The Stream of Natural Law

Springing up in Dornoch, the Stream of Natural Law symbolically flows all the way down from the Highlands of Scotland to Strasbourg, and out into the wider continent after the Second World War through the 47 signatory states of the European Convention.

This week marks the start of a 100 day countdown to the 70th anniversary of the signing of the European Convention on Human Rights. In this blog, English Cabaret describe their symbolic Stream of Natural Law that charts the different stages of David Maxwell Fyfe’s journey from Nuremberg to Strasbourg.

The song cycle Dreams of Peace & Freedom, is at the heart of our telling of David Maxwell Fyfe’s journey from Nuremberg, where he was British deputy chief prosecutor, to Strasbourg, where at the Council of Europe, he chaired the committee responsible for drafting the European Convention on Human Rights. It fuses the poetry in Fyfe’s mind as a true Romantic of the Law, with the music in the landscape along his way.  

The Stream of Natura Law – Image realized by Lily Casson

The refrain, ‘There are waters’ taken from Rupert Brooke’s War Sonnet IV – The Dead, blows through the cycle to introduce different stages along that journey. In turn, these changing waters have inspired the idea of a mythical stream of Natural Law.  Springing up in Dornoch, it symbolically flows all the way down from the Highlands of Scotland to Strasbourg, and out into the wider continent after the Second World War through the 47 signatory states of the European Convention.

In this way, those same Human Rights represent a renaissance of the ‘Camelot’ values of natural law, requiring Fyfe’s ‘faith of a romantic’ as well as cold calculating legislation.

For us, the source of that stream is history, remembered and forgotten, and for Maxwell Fyfe it sprang up amid the wild natural history and beauty of Dornoch in the Scottish Highlands. This was the childhood home of his mother Isabel, and the setting of a family tragedy during the late Highland Clearances. ‘Tome the old tales were very close’ he writes in his autobiography of the stories of his family that were a feature of youthful summer holidays, and his admiration for the astonishing beauty of this corner of Sutherland seeped into his soul and kindled a lifelong interest in justice and the law of nature. 

If the source of the Stream of Natural Law is Dornoch, it flows down country to the city of Edinburgh, heart of the Scottish Enlightenment, where David Maxwell Fyfe was born and educated at George Watson’s College. His recollections of his childhood ‘are all etched indelibly’ on his memory, firing him with the romance of Walter Scott and the enlightened natural law of James Wilson and John Witherspoon, both founding fathers of the USA. 

Maxwell Fyfe left Edinburgh in 1917. With him, the trickling stream gathers momentum, as natural justice carries dreams of a law that will bring justice to the world at war, still raging. It flows through Liverpool where Fyfe spent the first 15 years of his adult professional life working as a lawyer on the Northern Circuit before being elected Conservative MP for Liverpool West Derby, a seat he held until 1954. For Fyfe, Liverpool was law in action, bolstered by ‘two great traditions, the Liverpool Bar and the Northern Circuit.’ Most importantly, it was the place where he met his muse, lifelong partner and wife Sylvia Harrison, who was born and brought up in the city. 

A tributary of the Stream of Natural Law is Natural Justice, which runs for many miles underground and unseen. Just as the Classics that he studied at Balliol College, Oxford strengthened and deepened Maxwell Fyfe’s commitment to the law of nature described by Greek and Roman scholars, so this fount of knowledge runs below the surface, informing and feeding into the stream as it flows towards the sea of human consciousness. 

In London, the seat of Government under the law, the Stream of Natural Law becomes a river that bursts out into the sunlight once more.  Here David and Sylvia made their home and brought up their family in and around Westminster, whilst Fyfe worked in the House of Commons for 20 years. 

 Across the sea, in the city where the war crimes trials take place,this river emerges again, to wash and rewrite human freedoms.In Nuremberg,after WWII, natural justice was re-awakened after the years of barbarity. Describing the ambition the Allies had for the war crimes trials David Maxwell Fyfe writes ‘Natural justice demanded that we should inform (those on trial)  clearly what charges were against them, produce to them the evidence in which these charges were based, and give them a full opportunity of answering them.‘  

David Maxwell Fyfe’s year in the bombed city was a pivot point in his life. At the Trials he created a record of Nazi atrocities, and confronted the perpetrators. But his time there also allowed for a period of reflection which nurtured his subsequent championing of human rights. 

After his year prosecuting the Nazis in Nuremberg, David Maxwell Fyfe was ‘very anxious that we should get an international sanction in Europe behind the maintenance of …basic decencies of life.‘  Invited by Winston Churchill to take part in the Congress of Europe at the Hague in May 1948 he became a member of the inaugural Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe the following year, attending their meetings in August 1949 and 1950 which were held in Strasbourg. It was here that he chaired the committee that negotiated a draft of a Convention on Human Rights that was adopted by the Assembly of the Council of Europe and signed in November 1950. 

And so it is at Strasbourg that the river of natural law gathers momentum as it finally flows towards the sea of human consciousness, and the human rights and freedoms that were ignored during the war, are enshrined in a European Convention that tries to prevent crimes against humanity being committed again. A European Court is later established there – at the water’s edge. 

Listen to our brand new mastered recording of Dreams of Peace & Freedom at http://thehumansinthetelling.org/song-cycle/

The Law is a Living Thing

The influence of Magna Carta on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was acknowledged by Eleanor Roosevelt, when she described it as the International Magna Carta. While the UDHR defines the rights, The European Convention, as an international treaty under which signatories agree to be bound by its’ requirements was a natural successor to Magna Carta, so it seemed right to commemorate the two – the ancient and modern side by side.

In the week of the anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, Sue Casson looks at the relationship between the Great Charter and the European Convention on Human Rights as she continues her series exploring how her song cycle Dreams of Peace & Freedom developed. 

The subtle, pared down sound of Dreams of Peace & Freedom that by necessity defined our Edinburgh Fringe performances in 2014, made the idea of a pop-up tour to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the signing of the European Convention on Human Rights the following year more possible, as with a narrator and three singers, one of whom doubles on piano, we could, and did, turn up to sing in as many places with connections to Magna Carta as we could, with very little fuss.

Hold on – Magna Carta? That’s something quite different, surely? But in fact, it was just this happy coincidence that prompted our big idea that 2015 was a Big Year for Freedom

Magna Carta

Magna Carta Libertatum (to give it its’ full name – the Great Charter of Liberties) historically enshrined natural rights and freedoms into British law for the first time. It offered access to swift justice, outlawed illegal imprisonment, limited feudal payments to the king and protected the rights of the church. It has been described as the

foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.

Lord Denning (1899 – 1999)

The influence of Magna Carta on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was acknowledged by Eleanor Roosevelt, when she described it as the International Magna Carta. While the UDHR defines the rights, The European Convention, as an international treaty under which signatories agree to be bound by its’ requirements was a natural successor to Magna Carta, so it seemed right to commemorate the two – the ancient and modern side by side.

65 years since the signing of the ECHR and 800 years since King John signed the Magna Carta

When we laid out our plans for our Big Year for Freedom, we were only vaguely aware of the British government’s decision to make major changes to the Human Rights Act, which incorporates the ECHR. But as the year progressed, what had seemed a historic commemoration gradually took on the guise of political activism.

David Maxwell Fyfe provided a link between Magna Carta and the ECHR. In his speech to The American Bar Association as they unveiled their monument in Runnymede in 1957, he laid out his belief in natural law – law derived from nature or ethical reason, that exists independently of a given political order, that is at the heart of the great Charter. Just as Magna Carta protected rights that existed beyond the King’s jurisdiction, so the European Convention, which Fyfe was instrumental in drafting, provided recourse for citizens beyond the nation state, who believed their human rights were infringed.

We highlighted this when we opened our Edinburgh show with a musical setting of some of the closing lines from Magna Carta translated from the original Latin, sung alongside excerpts from this speech. There are Waters, which closed the show, was accompanied by a draft list of all the fundamental freedoms that made up the European Convention.

However, during our tour, an explicit parallel between the Magna Carta and the modern International Magna Carta, seemed missing from the song cycle. Tom laid down the gauntlet of finding a way to musically mesh the two – by somehow fusing David Maxwell Fyfe’s suggested preamble to the European Convention which he had recently discovered online, with my musical setting of Magna Carta, to make the association between the two musically clear. I came up with the idea of a descant and The International Magna Carta became the grand finale of Dreams of Peace & Freedom.

Now David Maxwell Fyfe’s personal story, and his journey from Nuremberg to Strasbourg, was encased between two great Charters, and the activism, to preserve the rights enshrined within them has become another strand to our story. When Cultural Solidarity Media, as part of a documentary of the Nuremberg Trials for Russia 1,  came to film Dreams of Peace & Freedom in June 2016, we used the film they gave us of our performance of The International Magna Carta for our pro-Remain campaign during the lead up to the referendum. 2015 was the moment our commemoration became a campaign.

Find out more about our Big Year for Freedom tour at www.kilmuirpapers.org.

Why a song cycle?

If you were telling how facts uncovered during the Nuremberg Trials led directly to the post war impulse across Europe to enshrine protection of human rights in law, music might not be an obvious choice…. though it’s the oldest way in the world.

Songwriter Sue Casson explores why David Maxwell Fyfe’s love of poetry, often quoting his favourites to drive home a legal point, made a song cycle the natural choice for a show that tells the story of his journey from Nuremberg to Strasbourg.

Recently, at a meeting where Tom Blackmore and I were pitching Dreams of Peace & Freedom, which tells the story of Tom’s grandfather, someone asked, ‘why a song cycle?’

It’s a fair question. If you were telling how facts uncovered during the Nuremberg Trials led directly to the post war impulse across Europe to enshrine protection of human rights in law, music might not be an obvious choice.

Although it is the way Tom and I have often chosen to tell a story, and as he would tell you, it’s the oldest way in the world. Troubadors since ancient times have entertained rapt audiences with mythic histories, in verse, in song – often with no more than their voice and whatever instrument was light enough to carry. What’s more, I’m a songwriter, Tom a writer – we write shows like that.

But really, that isn’t the whole story, and neither of us have put together a show quite like this before. For the link between those two important post war events was David Maxwell Fyfe, a well-read Scot, who often turned to poetry in his speeches to illustrate what he wanted to say. 

In his closing at the Nuremberg Trials, David Maxwell Fyfe quoted Rupert Brooke’s War Sonnet V – The Soldier

‘sights and sounds, dreams happy as her day,

And laughter learnt of friends, and gentleness

In hearts at peace’

are not the prerogative of one nation. They are the inalienable heritage of mankind.’

David Maxwell Fyfe quoting Rupert Brooke in his closing at the Nuremberg Trials August 1946

This speech, the first he had made at Nuremberg, and written after he had forensically examined all the evidence and confronted the perpetrators, sets out his commitment to fundamental rights and freedoms, and signals his future involvement in enshrining them in law. It is the fulcrum of his journey from Nuremberg to Strasbourg. And to drive his point home – Maxwell Fyfe, a learned lawyer – quotes a poet: Rupert Brooke. If we were looking for an opportunity to incorporate music directly into his story it was this – poetry that he had chosen, demanding a musical setting.

‘I think that HJ never quite understood why I did, or how I could, prefer the wartime sonnets of Rupert Brooke to those of his hero Wordsworth.’

David Maxwell Fyfe writing about his English teacher at George Watson’s College in his autobiography, A Political Adventure (1964)

With this as our point of inspiration, reading the other four war sonnets in Rupert Brooke’s 1914 collection, published when Fyfe was just fourteen years old, Tom was struck by the way the poetic language expressing Brooke’s idealistic values at the outset of the First World War had filtered through into his grandfather’s speeches.

In his closing at Nuremberg, he not only quotes Brooke directly, but goes on to speak of ‘heritage’, a concept that closes Brooke’s War Sonnet III. As he seeks to create an enforceable treaty to protect human rights after Nuremberg, he champions Safety (War Sonnet II has the same name) and Security, which appears in the same sonnet. Norman Birkett, a British judge at the Nuremberg Trials, goes to considerable trouble to give Fyfe a Scottish poetry collection as a leaving gift, knowing exactly what it will mean to him.

For Maxwell Fyfe delights in finding the imaginative truth through reading, on occasion writing stories and verse himself.

‘romance … is poetry in action. It comes when the inevitable moment finds the inescapable deed,’

David Maxwell Fyfe writing of the tales that defined his childhood in The Watsonion, alumni magazine of George Watson’s College

This almost defines that moment at Nuremberg, when his closing speech expresses an awareness of rights and freedoms for all. A self-confessed romantic of the law, the poetry flows through Fyfe’s conscious and unconscious mind as he expresses what he is seeking to achieve.

In Dreams of Peace & Freedom, inspirational quotations from the speeches, letters and autobiography of David Maxwell Fyfe, naturally thread through musical settings of poetry he found inspiring. The melody infuses his chosen poetic words with another unspoken dimension – emotion to reinforce the story, rather as in his speeches, the poetry heightens the tenor of his legal argument.

Fyfe praised the ‘incomparable songs’ of Scotland, and so musically setting the poetry in his heart beside his spoken words seemed not only effective, but perfectly natural. It represents the imaginative life that informs and reinforces his legal practice. Which is the real reason why his post-war dreams of peace and freedom and how he sought to achieve them, are best brought to life in a song cycle.

Dreams of Peace & Freedom, the fully mastered recording, will be launched in June 2020. Find out more at www.thehumansinthetelling.org.