Sian MacLeod

Sian MacLeod

UK Ambassador to Serbia

Part of UK at the OSCE

19th May 2016

Making the Case for Tolerance


This afternoon I will attend a memorial service in the City of London’s Guildhall to celebrate the long, eventful life of Sir Nicholas Winton, who died last year aged 106.

As a young man, Sir Nicholas travelled briefly to Prague in 1938 to help a friend facilitating urgent evacuation of refugees from the looming Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. He saw an urgent need to address the needs of children at risk. So, with a team of volunteers, he organised the evacuation of more than 660, mainly Jewish, children, finding homes for them in Britain.

Sir Nicholas did not talk to his own family about this episode in his life until reunited with the ‘children’ decades later by a BBC television programme. In the meantime his subsequent decades of voluntary work for the elderly had been recognised by a decoration from the Queen. His story is essentially one of humanity, compassion and one young man’s response to intolerance, discrimination and inhumanity.

For centuries philosophers and political scientists have made a compelling case for tolerating that which does not threaten the well being of others. The world’s great faiths preach tolerance. Tolerance and non-discrimination are written in to myriad international documents. Why then are they so elusive?

Last week I listened to an Austrian expert on tolerance. Disarmingly candid, Dr Schindlauer said he was “not feeling too successful just now” as he painted a picture of rising populist movements, backward steps on equality and use of the word ‘tolerance’ as term of ridicule. He made a good case for focusing on persuading majorities that tolerance of minorities is also in their own interests.

Most of us have the capacity for tolerance and intolerance. In everyday life we can be irritated by people whose behaviour does not conform to the habits of our own culture or societal norms.  Our capacity for intolerance becomes much more dangerous when heightened by fear: fear of the unknown, fear of difference, fear of change. Education and upbringing plays an important role in teaching us to accept and value difference and dispel the fears that stem from ignorance.

But it is not enough simply to make the moral case for tolerance. Nor even to advocate the need to ‘Do-as-you-would-be-done-by’, in the words of a classic British children’s book. Even strong legal frameworks and government policies that promote equality and non-discrimination cannot guarantee prevention of crime, abuse and everyday discrimination linked to prejudice on grounds of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or disability.

Cycling through the Austrian countryside last weekend passing idyllic flowery cornfields, watching larks and hares in the spring sunshine, and mentally superimposing television images of inner city riots, or angry scenes at European borders, made me think again about how we make those arguments to dispel unfounded fear and persuade the privileged to accept change and share benefits. None of the challenges and problems we face on our continent will be solved or alleviated by intolerance.

Tolerance is essential for harmony and well being in our communities, for political stability and security in our countries and across on our continent. Intolerance breeds insecurity and instability. It can lead to violence and conflict. And it is a barrier to reconciliation.

This is why tolerance is central to the OSCE’s human dimension and the organisation’s comprehensive approach to security. Promoting tolerance is integral to the work of the OSCE, its institutions and its field operations.

It now seems hard to believe that within living memory the only hope of survival for thousands of children in the heart of Europe was to be bundled onto trains in Prague, Vienna, Berlin and elsewhere, taken from their families to live with strangers in Britain.  Children on a final train organised by Nicholas Winton were prevented from leaving Prague and lost their lives. Their deaths, like so many others in war and conflict, had nothing to do with geopolitics or military strategy and everything to do with inhumanity and intolerance.

Tolerance is not a passive state. It is not a synonym for inaction or indifference, least of all indifference to injustice or to violation of fundamental rights. I hope that this year the OSCE participating states can agree on a bold statement on the universal need for tolerance and non-discrimination for people of all faiths and none, that demonstrates moral authority and sends a clear message that resonates far beyond the multilateral negotiating tables of the Hofburg.

The UK’s former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it elegantly: we all need to make space for difference. As OSCE states we also have a responsibility to be able to say that, like Sir Nicholas Winton, we made a difference.

Many ‘Winton’ children have devoted much of their adult energy to helping others. One of them, Lord (Alf) Dubbs has been instrumental in campaigning for the UK to take in Syrian refugee children. On Friday evening a London concert in memory of Sir Nicholas will raise money to support Syrian child refugees. Even after his death he continues to make a difference – and the case for humanity and tolerance.

2 comments on “Making the Case for Tolerance

Comments are closed.

About Sian MacLeod

Sian Macleod was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Republic of Serbia in September 2019. Prior to this, Sian was Ambassador and Head of the UK Delegation to the Organization…

Sian Macleod was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Republic of Serbia in September 2019. Prior to this, Sian was Ambassador and Head of the UK Delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Sian joined the FCO in 1986. Her first posting was to Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, she served briefly in the Embassy in Vilnius. Since then she has been posted to The Hague, returned to Moscow 2004-7, where she became Minister (Deputy Head of Mission). Between overseas postings she has worked in the FCO and the Cabinet Office.

Sian was Ambassador in Prague from 2009 to 2013 and then Director of the British Council Triennial Review and FCO Additional Director for the Eastern European & Central Asian Directorate.

Sian is married to Richard Robinson and they have three children and enjoy music, cycling and cross-country skiing.

Before joining the FCO she studied music at the Winchester School of Art and the Royal Academy of Music.