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Poverty and Terrorism

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:08 pm on 27th February 2002.

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Photo of Lord Maclennan of Rogart Lord Maclennan of Rogart Liberal Democrat 6:08 pm, 27th February 2002

My Lords, I too am grateful to my noble friend Lord Dahrendorf for highlighting, in what may only be a quiet period between outrages, the threat of terrorism and the need to look more fundamentally than has been done here and elsewhere at what we can do to eliminate that irrational reaction to civic dissatisfaction.

I agree profoundly with what my noble friend has said. Therefore, I shall focus my remarks on the rebuttal of arguments that are not likely to be heard in this Chamber but which may be adduced elsewhere to qualify some of the prescriptions that he has offered. First, there is the argument that we do not know what causes these suicidal terrorists to commit to irrational self-destruction. It is true that the psychology of suicide bombers is not to be read like an open book. Few of them leave suicide notes in purported explanation of their actions. Comments about motivation made by third parties seeking to magnify the effects of their horrific actions may be exploitative rather than truly explanatory, but none the less the general thesis advanced by my noble friend is right. I support it entirely.

In answer to those who would argue otherwise, it is not so much the fact of destitution as an awareness of contrasting relative affluence elsewhere that provides the seedbed for terrorism. That awareness is inevitable. We cannot insulate ourselves from it or erect barriers against it. It is simply inconceivable that growing populations in North Africa, for example, enjoying direct media information on European life in all its affluence, will simply accept a large adverse disparity of income without seeking to do something about it. As Sam Brittan wisely observed,

"The situation in which capital is mobile but labour is not is hardly permanent. Movements across the Rio Grande between Mexico and the United States are surely suggestive of what will happen in Europe . . . Migration, whether legal or illegal is about the most peaceful move they might attempt".

It will not do for affluent countries to found their policies towards the third world on the belief that the prevailing distribution of wealth and income is sacrosanct. Nor can we regard the alleviation of poverty mainly as a matter of voluntary insurance or private benevolence. I must say that I have heard that kind of argument recently—last week, in fact—in both Washington and New York from people whose views I regard as well-intentioned but entirely mistaken.

My footnote is to seek to address a little further the imperative for institutional reform to which my noble friend referred, and which is powerfully argued by Amartya Sen in his book on development. The argument is sometimes deployed that it is no business of ours to seek to export our western notions of democracy and liberty to other countries that have their own way of doing things. That view is simply ahistorical and superficial. It fails to understand the philosophies expressed, especially on the Asian continent, far further back even than our own Christian dispensation.

The Buddhist convert, Asoka, who presided in the third century BC over an empire greater than the British Empire, promulgated views of religious toleration that would do well to be adopted by countries today, although India is by no means the country that one looks to for their enshrinement in law, for it is already among the most tolerant countries in Asia. Akbar, to take an example from another religion, was responsible for promulgating views about tolerance in legislation in 1590 in the Mogul empire, which should also be drawn to the attention of the intolerant Islamic extremists who have sought to deny such toleration.

Perhaps the most insidious anti-western view has been expressed by Lee Kuan Yew and his followers, who argue that an authoritarian solution is the only way forward and the only system compatible with economic growth. That too is shallowly based and does not stand up to scrutiny even in Africa, where Botswana, notably, has a highly successful developed democracy and the highest rate of growth.

This debate should be regarded as commenced by our discussion today. Given the enthusiasm of Members present to speak, all of us inevitably must confine our remarks, but I hope that we can take practical steps to support initiatives by governments—especially our own—to promote democratic underpinnings which make expenditure on aid more likely to be fruitful in defeating the frustrations that have given rise to terrorism.