Saturday, 26 April 2008

William Hague: Practical Politics, Principled Faith

I have just read the transcript of William Hague's lecture at Westminster Cathedral. This was delivered last Thursday, the latest in the series of "Cardinal's Lectures". If you go to the Cardinal's Lectures page on the Westminster Archdiocese website, and follow the relevant links, you will find the transcript.

I found this the most interesting and informative of the lectures so far, partly because I have not read much about William Wilberforce and the abolition of the slave trade and partly becuase I think the lecture communicates very well William Hague's own genuine interest in the topic and in its implications for the present day.

I make no apology for including in this case a heavy dollop of history for this is history that should inspire the minds and lift the hearts of generations to come.

What I found the most interesting part of the transcript is where William Hague identifies the lessons that can be drawn from the story of the abolition of the slave trade and applied to present day circumstances. He starts by recognising two things that the campaigners brought to their activity that other political activists could not have supplied.

For first, they brought breathtaking stamina, a determination to pursue their objective irrespective of the time taken to achieve it ...Their utter conviction that they would be judged on their work left them not only unwilling to give up a cause they had adopted but, in their own minds, unable to do so, since they believed their cause had been set before them by God.

Secondly, these people, due to their decision to engage in public life rather than abstain from it, brought to their campaign to abolish the slave trade something without which it could not have succeeded, and the absence of which left it a far weaker cause across most of Western Europe, namely, an ethical framework and unshakeable moral force. .... For although they exploited a measure of national self-interest to destroy part of the Atlantic slave trade, no amount of self-interest on its own would have dictated the total and permanent abolition of a large lucrative trade, and the deployment of the Royal Navy to interdict it on the high seas. In the end, a “fit of altruism” was required from a British Parliament not normally used to such feelings. They had to be persuaded that, in the words of Wilberforce, involvement in the slave trade was, “A national crime of the deepest moral malignity....a system of the grossest injustice, of the most heathenish irreligion and immorality, of the most unprecedented degradation, and unrelenting cruelty”.

These two aspects, brought to the campaign by people of strong religious belief, would today be described in Catholic thinking as a manifestation of Christian conscience. The campaigners acted in response to the promptings of their conscience, a conscience informed by their Christian faith. What mattered to them was that they stood and worked for what was right, even if the prospects of success were not good. It is a very good example of "acting in accord with your conscience" because it shows itself as obedience to an obligation, not as deciding for yourself, and it illustrates how such action is primarily prompted by one's own sense of worth rather than by any intention to be critical of the morality of others.

William Hague goes on to identify two further lessons:

...what was out of sight for so long to the British public and its leaders was deemed for many decades to be acceptable to them. In a world without photographic or recording devices, the people of Britain could not see the slaves being shackled in the narrow confines of the slave ships, they could not smell the terrible conditions aboard such a vessel in mid-Atlantic, and they could not hear the weeping of the families separated and sold in the slave markets of Barbados and Jamaica. It was only when the facts and evidence were laid before them that thinking people concluded that, in the words of the great campaigner, Thomas Clarkson, “some person should see these calamities to their end”.

... When the British slave trade was abolished in 1807, the bicentenary of which we have recently celebrated, the campaigners believed they were, “laying the axe at the very root” of slavery itself. But in fact it would turn out that as long as slavery remained legal and acceptable a huge slave trade would continue, either in defiance of the laws of Britain or under cover of the laws of others. As long as the end use, the state of slavery, was tolerated, the trade in slaves could not be annihilated.

The lessons for today are that hidden injustices need to be brought into the open for people to see and therefore to drive change in society, and the end use or demand for unjust or immoral activity needs to be removed before a trade in it will disappear altogether.

William Hague identifies three different sources of financial profit from international organised crime that in some ways parallel the former slave trade: the trade in illegal drugs, the trade in weapons and trafficking in people. You can perhaps readily see how all four of the lessons previously identified can be applied to these three phenomena. I found most thought provoking the fact that the arms trade was included here, identifying both the scale of the violence that it fuels and the thought that some 95% of illegal arms sales have their origin in legal sales - legal safeguards are clearly ineffective.

One could add to William Hague's three contemporary examples the question of abortion, though to be accurate to his lecture, I should point out that William Hague does not include it. Those who are active in the pro-life movement can perhaps recognise ways in which it addresses all four of the lessons that William Hague draws from the story of the abolition of the slave trade.

For all four of these issues there is a contribution to campaigning for change that religious believers can make that others cannot. Speaking of modern day human trafficking, William Hague concluded his lecture with words that could be applied to all four issues:

Just as a moral context, stretching out across society, and ultimately across nations was necessary to complete the abolition of the old slave trade, so it is needed now. It is needed to raise awareness of the cruelty, subjugation and deception in our midst. It is needed to change the values and mindsets of the end users of modern slavery, whether their use of it is deliberate or incidental. And, it is needed to change the climate in which business and political decisions are made, so that businesses know they must prohibit the use of slave labour and that other countries sign the Council of Europe’s Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings.

I believe this twenty-first century slave trade, this scourge of the modern world which brings misery to millions can be defeated. But it will only be defeated if we challenge the traffickers’ dominance by simultaneously attacking supply and demand through a strong international alliance of different groups: governments, politicians, faith-based organisations, charities, businesses and grassroots campaigners, with a shared common purpose. We all must collaborate, and reinforce each other’s efforts, focusing heart, soul, mind and strength, to destroy every trace of this “crime of the deepest moral malignity”. We need once again principled faith to play its role in practical politics. And I doubt that we could do without it.

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