[Viewpoint] Summoning the spirit of Wilberforce

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[Viewpoint] Summoning the spirit of Wilberforce

In 1952, the British newspaper The Times wrote that expecting democracy to bloom in Korea was like expecting a rose to bloom in a trash can.

In retrospect it’s quite an interesting point of view, as it seems as though the newspaper forgot about England’s own past.

In the early 19th century, politicians in England often gained votes by offering ample amounts of food and drink to the public. Voters, in turn, often made public demands for money in exchange for their backing at the polls.

It was quite similar to Korean politics in the 1950s, when votes were bought with makgeolli, or traditional rice wine, and shoes.

In the aftermath of the industrial revolution in Korea, many electoral districts in rural areas suffered from population declines as people increasingly moved to cities. Voters in these areas were often bribed with money. There were also many “pocket electoral districts,” where elite families in rural towns publicly revealed their favorite candidates and then bribed or coerced voters to back their choices.

In England, the politician William Wilberforce played a decisive role in upgrading British politics. Wilberforce entered politics at the age of 21 and over time formed a network of influential like-minded politicians who rejected the practice of buying votes with bribes.

The corrupt and decadent culture of the British aristocrats was deep-rooted. The Prince of Wales, the eldest son of King George III, was known to enjoy cavorting around with many different women and also had a gambling habit. His lawmaker friends often paid off his astronomical debt with money from state coffers.

At the time, the British parliament was filled with alcoholic lawmakers. William Pitt, who was known as a well-mannered politician, was a no exception, appearing at parliament meetings drunk.

Wilberforce’s first goal was to overturn tradition. He was determined to improve the standing and image of aristocrats and believed that parliament must initiate the campaign to raise the country’s ethical and moral standards.

He was determined to improve the politics of the country to a world-class level.

Through strategies that involved promoting the greater good in an effort to pressure society, Wilberforce managed to establish a law that laid out punishments for unethical and immoral actions undertaken by high-ranking public servants, such as excessive drinking and lewd behavior. The spirit of the Victorian age (1837~1901), which emphasized morality, was born through such efforts.

Another one of Wilberforce’s successes was abolishing slavery. Anti-slavery campaigns were unpopular at the time because Britain was the world’s strongest maritime force. It played a key role in transporting African slaves to North America, which was a profitable affair for both the country and for its people.

The value of the slave trade to England at the time was equivalent to the importance of the defense industry to the United States today. The country’s royal families, aristocrats and merchants all treated the abolitionists as unpatriotic traitors.

Under the circumstances, a politician who advocated for the complete abolition of slavery had to abandon his lofty goals of winning a high post. In other words, he had to move the greater good to the forefront of personal gains.

At the same time, he had to be someone with enough persuasiveness and popularity to convince the public, and he had to be someone with the intellect to handle a complicated issue.

Wilberforce, who survived two assassination attempts, was that someone. His campaign led to the Slavery Abolition Act, which abolished slavery in most of the British empire within a year. Wilberforce learned of the news on his deathbed and died three days later.

The world before Wilberforce and the world after he died were completely different; it was the difference between lead and gold.

The public, which used to despise politicians, had a different mind-set. In the era after Wilberforce, politicians had to adhere to public standards in the realm of morals - or at least pretend they were doing so.

The role of a politician is to be a respected leader, and we owe much of that mentality to Wilberforce.

Korea has seen many political leaders since its liberation from Japan’s colonial rule, but most of them have had plenty of flaws. In many cases, our leaders have actually fallen short of the average ethical and moral standards of the general public. Rather than leading the people, they actually create problems through scandalous words and actions.

Will it ever be possible for Koreans to be blessed with a political leader with noble ambitions, one who can reform the frivolous and shallow spirit of 21st century politics?

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of history education at Woosuk University.

By Park Sang-ik
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