Life & Culture

‘We’re all Jewish now’

Human rights lawyer Adam Wagner is the media go-to for explaining the UK's new Covid restrictions. It's all very talmudic, he tells Lee Harpin


With his frequent television and radio appearances over the Covid-19 pandemic assessing the latest round of government legislation, the barrister Adam Wagner has become something of a familiar face and voice.

But on the rainy evening when we speak — with another complex court case on-going from earlier that day and into the next — there are more pressing demands to consider, such as being around to do bath time for his kids.

Father to a six-year-old daughter and a ten-year-old son from his marriage to the respected film lecturer and writer Julia Wagner, he muses that the uncertainty of the pandemic year has left us all reflecting on what really matters.

“We are always talking about the importance of family, of friends, of your children’s education, those kind of things,” reasons the New North London synagogue regular.

“But when these things start to be interfered with, I think everybody will come out appreciating those things in a different way… and will have learned what it is we truly prioritise, and what is important.”

Looking in from the outside, it seems entirely possible to imagine that Wagner manages to balance the demands of home life with that of his career in the legal profession, where he has emerged as one of our foremost experts in human rights law.

Although quite how he manages to fit in everything he does is not so clear.

Ever since the pandemic first struck last March, alongside his work with Doughty Street Chambers, he has gone out of his way to scrutinise the government’s often bewilderingly complex Covid regulations in a series of regular podcasts, on Twitter and on YouTube.

Often burning the midnight oil to access legislation published late at night, minutes after it becomes law, he has won acclaim for his videos, explainers and tweets, which have made often complex rule changes understandable to us all.

“It is like one big Talmud lesson in a way,” he says of the ever changing social-distancing regulations. “These laws are very strange laws — I sympathise with the way the government got themselves into this way of acting.

“It started with 12 pages, and there are now 120. It is because there are so many exceptions.

“It’s like the halachah. You start with something simple, then there are thousands of exceptions. You then spend the rest of your life assessing whether your actions fall into the ‘spirit’ of the law.”

His media appearances included ITV’s Good Morning Britain where he was quizzed by Piers Morgan about whether it was illegal to sit on a park bench, and more sedate airings on Radio 4’s Today programme.

This week, he was widely quoted on the BBC and in newspapers, suggesting advice given to Strictly Orthodox Jewish community members by their leaders about weddings had often hit the “wrong tone,” although he added that it was at last beginning to improve.

But to those who have known him well since pre-Covid days, Wagner has been equally prominent within the community.

He says it was a “privilege” to act for the Campaign Against Antisemitism in the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) Investigation into Labour’s handling of antisemitism complaints under Jeremy Corbyn.

But he also speaks of the threats and intimidation that he faced as a result of his involvement in the EHRC probe.

“I think I was, and I think a lot of Jewish people were beginning to wonder what would happen if there was a government where antisemitism was tolerated,” he says now, reflecting on this time.

There have also been frequent past speaking appearances at Limmud festivals, op-eds written for this newspaper and others. Until a few months ago he was also a board member and trustee at New North London where he regularly runs the younger children’s service.

A former mazkir of Habonim Dror, where he has also been a trustee for around 15 years, it is perhaps unsurprising that Wagner takes aspects of Judaism into his work on the impact of Covid-19 on our everyday lives from a human rights point of view.

“ I’ve noticed Jewish organisations are particularly comfortable with complex, slightly illogical rules,” he says. “They are very comfortable figuring out how to work with them.

“The whole thing is very Jewish in a way — to be bound by rules in our everyday lives.

“Every time we wake up until we go to bed at night is bound by strict rules. You have to talk to authorities to figure out how to interpret them. It’s a very Jewish mode. The whole country has got used to being Jewish.”

Wagner — a visiting professor of law at Goldsmith’s, University of London — stresses that he does not object to the use of laws to enforce lockdown. But that doesn’t mean he accepts all the measures without criticism. He speaks of “ pros and cons.”

Because the government has “over complicated things massively” he wanted to offer people somewhere to turn to so they could understand the often-vague lockdown law. A founder of the human rights charity EachOther that provides free human rights information and news to all, he believes passionately in making the law acessible and understandable.

“I have always had very mixed feelings about the lockdowns which I have tried to express publicly throughout,” he says.

“It is very, very difficult. If you look at it from a human rights lens you are balancing the right to life, which is the primary right really because others rights aren’t much good if you are dead, you are balancing that against others things.

“Whereas the laws of the lockdown have been unprecedented in modern legal history — I guess we will never know how many lives we would have saved had we locked down harder or earlier.

“From my perspective I don’t think I would have been against stricter rules if we were fairly sure that would have saved lives.”

It is the way that laws were enacted that Wagner calls “problematic.”

He has frequently argued that legislation needed proper parliamentary scrutiny.

“The government have got pretty much unlimited power,” he says. “And as we as Jews are very sensitive to, it’s never been good to give governments unlimited power, even governments with good intentions.”

Human rights law, he believes, is meant to be for everyone — unlike divorce law, or tax law “where you come across it every now and then.”

He often speaks of Europe’s descent into fascism and Nuremburg trials which followed in understanding how the human rights system developed to limit the power of governments even during times of fear and emergency . Of course, Covid-19 conspiracy theorists and deniers use fascist comparisons to criticise Covid restrictions on liberties. He is eager to point out the difference in his approach.

The Nuremburg trials marked, he says, the very origins of the modern human rights system.

“The reason human rights laws were developed was to try to put in early warning systems for societies that were becoming illiberal,” he says.

“I would never say the way the current government is working is totalitarian or fascist. I think that is an absurd comparison.

“People are very quick, as we all know, to go to an absolute as a comparison and the comparison is usually absolute nonsense.

“One thing we have inherited from that time is human rights protection. I think Jewish people have an extra sensitivity to these issues. We’re still suffering the post-traumatic stress of nearly being obliterated in Europe.

“And we should be vigilant about not just threats to ourselves, but threats to other people, to our liberties, to the certainties of our lives being taken away.”

Wagner is hopeful that government’s impressive vaccine roll-out now signals a way out of a horrendous year for the country, and for the world in general.

He is encouraged that protecting the vulnerable appears to be a priority here, when a decision could well have been taken “to let the virus run riot.”

Wagner also points to the success of the furlough scheme, and the decision to plough funds into school laptops for kids, something that he played a rle in by acting in a legal challenge to the government’s lack of speed in tackling the problem of online access for home schooling.

But he worries that with the enforcement of so many new laws we may have “crossed a Rubicon” whereby there is an expectation that governments will behave in a certain way in the face of an infectious virus.

“We have got figure out if what we did is right,” he says. “Could we have done things different and better? Can we build a plan for when or if there is going to be another pandemic, because they do happen quite regularly.

“It’s much harder to plan for the future than it is to act for the moment.”

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