History of the
delivered on November 2, 1992, by
The Right Honourable Lord Archer of Sandwell, QC
(This is Lord Peter Archer, not to be confused with the
the infamous Lord Jeffrey Archer)
of my generation have an irritating habit of making references
which those who have superseded us in the stream of history find
unintelligible. After I had suggested the title for this talk, I
gathered that a number of younger members of the Society had no
idea what I was blathering about. Let me explain, and my
contemporaries who knew the story in their childhood, will
William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, was upbraided by
the purists for allowing his hymns to be sung to the secular
tunes of the period, which were being belted out by irreverent
people in music halls, he replied, "Why should the Devil
have all the best tunes?"
saw nothing compromising in using techniques which were being
applied to less worthy objectives, and adapting them to a
are sometimes debates in the field of human rights between
purists and pragmatists. And now it must be clear that,
normally, I am on the side of the pragmatists, unless the means
which are suggested in a particular situation diminish the
objective itself. I would not suggest, for example, that the
Society should resolve its financial constraints by employing
slave labour, although there may be those on the staff who would
claim that we do so already.
hope to be forgiven if I devote the first part of this talk to
some history. Between 1787, when the pioneers of our Movement
formed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and
1807, when Parliament abolished slave trading in British ships
and by British subjects, a new science was invented. In those
twenty years, there emerged the science of political lobbying.
closely-knit group set about employing techniques of persuasion
which are now in common use, but were then developed for the
first time. They are now used for a variety of purposes, some
dubious, but they were invented in the name of a great cause. So
they were not even the Devil’s tunes; he whipped them from the
Saints in the first place.
set about persuading members of Parliament to abolish the slave
trade in areas which lay within the jurisdiction of the British
Parliament. They won one of the most complete and outright
victories for a great cause in human history. But as with so
many moral victories, when they arrived, they found not that
they were looking down on Eldorado, but that they were simply
confronted by the next stage of the journey.
o’er the hills, and Alps on Alps arise", wrote Pope. In
particular the abolition of the slave trade left slavery itself
intact. In many British possessions economic activity still
depended on slaves. And the children of slaves provided the next
generation of slaves.
was no time for celebratory feasting. They embarked on the next
assault. And in 1833 they secured the passage of another Bill by
Parliament, to abolish slavery itself in all British
possessions. You might have thought that all the champagne which
there was no time to drink in 1807 would now be consumed, and a
band of brothers and sisters would be wishing one another a
happy retirement. But it was not to be.
until 1833 they were concerned largely with slavery in the
British Empire. Should they then proceed to attack slavery in
other countries? Some, even among the leaders, believed that
what other countries did was not the business of British
campaigners. After the 1833 Act, T B Macaulay said that his
commitment was now ended. And Sir George Stephen, the historian
of the group, said that the Movement should now wind itself up.
But for others, human rights were indivisible. Anyone’s
slavery diminishes me.
division within the Movement presented at least a clear and
simple issue. Sometimes, issues even of principle were not so
clear. In 1840, there was a great political controversy in
Britain as to whether import duties on foreign sugar should be
maintained. Generally, those in the liberal tradition believed
that they should be abolished, so that there would be genuine
competition, and people could buy sugar at prices which they
could afford. Not surprisingly the West Indian sugar planters
wanted the duties maintained so that they could retain their
monopoly of the British market.
should the Anti-Slavery Movement stand? They lost little sleep
about the living standards of the West Indian planters. But the
slaves whom they had worked so hard to free were now
wage-earners and dependent for their jobs on the sugar
plantations. Was the Anti-Slavery Movement to support a campaign
which would leave them jobless and regretting that they had ever
was a further consideration. Before 1833, the campaigners had
been met with the argument that to free the slaves would bring
economic ruin to the West Indies. They had replied that it need
do no such thing. It was possible to run a prosperous industry
with free labour. And where they were campaigning to free slaves
in other countries, they were involved in the same debate. If
now they supported a measure which would bring economic ruin to
the West Indies, it would destroy their credibility.
there was a consideration which concerned them even more. If
they created a free market in sugar, it would admit foreign
sugar which had itself been produced by slave labour in areas
over which the British Parliament had no jurisdiction. British
purchasers would be encouraging slavery. Yet to oppose the
campaign for making the British public free to buy cheap sugar
would lose them the support of the very groups in Britain who
had been their natural allies. And the Anti-Slavery Movement was
divided, not about ends, but about means; not about hymns, but
was yet a further reason why, after 1833, it could not be said
that they lived happily ever after. Although they had campaigned
throughout the country, their purpose was to persuade people
who, in turn, would persuade or pressurize their MPs. And those
who could persuade MPs were themselves a very small group in the
population. So the campaign for hearts and minds was directed at
a very limited number of hearts, and perhaps even fewer minds.
The MPs, we must remember, were members of the old, unreformed,
House of Commons. So although there were Anti-Slavery groups in
various localities, the leadership lay firmly within a small
group in London, and specifically in Clapham.
1832, the year before slavery was abolished, the great Reform
Act was passed. There was now a different House of Commons.
Members were much more responsive to much larger numbers of
electors. Future campaigns would need to be addressed to a wider
public. Local groups needed to be more active, more flexible,
more responsive to local conditions, and correspondingly less
dependent on central leadership. And these people in the sticks
wanted to chip in their two-penn’orth on questions of policy.
gap had opened even before 1833 between the leadership and those
whom Stephen called "the Young England Abolitionists".
These even formed a separate organisation, the Agency
Anti-Slavery Society, directing their activities much more in
the direction of forming mass opinion.
had little time for the political skills of the old guard. The
1807 and 1833 Acts were products of private conversations over a
meal, of deals and compromises, and of recognizing what options
were available. The Clapham evangelists were men of principle,
but they practised the art of the possible. The Young England
Abolitionists saw the issue as a moral crusade, part of the
eternal struggle of Good against Evil. They would settle for
nothing less than the immediate and total abolition of slavery
the campaign for the 1833 Act, Buxton, who was leading the fight
in Parliament in succession to Wilberforce, grasped that they
could achieve their objective only if the slave owners were
compensated. Otherwise, a majority in Parliament would believe
abolition to amount to a confiscation of private property. He
managed to persuade the British Government to put up the money,
£15m. He took it and ran. The British taxpayer was compensating
the slave owners for their wickedness. Furthermore, there was a
demand that when they were freed, the slaves should continue as
unpaid apprentices for the remainder of their lives. Buxton
negotiated a compromise. All slaves above the age of six would
serve as apprentices, on an unpaid basis, for three quarters of
the working day, over a period of six years. It was the best
deal he could negotiate, and he took it.
those compromises, there would have been no 1833 Act. But the
radical wing of the Movement accused him of selling out. Two
years ago, I managed to obtain a copy of Charles Buxton’s
biography of his father (not an easy quest these days). He
quotes Buxton’s notes of a conversation with Sturge, the
leader of the Young England Group:
Sturge acknowledged the purity of my motives, he added:
"But it cannot be denied that you acted against the wish
of many of the delegates, and if you had stood firm the
planters would have got no compensation". "Perhaps
so", said I, "they no compensation, and we no
extinction of slavery".
was yet a third occasion for discord in the Movement. And it
remains with us. When they began to look abroad, it was clear
that there was so much slavery in the world, and the problem so
vast, that unless they selected specific goals, their energies
and resources would be dissipated. Yet understandably, some
emphasised one goal, some another. Some spent their time
supporting the Anti-Slavery movement in Africa. But that
Movement itself was split, and the splits were reflected among
the British who became involved. Buxton was interested in
Africa, and formed the African Civilization Society. Others
formed the British Indian Society. Sturge was chiefly concerned
to ensure that, now that slavery was no longer lawful in the
West Indies, the law was observed (a problem of which those in
this room could quote examples).
very magnitude of the tasks led to a fragmentation from which
the Anti-Slavery Movement has never recovered. It coalesced
again in this Society, but at the price that it renounced the
advantages of an active mass membership. The membership here
today, if I may say so respectfully, while it appears formidable
in this hall, consists of a well-informed and creative minority.
of us who are here can usually achieve a high degree of
consensus. And that is an advantage which may well be worth
retaining. But no human rights movement can have it both ways.
If we are to speak on behalf of a mass membership, we cannot at
the same time retain the cohesion which we now enjoy.
endeth the history lesson. But since this Society has recently
embarked with some success on the arts of mass communication, we
are in hope, or at risk (depending on your viewpoint), of
harnessing our expertise to a support more widespread than we
have known in the past. And it is well that we should recognize
the issues before they overtake us.
we still need to identify geographical and subject areas on
which we should concentrate. It is not a question only of where
human suffering is greatest. We need to take account of where
political conditions are such that we are most likely to achieve
a dividend on our efforts. And that taxes not so much the head
as the heart, since according priority to some areas, and some
subjects, is necessarily relegating others to the second rank.
It is a choice which has to be made if the best is not to become
the enemy of the good.
we have heard examples tonight of the achievements which this
Society can legitimately claim within the framework of the
United Nations and its agencies. But to overload the agenda of
the Sub-Commission on Minorities may be counterproductive, and
to insist on discussing one item may kill the prospects of an
effective debate on another. To send a researcher to one country
may entail renouncing the prospect of discovering some vital
information in another.
sturdy communicator of my youth, C S Lewis, remarked that the
strategy of the Devil is "to have them all running around
with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood".
is an even more difficult issue of principle. Wilberforce and
the Clapham Sect, together with such supporters as John Wesley,
believed not only that slaves should be freed, but that
indigenous peoples in places like Africa and India should be
taught the benefit of Western civilization and, in particular,
the Christian religion in its Western cultural setting. For
them, freeing slaves, reading the Bible and wearing trousers
were very much interrelated. But that was not the view of all
the Anti-Slavery campaigners.
believed that the tribes whose members supplied the raw material
for the slave trade, once given their
freedom, should be left to enjoy it as their hearts dictated.
problems of imposing Western values on indigenous people,
disentangling slavery from its cultural context, divided even my
socialist forbears. Characters as diverse as Keir Hardy,
George Lansbury, and Lenin, divided as they were on many other
things, all believed that indigenous peoples should be free to
decide their own destinies. What was necessary is that the
Western colonial powers should get out of their lives. And how
they treated one another after that, could be left to the
future. But J A Hobson and some of the early Fabians saw that
nationalism as an antidote to colonialism was not an unmixed
blessing. A government which was selfishly nationalistic,
particularly if it controlled the major source of raw materials,
could impose grave economic burdens on the rest of the world.
More particularly for our purpose, national sovereignty could
mean simply the power of an oligarchy within an indigenous
community to oppress minorities, or sometimes to oppress
everyone. And in our generation there are examples enough of
that. Rosa Luxemburg commented that nationalism is the upturned
glass into which every generation pours its own political
is a people to use the sovereignty which it has newly won?
Ghandi used to speak of Swaraj. He explained to his
contemporaries that self-rule was inconsistent with being ruled
by the British. But he went on to explain that it was not to be
equated with no rule at all. Self-rule means ruling ourselves.
And that presented a whole range of problems like
constitution-drafting, persuading majorities to vote for you
without selling out minorities, and all the things which go to
used to be believed that what a sovereign government did to its
own subjects was a matter between itself and the subjects. They
must resolve their political differences by whatever means lay
to hand, but the rest of the world was not entitled to intervene
in a family quarrel. It required events this century, not among
developing peoples but in Europe, to persuade the international
community that there are some ways in which a government can
treat its subjects for which our consciences cannot find so
simple an alibi.
have heard tonight of the various United Nations commissions and
agencies where the global community can express its consensus,
and pass judgment on those who fall below its standards. And it
is true that even the most tyrannical governments, indeed
sometimes particularly the most tyrannical governments, go to
some trouble to avoid international condemnation.
battle which is already won is the recognition in principle that
the sovereignty of a government does not extend to a right to
ignore the international consensus. Stephen and Macaulay were
wrong about that in 1833. But to recognize it in principle is
far from applying it to specific cases, where there is room to
wriggle and to lie. And we the peoples cannot leave the job of
enforcing standards to governments, however well disposed. They
have other fish to fry. They do not go looking for problems. An
abuse about which no-one is protesting can be left unremarked,
for they prefer a quite life. The initiative, as in 1787, must
come from non-governmental organisations.
must begin by trying to persuade the government concerned or
(remembering that governments are not homogeneous) to strengthen
the hand of our friends within the government. But even when the
decision is taken in principle, governments do tend to let their
attention wander, and they have constantly to be reminded.
is not usually that governments consist of cruel people (though
some do). Most consist of busy people, who will intervene in the
last resort only if it becomes more uncomfortable to do nothing
than to take action.
next step is to argue the case in the international fora, and to
apply an expanding and detailed body of international law to the
problem. What we still lack, as the Chairman pointed out this
evening, is a sanction in the last resort for those who break
for us, it raises some uncomfortable questions. Should we
withhold aid from countries with a bad record on human rights.
There are two arguments against doing so.
it introduces a distinction in respect of human rights
obligations between rich and poor countries. It implies that the
rich can behave outrageously, while the poor can be called to
account. Secondly, human rights are likely to benefit if the
economy of a country can be improved. It is where human life is
economically cheap that is most likely to be politically cheap.
And so, it is said, to withhold aid would be to punish the
victims themselves twice over.
that argument is less persuasive where aid is used not to build
up the economy, but to improve the living standards of an
oligarchy, and where it does not percolate down to the
further argument which has sometimes been used is that it is
difficult to construct a method for measuring human rights. I
was cheered to see that the United Nations Human Development
Report for 1991 was optimistic. It points out that there was no
way of calibrating heat until Celsius invented one.
hope that we can settle on two principles which should be in the
mind of those who administer aid. First, there should be a bonus
for countries which are genuinely trying to establish a
participatory democracy. Where possible, aid should be directed
to improvements in the education system, and to the building of
democratic institutions. And that might provide economic
incentives to abolish slavery.
aid should not be given for a project which itself entails an
infringement of human rights. A dam or other construction which
is to be built with slave labour should not attract an aid
project. In 1977, the United Kingdom stopped aid to developing
the mining industry in Bolivia because of the conditions in
none of this is simple. Governments of developing countries are
understandably touchy about allocating aid to specific projects.
Sovereignty, once achieved, dies hard. Secondly, it is not
always easy to monitor the destination of aid budgets. When the
United States embarked on that policy, for its bilateral aid, it
found that it needed to establish a network of field officers to
monitor where the aid was going, and they were not always
popular in the countries where they operated. Some recent
research suggests that there is still no very high correlation
between receiving US aid and having a good human rights record.
And thirdly, donor countries have other fish to fry. Aid which
was withheld from Uganda during the Amin regime was replace by
aid from the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia and Libya. No sanctions
will be easy until we the peoples have persuaded the governments
of the world to establish clearer and readier sanctions. And it
is not surprising that governments resist what they see as a
potential rod for their own backs.
a further difficulty for a movement like ours is that the
research, the thought, and the expertise which we try to supply
may themselves obscure the broad principles which mark the
difference between light and darkness, and which inspire the
best of people to mount a crusade. Nye Bevan once remarked that
the difficulty is "to maintain passion in action in the
pursuit of qualified objectives".
outburst of indignation which brings people flocking to join us
is too easily crushed beneath the weight of research, and
fundraising, and constitutions, and bureaucracy, of an effective
NGO. And for every NGO, the problem varies according to the work
which it seeks to do. Oxfam is concerned simply to supply
resources, and its members can find productive and rewarding
outlets for their energies with little need for debate about
policies; Amnesty invites its members to become involved with
individual prisoners of conscience, and it is possible to form a
person-to-person relationship. The Society necessarily devotes
its energies to larger groups of people, and individuals are
simply examples of general principles.
seek only to raise the questions. Hopefully there are others
better fitted to provide some answers. But I suspect that the
supporters of the Society will not be those who thrive on
dramatic demonstrations, but those who can support a more
extended dedication, over long years of lobbying, letter-writing
and campaigning, sometimes throughout long periods without
reward, until step by step, we have extended the leaven
throughout the world.