This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Transcript of the speech by Sir James Bevan KCMG, British High Commissioner, at Jamia Milia University, New Delhi, 22 August 2013.
It’s easy to be a pessimist. You can point to any number of problems that make life difficult and the future uncertain. And it’s much easier to get a story into the media if it’s bad news.
But let me try this afternoon to persuade you that the pessimists are wrong. That not only is this a good time to be alive but that it’s the best of all times to be alive.
In particular, I want to convince you that it’s the best of all times to be you: to be young and Indian at the start of the 21st century. I also want to show you – since you would expect no less from the British High Commissioner – that it’s the best of all times to be British.
Why it’s great to be alive now
Fred Astaire, the great Hollywood dancer, was once asked in his later years what he thought of growing old. He said that it was better than the alternative.
And of course being alive at any time is preferable to the alternative. But I would suggest that being alive in 2013 is better than at any time in the past. Consider:
The first condition of a good life is good health. And in 2013 we humans are healthier than ever before. We are better fed: the average human eats one third more calories than they did 50 years ago when I was a baby, and the percentage of undernourished people in the world, which was nearly 20% just over ten years ago, is now down to just over 10% today. Fewer mothers now die in childbirth: global maternal mortality has been cut by half since 1990. And fewer children now die in childhood: since 1960, the mortality rate for children under five has been cut by more than half.
And good health means long life. We are living longer than ever before. A thousand years ago, the average person lived to the age of twenty. Ever since then life expectancy has been rising. The world average is now 67. Life expectancy in India, which was just 26 in 1950, had risen to 72 in 2010. A child born today in Japan can reasonably hope to live to be over 100.
We are not only healthier and longer-living. We are richer than ever before. The average human now earns three times as much in real terms than 50 years ago. The Chinese are ten times richer.
As prosperity grows, poverty is going down: the percentage of the world’s people living in absolute poverty has dropped by more than half in my lifetime. In fact the United Nations estimates that in the past 50 years, the percentage of the world’s people living in poverty has been cut by a greater amount than in the previous 500 years. India has been at the forefront of that battle, and is winning it - nearly 90% of Indians lived in absolute poverty in the 1940s; today that figure is now down to around 30%.
Democracy, choice and freedom
We have greater freedoms than ever before. For most of human history, most people did not get to choose their rulers. That was true even one hundred years ago. But today, after the great wave of decolonisation and the collapse of totalitarian states in Europe, democracy is the default. It is the countries that are not democracies that are now the odd ones out.
Indeed we have more choice than ever before, not just in deciding which government we want, but in everything. 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, what clothes we wear, what we do with our leisure time. Choice may sometimes be bewildering. But like old age, it’s better than the alternative.
The world is becoming a better place for 50% of its population: women. That is not to say that women everywhere don’t still face huge challenges which men do not. But throughout the whole of human history, men have had power that women didn’t; and the rights of men have taken precedence over the rights of women.
That is less and less the case in today’s world. All over the globe women are asserting and acquiring rights which men have long taken for granted: the right to work, to vote, to equal pay, to hold public office, to own property, to education, to serve in the military, to have a bank account, to enter into legal agreements, to decide for themselves whether and who they marry, and whether and when they have children. In more and more parts of the world now these rights are institutionalised in law and given effect in practice.
None of that means that the battle for equal rights has been won or that all women everywhere are better off. As the father of three girls, I know that women everywhere still face big challenges. But I also know that for my daughters, and for you young women in the audience here today, now is a better time than ever before to be a woman.
We know more things than we have ever known, and more people know them. More people are being educated today than ever, and to a higher standard. Technology is empowering everyone. 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.
And that combination of knowledge and technology, combined with human ingenuity and the ability now to work collectively through the internet, is driving more creative thinking and innovation than there has ever been in human history. We face many problems today: but with today’s knowledge and creativity, we can solve them all.
The conventional wisdom is wrong
Even the things we think are bad about the 21st century are good.
Take urbanisation. In 2007 the world crossed a little-noticed threshold: that was the first year in human history in which there were more people living in cities than in rural environments.
That’s a good thing, because cities are more efficient: people who live in cities take up less space, use less energy, and have less impact on natural ecosystems than those who live in the country. Cities are also places in which people tend to be more prosperous, and in which education and creativity flourish. Cities are not part of the problem we face in the 21st century, they are part of the solution.
Another example: population growth. The number of people in the world has more than doubled over my lifetime. That does pose challenges. But we should remember that population growth is a sign of success, not failure: it is a consequence of economic growth and progress in technology, development and healthcare, all of which have boosted life expectancy.
We should remember too that population growth doesn’t automatically mean greater poverty: on the contrary, as the global population has grown, people have got richer not poorer. And although the world population is growing, the rate of increase has been falling for the last 50 years. So with the right policies we can not only manage our population, we can give better lives to all.
Even the environment, which many would say is under greater threat now than at any time in history, offers grounds for optimism.
We are right to worry about global warming, pollution, and the depletion of the world’s natural resources. These affect everyone, but impact most severely on the countries and people who can least afford it – developing countries and poor people. But we should remember that as countries get richer, they tend to get better at reducing pollution and managing their resources more efficiently. This is partly because of technology, behavioural change, and government regulation. But it’s also because markets and electorates are increasingly pushing firms and governments to be greener and more efficient.
Nostalgia is overrated
When comparing our lives with those who lived before us, we should remember something else too: that nostalgia is usually misplaced. What people call the good old days usually weren’t. A longing for the past is generally confined to the very few who were at the top of the tree then: the rich and the powerful. Most other people who came before us would be only too happy to swap our lives for theirs. In sum, life in 2013 is good. We are richer, healthier, taller, cleverer, longer-lived, safer and freer than ever before.
Why Indian can be optimistic
So you can be optimistic because you live at the beginning of the 21st C: you won the lottery of history. And I would argue that as young Indians today, you have also won the lottery of geography. Why? Because India possesses advantages many other countries don’t. Scale: if you want to do something really big, India has the money, the people and the resources to do it. Demography: India’s youthful population is a huge economic advantage, provided its millions of young people can be given the right education and good jobs. Ambition, energy, talent: Indians have it in industrial quantities.
Creative destruction – the force that drives successful progress: nowhere do you see more of it than in India. History: a country with a long history like India knows how to do things – because it’s done most of them already in the thousands of years that have gone before. And a country with a rich civilisation like India can be confident of meeting any future challenge - because it’s successfully met all the challenges of the past.
Knowledge: the value that Indian civilisation has always placed on knowledge is evident today. So too is the commitment of every Indian parent at every level to get the best possible education for their child: and a society that invests heavily in its children is a society with a bright future. India’s vast and growing middle class: a force for progress and stability. Unity in diversity: not just a slogan but a fact, which I see every day in my travels, and a huge unseen force for creativity and prosperity.
There’s one final advantage that India has today over many other places: optimism itself. Whatever the media or the politicians in Delhi say, almost every Indian I meet in the Real India believes that while today is good, tomorrow will be better. Optimism is a tremendous driver of growth and progress, and India has it by the bucketload.
So I am very confident about this country’s future. I encourage you to be too – because it’s not me who is going to build this country’s future: it’s you.
Reasons to be optimistic about the UK: Why Britain is GREAT
Finally, I’m here to tell you that I am confident about the future of another country, my own.
We in Britain are proud of our past. But we are also confident of our future. In fact, we think that Britain’s best days are ahead of us.
Why? Because – like India - the UK has some big assets which fit us well for the challenges of the 21st century.
- is and intends to remain one of the world’s largest economies. We are today the seventh largest economy in the world (India is eleventh) with an annual GDP of over $2.4 trillion.
- has the right economic fundamentals: a stable democracy, the rule of law, a highly educated and flexible workforce, a strong banking system, a business-friendly environment, and policies which support growth.
- is the place to be if you want to be a global player. London is where the world raises its capital and trades its shares. The UK is in the right time zone to operate globally: you can talk to Asia in the morning and America in the evening. The UK has the best connections to the rest of the world: Heathrow Airport handles more international flights than any other airport. And we speak the world’s language, which you speak too - English.
- is a world leader in science, technology and innovation. Examples – the iPod, designed by a Brit; the Internet, invented by one; and the Higgs Boson, the so-called God particle which explains why the physical world works, predicted by a Brit and found earlier this year. And named also, I should say, after a distinguished Indian physicist, Satyendra Nath Bose. Other things which the British have discovered or invented include, in no particular order: football, golf, cricket, tiddlywinks, croquet, railways, steam engines, hovercrafts, penicillin, gravity, longitude, the jet engine, evolution, the postage stamp and sticky toffee pudding. Not bad for a small misty island off the coast of Europe.
- is a world leader in education and research. Of the top ten universities in the world, four are British. We have produced over 100 Nobel Prize winners, more than any country except the US.
- can do difficult things well. Example – last year’s London Olympics: delivered on time, on budget, with friendliness, good humour and style. And featuring our two greatest icons – Her Majesty the Queen and James Bond – jumping out of a helicopter together.
- has a tolerant society at ease with itself: multi-faith, multi-ethnic, almost universally proud to be British.
I think that’s a powerful list. But I would say that wouldn’t I? As the UK High Commissioner I am paid to promote Britain. So don’t take my word for it that Britain is attractive.
Take instead the word of your fellow Indians. Indians want to study in Britain: more than 20,000 a year go to British Universities, the second largest group of foreign students in the UK after the Chinese. Indians want to visit Britain: some 400,000 come every year. And Indians want to do business with Britain: Indians invest more in the UK than in the whole of the rest of the EU altogether. We must be doing something right.
So I’m an optimist. One reason to be an optimist is that it’s good for you: studies show that people who have a positive outlook on life live longer, are healthier, more prosperous and more successful. But as I’ve tried to show you today, a better reason to be an optimist – about the world, about India, and about Britain - is that it’s justified by the facts. Either way, my message to you today is simple: smile.