The global high table: India’s place in the world

Transcript of speech by Sir James Bevan KCMG, UK High Commissioner to India at the India Today Conclave, Saturday 14 March 2015 in New Delhi.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

James Bevan

Gandhi statue: UK/India relations

I want to start by paying tribute to Mahatma Gandhi. This morning in London my Prime Minister David Cameron and India’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley will lead other dignitaries in the unveiling of a new statue of that great man.

The Gandhi statue will sit in the most prestigious location we have in the United Kingdom, in Parliament Square in the heart of London. Today Gandhiji’s statue will join those of other titans of world history, including Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln.

This is a historic moment – perhaps overdue. Today the United Kingdom finally and fully honours the man who fought and beat the British Empire and led India to independence.

Gandhiji was once asked what he thought about British civilisation. He said that he thought it would be a good idea. I like to think that he is smiling on us today.

I start with Gandhi not just because today is a special day for the UK and India, but because his values remain if anything even more relevant now than they were during his lifetime. The values Gandhiji embodied – non-violence, democracy, tolerance, human rights, devotion to truth – are today under threat around the world

The state of the world

British High Commissioners do not usually quote Leon Trotsky. In our diplomatic service it is not generally encouraged. But Trotsky did say one thing which is both true and powerful. He said: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

And in 2015 war is interested in us. Global terrorism is one of the biggest challenges we face today. Nowhere is safe: Britain and India – and all the other countries represented here today- know that from our own bitter experience.

It is not just non-state actors we need to worry about. Unconventional warfare conducted by conventional nation states also threatens our interests, including in Europe right now in Ukraine where we see an attempt to change borders by force. That is a very dangerous precedent which none of us should allow to stand.

Nor are all the threats we face in this dangerous decade military in nature: climate change or global epidemics like Ebola have the potential to kill many more people than a hot war or terrorist attack.

But, ladies and gentlemen, I am an optimist. And I would like to think an evidence-based optimist.

Because while it is true that the world looks more dangerous now than it has for twenty years, we need to keep some historical perspective. The Big Fact about the 21st century is that for almost everyone in this world, life is better than it was for their parents, and that life in the years to come will be even better for their children.

We humans are healthier than ever before. We are better fed. Fewer mothers die in childbirth and fewer children die in childhood. We are living longer than ever. The average human now earns three times as much in real terms than 50 years ago.

We have greater freedoms than ever before. After the great wave of decolonisation and the collapse of totalitarian states in Europe in the 20th century, democracy is increasingly the default. Today most of us are free to choose where we live, what we study, what job we do, what we buy in the shops, who we marry, whether we have children, what clothes we wear, what we do with our leisure time.

Though there is still a long way to go, the world is gradually becoming a better place for women. We know more things than we have ever known, and more people know them. Your mobile phone gives you access today to more information than was available ten years ago to all the governments of the world put together.

In sum, life in 2015 is good. We are richer, healthier, taller, cleverer, longer-lived, more knowledgeable, safer and freer than ever before.

India’s place in it

So ours is a complex world, full both of wonderful opportunities and frightening challenges. What is India’s place in this world?

My answer in one word: indispensable. India is, or can be, part of the solution to every major challenge we face.

  • Terrorism: the UK, India and all of the countries represented here today face the same threats: we are working closely with India to keep safe India’s streets and our own.

  • Instability: India’s role in Afghanistan is critical in rebuilding that country and its long term future. Indeed the very stability of India itself improves the prospects for greater stability in this potentially turbulent region.

  • Prosperity: a growing Indian economy will help drive global progress and development.

  • Climate change: the model of green growth that PM Modi pioneered in Gujarat is one that the whole world can learn from, and Indian leadership will be crucial in unlocking a global climate change agreement in Paris in December.

  • Conflicts: India’s leading role in UN operations around the world is helping to stop conflicts from starting and old ones from re-igniting.

  • Knowledge: India has world-beating scientists and innovators – there is no problem facing the world that Indians cannot find a solution to.

In sum, a strong India active in the world is in everyone’s interests, including that of my own country.

That’s why the UK supports Prime Minister Modi’s drive to transform this great country and unlock its full potential. That’s why the UK supports India’s bid for Permanent Membership of the UN Security Council. And that’s why – because I believe India will flourish in the 21st century – all of us can look forward to the years ahead with confidence.

Conclusion: three predictions

The organisers asked us to finish our remarks with a prediction. Predicting the future is something only stupid people do. In 1949 the US magazine Popular Mechanics made the daring prediction that “in the distant future computers may weigh no more than 1.5 tons”. In 1962 the UK music company Decca Records told a young pop group that they would not give them a record contract because “guitar music is on the way out”. The Beatles found a smarter record label.

But let me rise to the challenge and conclude with three predictions. In 2020, India will be stronger; India’s relationships with the UK and all the other countries represented on this dias will be closer; and as a result this world of ours will be an even better place.

Published 14 March 2015