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Ben Rogers: The Two Great Objects haven’t changed

Benedict Rogers, a former PPC and human rights activist specialising in South Asia with Christian Solidarity Worldwide and the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, looks at what Wilberforce might commit himself to if he were here today.

In October 1787, William Wilberforce wrote that “God Almighty has sent before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners”. Almost 220 years later, the challenges facing our society remain the same.

While Wilberforce and his friends abolished the transatlantic slave trade, and contributed to the reformation of society, slavery and social breakdown remain rife. Slavery persists in various formshuman trafficking, forced labour, sexual slavery and the forcible conscription of child soldiers – and could be extended in definition to include millions of people “enslaved” under tyrannical, brutal dictators. Binge drinking, gang violence, drugs, family breakdown and the loss of respect for others are our modern-day equivalent of the domestic problems in 18th century Britain – we need our own “reformation of manners”.

Drunkenness and depravity

William Hague’s biography of Wilberforce
includes several descriptions which bear a striking resemblance to Britain today. In a House of Lords debate in the 1740s, one speaker said: “You can hardly pass along any street in this great city, at any hour of the day, but you may see some poor creatures, mad drunk with this liquor [gin], and committing outrages in the street …” Sydney Smith said: “Everyone is drunk. Those who are not singing are sprawling. The sovereign people are in a beastly state”. Earlier that century, a commentator concluded: “If this drinking spirit does not soon abate, all our arts, sciences, trade, and manufacturers will be entirely lost, and the island become nothing but a brewery or distillery, and the inhabitants all drunkards.” In a 1796 analysis of crime, the situation was described as “a shocking catalogue of human depravity”.

Contrast that with the front page of The Times on 15 August 2007, following the murder of Garry Newlove by a gang of teenagers in Warrington. “Communities are under siege from a hardcore of anti-social, under-age drinkers while parents, drinks companies and the advertising industry ignore their duty to tackle the problem, a senior police chief said yesterday,” the article began. The UK, according to The Times, has one of the highest rates of youth drunkenness in Europe. What has changed? 

In addition to drinking and violence today, many (though by no means all) people display a total lack of respect for the elderly – or simply for their elders. They lack “manners”. There has been a near-total breakdown in respect full stop. Britain today, as in Wilberforce’s day, is a shocking catalogue of human depravity.

Zero tolerance

So what is to be done? In words foreshadowing Rudy Guliani’s record as New York Mayor 200 years later, Wilberforce favoured zero tolerance. Writing to Wyvill, he says:

“The most effectual way of preventing greater crimes is by punishing the smaller, and by endeavouring to repress that general spirit of licentiousness, which is the parent of every species of vice.”

It worked in New York. It made an impact in Wilberforce’s day. It is something we should consider returning to in some form.

I am no tee-totaller – I enjoy a drink as much as anyone else. But the effects of binge drinking are wreaking havoc on our streets. When I was a Parliamentary Candidate in the City of Durham in 2005, I went out on patrol with the police one Friday night. Within minutes the police were running from pillar to post dealing with fights and disorderly behaviour. I found it quite frightening. Binge drinking on North Road in Durham was a major local issue, and so I put out a campaign newspaper with the headline “Fight North Road Binge Drinking, says Ben Rogers”. A few days later, in the post arrived an A4 piece of paper with the words of my headline cut out and moved around: “Fight Ben Rogers, says North Road Binge Drinker.” I framed it because it amused me – but at a deeper level, it worries me about what it says about our society.

Human rights at the heart of foreign policy

As to other great object, the abolition of slavery in all its forms and with it the promotion of human rights at the heart of foreign policy, Wilberforce offers lessons for us too. Hague’s description of the challenge the abolitionists faced describes perfectly the challenge human rights activists like myself encounter today:

“Later analysis would show that only a small number of MPs became partisan supporters of either the pro- or anti-abolition forces, and that the vast majority of them formed an impressionable and persuadable group in the middle. This means that there was a second considerable hurdle in the path of Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists: the emerging facts about the slave trade which might persuade such an impressionable majority were not widely known or discussed. The writings of Thomas Clarkson and the accounts of the abominable events aboard the Zong had been noticed, but were not at the forefront of public debate … Only a handful of items related to the abolition of the slave trade appeared in leading newspapers … Even for most parliamentarians, therefore, the trade remained as it always had been: something which did not intrude into daily thoughts or conversation.”

This describes perfectly the hurdle we face today. Pick any of the human rights tragedies in the world today – Darfur, Burma, North Korea, Zimbabwe – or any of the varieties of slavery which continue, and you will find there is just a small number of MPs who actively pursue these issues. In fact, I could name them: John Bercow and Stephen Crabb on the Conservative side, David Drew and Ann Clwyd on the Labour side, and Baroness Cox and Lord Alton in the House of Lords. Of course, there are others who play good supportive roles and will add their names to letters or Early Day Motions, ask Parliamentary Questions or speak in debates, but in terms of those who, Wilberforce-like, doggedly battle to raise these issues day in, day out, they are few. Like the slave trade 200 years ago, the issues have occasionally been noticed – but they are not at the forefront of public debate. They appear in the newspapers occasionally, but for most parliamentarians they do not “intrude into daily thoughts or conversation”. Our task is to change to that.

The Parallels

It is startling, reading Hague’s biography of Wilberforce, to see how many parallels there are with our battles today. In the 18th century, there were cities like Liverpool and Bristol which were dependent on the slave trade, and as a result their MPs opposed abolition. Today, there are parts of the UK with big arms industries – and so their MPs would vigorously oppose further controls on the arms trade

The tactics of the abolitionists apply to human rights campaigns today. In addition to public awareness, fact-finding and presenting evidence to Parliament are crucial. “The ascertaining of facts would require hundreds of hours of evidence to be given and scores of witnesses to be marshalled before a series of inquiries and committees,” Hague writes. That is what the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission does through its regular hearings in Parliament. And it is what the House of Commons International Development Committee did in June when it carried out an inquiry into the Department for International Development (DFID)’s aid policy on Burma. I gave oral and written evidence to the inquiry, having made altogether 18 visits to Burma and its border areas – and the report was published last month

In assessing the question of who made a greater contribution to the cause of abolition – Wilberforce or Clarkson – and which was more important, popular campaigning or Parliamentary efforts, Hague rightly concludes: “The truth was, of course, that neither could have done it without the other.” The same is very true today – MPs need us campaigners to provide the bullets, and we need them to fire them.

Civil servants and academics – shifting ground, lacking solidity

Wilberforce’s description of opponents of abolition reminds me precisely of some of the unhelpful, obstructive civil servants in the Foreign Office and DFID:

“When they were asked questions upon this subject, they gave first one answer and then another, going from one corner to another, and shifting their ground to conceal the real infamy of the traffic, until closely pressed and unable to defend themselves any longer, they retired from it altogether and, like the rat, when the house was in flames, changed their station, and hid themselves in the corner of another building.”

In addition to the two great objects, there are other aspects of Wilberforce’s campaign that resonate today. French foreign policy was as tricky then as it is now. Would they follow Britain’s lead in abolition of the slave trade, as they indicated, or would they carry it on and reap the profits? Their approach to Burma today is precisely the same – and as difficult to trust. 

Academics have not changed either. “They had neither the solidity of judgement possessed by ordinary men of business, nor the refined feelings and elevated principles which become a studious and sequestered life,” said Wilberforce. This makes me think of many of the academics who specialise in many of the countries I deal with – the Sinologists, the Burma experts, the specialists in the Islamic world.

India’s Dalits

Then there is the issue of caste discrimination – in India and elsewhere. Caste, according to Wilberforce on 22 June 1813, is “a detestable expedient for keeping the lower orders of the community bowed down in an abject state of hopeless and irremediable vassalage … Even where slavery has existed, it has commonly been possible … for individuals to burst their bonds … But the more cruel shackles of caste are never to be shaken”. The struggle for the emancipation of the Dalits, or so-called “untouchables”, continues today.

Other issues: Hunting, religious freedom, internment and royal marriages

Wilberforce fought other battles that resonate today. He spoke in favour of banning bull-baiting. Would he have banned fox-hunting? He opposed the “Limiting of Toleration Bill” which would have enabled magistrates to refuse licences to preachers thought to be seditious. Would he have led the campaign against the Religious Hatred Bill two years ago? Surprisingly, given his commitment to the abolition of slavery, he supported the suspension of Habeas Corpus and the use of internment, to quell moves for revolution. Would he have supported 90 days and extraordinary rendition today? What would he say about Guantanamo?

What might Wilberforce have done had he been alive when the Prince of Wales and Princess Diana were going through their very public marital crises and ultimate separation? After all, he was involved in a failed attempt to mediate between a previous Prince of Wales, the future King George IV, and Caroline of Brunswick. Following their disastrous marriage in 1795, Caroline, writes Hague, “spent many solitary hours at Carlton House, generally shunned by the Prince and the Queen, until she finally revolted”. She became very popular with the British people, “seen by the public as the victim of an ungrateful Prince and an unwelcoming Queen”. She entertained widely, had affairs and became the focus of much gossip, before being seduced by an Italian lover with whom she travelled Europe. The Prince and Princess led entirely separate lives, though she continued to enjoy “a level of popularity in Britain which far exceeded that of the Prince and caused him huge embarrassment and anguish”. Sound familiar?

Reading Hague’s biography of Wilberforce – the best of all the biographies available, extraordinarily well researched and captivatingly written – it is clear that Wilberforce has much to teach us today. We may not agree with him on everything. Doubtless there would be readers who would be as shocked as I am that he supported the suspension of Habeas Corpus and the introduction of internment without trial. There would be some in the fox-hunting brigade who would feel uneasy at his support of a ban on bull-baiting. But in his determined campaign against slavery, and his efforts to fight social breakdown and disorder, we can find not only inspiration but a shared struggle – because it continues to this day. Will we find the will to complete what he started?


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