The more things change

William Wilberforce, who took his seat in the House of Commons in 1784, is best remembered for his role in the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain. His commitment to eliminating cruelty in its many guises was inexhaustible and had a strong interest in the prevention of cruelty to animals. Wilberforce understood that…

William Wilberforce, who took his seat in the House of Commons in 1784, is best remembered for his role in the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain. His commitment to eliminating cruelty in its many guises was inexhaustible and had a strong interest in the prevention of cruelty to animals. Wilberforce understood that acts of cruelty to animals has a hardening effect on the hearts of those who come to accept such acts as banal, or normal. His defence of the abused and vulnerable was a line that connected many dots. He created many organisations designed respectively to help the poor, orphaned, disabled and dispossessed. Wilberforce also believed that conscious and systemic cruelty committed to animals is unacceptable in a modern society. The gravity of the act does not depend on the value we place on the object. In 1824, Wilberforce, with his fellow abolitionist Thomas Fox Buxton, became founding members of the Society for the Prevention of Animal Cruelty. Wilberforce inspired broad movements but also vigorously campaigned specific issues. He fought to end bull-baiting, “an activity that he believed was inconsistent with every manly principle”. He took legislation to the House of Commons and after 10 years, and with the support of slave trade abolitionists, he won. If Wilberforce were alive today, his instinct to protect the vulnerable and dispossessed would no doubt be applied to support those seeking asylum, children from disadvantaged backgrounds and animals, which continue to suffer at the hands of human beings. Industrial farming techniques and live animals exports, both of which have developed since his passing and both of which degrade both humans and animals, would appal Wilberforce. Wilberforce was an immensely talented man who believed that if the horrors of the trade were bought to the attention of the people and their parliament, abolition would surely follow. He was wrong. Abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain was won after two decades of struggle both inside and outside the House of Commons. The politics of emancipation in contemporary western democracies remains mired in the same arguments that prolonged the slave trade. A man of unerring moral compass would be appalled to note that our desire for financial benefit has developed at a greater rate than our abhorrence of cruelty and violence. But Wilberforce, the slave trade abolitionist, would also find much that is familiar – the conditions on the boats used to transport live animals for export, for example, and the political challenges that must be met, and arguments that must be countered in defence of the vulnerable. Cruelty is still justified by reference to economic benefit, as it was three centuries ago. The first argument against abolition was that it would have a crippling effect on the nation’s economy, and particularly on local economies of Liverpool and Bristol. Wilberforce made a priority of proving that abolition would eventually prove to be in the nation’s economic interest, in much the same way as animal welfare activists point to the potential to add value to cattle killed in Australia, through the export of boxed, chilled meats. It was important to prove that abolition would serve an economic and moral purpose. Those opposed to abolition also argued that if Britain were to ban the trade in slaves, the trade would continue but the economic benefit would simply shift to its competitors. In the 18th century, France was Britain’s principal rival. The potential that abolition would economically benfit France was seen to be particularly unpalatable. From the beginning, Wilberforce attempted to forge an international agreement with France, so that abolition would occur simultaneously in both countries and the economic benefit of the trade would be neutralised. Similarly, those who oppose the end of Live Exports argue that such an action would simply benefit competitors, who would meet the demand. Wilberforce initially underestimated the resilience and determination of those whose wealth depends so heavily on the existence of an industry under threat. When the nature of the slave trader was revealed, the industry responded first in untruths. As public outcry grew, the industry called for greater regulation in order to win time, as was the case in 2011, when the people of Australia reacted to images of brutality captured in Indonesian abattoirs. The public outcry having abated, regulation that was put in place to prevent the worst of the cruelty is being dismantled. The passing of legislation on issues concerning the welfare of animals will only be achieved by parliamentarians with the courage, intelligence and strategic mind of William Wilberforce. Their lot will be made easier if our democratic processes become more resilient to the power of vested interests who stand in the way of change that reflects moral progress. @AndrewHunter

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