protections; when we see leaders exhorting their fighters to go out and rape their opponents, specifically to inflict terror, to make women pregnant, to force people to flee their homes and to destroy their families and communities; or peace agreements giving amnesty to men who have ordered and carried out rape or deliberately turned a blind eye to it; or soldiers – and even peacekeepers – committing rape due to lack of discipline, proper training, no accountability and a culture that treats women as the spoils of war, a commodity to be exploited with impunity, then we are clearly dealing with injustice on a scale that is simply intolerable, as well as damaging to the stability of those countries and the peace of the wider world.

It is often said to me that without war there would be no warzone rape, as if that is the only way to address the problem. While of course our goal is always to prevent conflict, we cannot simply consign millions of women, men, girls and boys to the suffering of rape while we seek a way to put an end to all conflict, since, as I have argued, this goal is one we should always strive for but may often not attain.

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We have shown that we can put restraints on the way war is conducted. We have put beyond the pale the use of poison gas or torture and devised the Arms Trade Treaty for the trade in illegal weapons. It is time to address this aspect of conflict and to treat sexual violence as an issue of global peace and security. The biggest obstacle we face in this campaign is the idea you cannot do anything about it – that you cannot humanise hell, that there is nothing we can do to end warzone rape. But there is hope, and we must dispel this pessimism. Over the last two years, working with NGOs, the UN and faith groups, we have brought the weight and influence of Britain to bear globally as no country ever has done before on this subject.

Over 150 countries have joined our campaign and endorsed a global declaration of commitment to end sexual violence in conflict. We brought together over 120 governments and thousands of people at a Global Summit in London in June 2014, the first of its kind. And in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Colombia we are seeing signs of governments being prepared to address this issue by passing laws and reforming their militaries.

What would it say about our commitment to human rights in our own society if we knew about such abuses but did nothing about them? And how could we be at the forefront of preventing conflict in the world if we did not act to prevent something that causes conflict in the future? Sexual violence is often designed to make peace impossible to achieve and create the bitterness and incentive for future conflict. Dealing with it is not a luxury to be added on, it is an integral part of conflict prevention, a crucial part of breaking a cycle of war. And it has to go hand in hand with seeking the full political, social and economic empowerment of women everywhere, the greatest strategic prize of all for our century.

In 2014 we commemorated those who died in the First World War and their suffering. There is no more fitting thing we can do for the sake of that memory than to face up to the hell of conflict in our lifetimes. We have never had to mobilize our population to fight in the way their generation did, and so we have been spared their painful burdens. But how much more incumbent does that make it on all of us to fight with the peaceful tools at our disposal on behalf of those who are denied, through no fault of their own, the security we consider our birthright.

Just as in Wilberforce’s day, it will always be necessary for Britain to be at the forefront of efforts to improve the condition of humanity. The search for peace and an end to conflict requires powerful ideas and the relentless defence of our values, as much it does negotiations and summits between nations. We could be heading for such turbulent times that it will be easy for some people to say we should not bother with development or tackling sexual violence in conflict or other such issues. There will always be the pressing crisis of the day that risks drowning out such long‑term causes. But, in fact, addressing these issues is crucial to overcoming crises now and in the future – and it will be an increasingly important part of our moral authority and standing in the world that we are seen to do this.

Just because there are economic crises and major social changes does not mean we or our partners can squander any day or any year in producing the ideas as well as the laws that prevent conflict and deal with some of the greatest scourges of the twenty-first century, and we must do so with confidence: for it remains the case that free and democratic societies are the only places where the ideas and the moral force we need can be found. Our times call for a renewal of that effort – for just and equitable solutions to conflict, the driving down of global inequalities and the confronting of injustices.

Every day we have to start again: there is not going to be a day in our lifetimes when we can wake up and say this work is complete. We have to overcome the sense of helplessness that says that vast problems cannot be tackled. We have to awaken the conscience of nations and stir the actions of governments. In an age of mass communication this is a task for every one of us. Whether we are in government, are diplomats, journalists, members of the armed forces, members of the public, students, faith groups or civil servants, every one of us is part of that effort.

In Britain, our restless conscience should never allow us to withdraw behind our fortifications and turn away from the world but should always inspire us to strive for peace and security, to maintain our responsibilities, seek new ways of addressing the worst aspects of human behaviour and live up to our greatest traditions.

This essay is taken from The Moral Heart of Public Service, edited by Claire Foster-Gilbert and published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, priced £15.99, on 21 June 2017.

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