It is a great honour to accept the Praeses Elit award from so ancient and august an institution as Trinity College. It is also a pleasure to address the Trinity College Law Society. As you may know, I myself am a lawyer. In 1972 I almost became a law professor – but chose instead to go into politics. The rest, as they say, is history.
We seldom stop to think how radically the world has changed since the beginning of the 20th century: it is not only the material conditions in which we live that have changed out of all recognition, but perhaps, more significantly, many of our core values and social attitudes.At the beginning of the 20th century Europeans still believed that they had some almost divinely ordained right to rule distant peoples in Africa, Asia and the Americas. They thought they had a special calling to bring civilization and Christianity to what they dismissively regarded as “lesser peoples”. This was despite the fact that some of these peoples – particularly in Asia – had glittering civilisations that far outshone anything in Europe before the 18th century. It was the era of Pax Britannica, of District Commissioners – from Nigeria to Malaya – dressing for dinner in remote hilltop stations – and dispensing justice to the natives.
As always, the expression of noble motives often masked naked exploitation. The litany is long and shameful – from the decimation of the native peoples of the Americas; to the slave trade; to the Opium Wars; to the extermination of the entire aboriginal population of Tasmania; and the awful depredations of Leopold II in the Congo.
Racial, gender and class discrimination were regarded as natural and acceptable facets of relationships between human beings.
- It was the era of ‘Jim Crow’ in the United States in terms of which black Americans were subjected to rigid racial segregation in every aspect of their lives.
- Women – who had not yet been given the vote – experienced extreme discrimination in virtually every aspect of their personal and professional lives.
- Oscar Wilde landed in Reading Jail.
- European nations were still riddled with class distinctions manifested in the rigid stratification of society – which strangely enough we now enjoy revisiting in TV series such as Downton Abbey.
Of course, it would be wrong to see imperialism only as a process of exploitation and repression. European powers did bring law, education and modern medicine to the territories that they ruled. In India the British united the warring states and left the subcontinent with railways, a sound system of law, uncorrupt administration, and cricket.
After World War II attitudes toward imperialism and race began to change quite radically. A number of factors were involved:
- There was universal revulsion at the racial ideology of the Nazis and Japanese that had led to some of the worst atrocities in human history;
- European powers were exhausted and wanted to concentrate their limited resources on rebuilding their economies – rather than on retaining distant, troublesome and unprofitable colonies;
- The United States, the emergent super power, had made it clear in the Atlantic Charter that it wanted Europe to dismantle its colonial empires.
The value systems that western societies had long professed began to catch up with them:
- John Locke’s assertion that all mankind were “equal and independent” and Josiah Wedgwood’s slogan against slavery “Am I not a Man and a Brother” began to permeate British attitudes and raised doubts regarding the morality of subjugating “men and brothers” of colour in Britain’s vast empire.
- In 1776 the founders of the United States declared that they held “these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It was bitterly ironic that Thomas Jefferson and many of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence were themselves slave-owners.
- The central themes of the Declaration of Independence were subsequently adopted by French revolutionaries in their call for “Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité”.
Despite the continuation of slavery in the United States and the expansion of the British and French Empires during the 19th century, these resounding affirmations of equality had been spliced into the DNA of Western civilization.