Young people putting the older generation on trial for the mistakes of the past
Published On 1 Oct 2021
Clive Stafford Smith
3DC’s Generation on Trial project works with young people to identify who it is they think is responsible for the biggest challenges they will face in their own lifetimes, and stages mock trials of these powerful figures, to learn about where they went wrong, and where they had opportunities to avoid the catastrophes they created.
Generation on Trial (GoT) is a new project of the 3DCentre, my latest venture in the non-profit world. As I am now in my sixties, I thought it time to set up a charity to help young people to identify their passion, and also to provide them with opportunities to learn about the mistakes of us older folk.
GoT asks them to put members of the older generation ‘on trial’ for the ways in which we may have messed up our planet – socially, environmentally, and economically.
The aim is to evaluate decisions made by those who are in positions of power and to assess whether such individuals should be held to account.
Recently, we completed the first GoT, chosen by various of our students over the summer, and recorded by five apprentice filmmakers who were overseen by documentary maker Eric Harwood of Heart & Soul Films. The students elected to explore the moral rights and wrongs of local Dorset MP Richard Drax and his family, drawing up a mock indictment accusing him of “benefitting from the proceeds of slavery”. Six of the summer “Apprentice Advocates” then spent two months working up a Case Theory Memo (CTM) which exposed them (and later the mock jurors) to all sides of the slavery issue, going back as far as 1620. They began by considering the Drax family history, as contrasted with his public statements about it.
They explored the extent to which the Drax family had been instrumental in regularising and expanding the use of slavery.
Sir James Drax was viewed as a “pioneer” of the use of slave labour in the Caribbean in the 1640s. But was this all old news, as the MP has claimed? Perhaps not. They learned that after the Abolition Act of 1833, the slave owners were compensated (for the taking of their “property”) while the slaves were not – indeed the latter were required to work a further four years for their erstwhile masters. The government pay out (the equivalent of some £17 billion in today’s money) was funded by bonds which were not paid off until 2015. Ironically, then, the descendants of slaves who became the Windrush Generation, who came to the UK more than a century later, paid taxes that may have contributed to the Drax family wealth. The students also learned that – without even addressing the estimated 10,000 or more modern-day slaves in the UK today – the residual impact of slavery includes an extraordinary level of diabetes on the plantation that Drax still owns in Barbados. The research indicated that this was partially caused by an exposure to a diet heavy in sugar. Still this did not answer the central question – whether Richard Drax should be held responsible for what he terms the “deeply regrettable” actions of his forebears? Here, the debate became less one-sided.
His defence advocates called a wealth management witness, who pointed out that many people come from families who clearly “benefitted” from the proceeds of slavery, including most notably Queen Elizabeth II.
Her inheritance was derived in part from Charles II, who created the Royal African Company in 1672, running the slave trade as a monopoly for a quarter century. The Church of England also received compensation after the 1833 Act – at that time the Bishop of Exeter had an “interest” in more slaves than John Sawbridge Erle-Drax MP. All of this – and much more – was presented to the jurors who had been selected from two schools, All Saints in Weymouth and the Woodroffe School in Lyme Regis. In turn, they threw questions at the witnesses, and politely but vigorously debated with each other in their subsequent deliberations. Eventually, after a lengthy debate recorded on camera, the jurors generally concluded that Drax had benefitted from the proceeds of slavery – down to living in Charlborough House, its 7,000 acres partially circled by a wall made of two million bricks. The issue then became another complex one: whether there could ever be said to be “equal opportunity” in the UK when some of the jurors lived on a council estate, while Drax’s life at Eton was funded by an inheritance in the tens of millions – including Drax Hall in Barbados, built with money derived from the 30,000 slaves who were forced to work for his family over two centuries. The discourse did not stop with the verdict. Various objections were raised in the media to the whole notion of “Generation on Trial”. Critics are entitled to their views, of course, but it behooves them to be both accurate and internally consistent, if our debate is to enlighten rather than mislead. The first allegation came from the Daily Mail: the mock trial was a left-wing plot to “brainwash” kids. To the contrary, a responsible Mail journalist might have checked prior to publication and learned that it was these “kids” who chose the subject, researched it, presented it, and evaluated the evidence. They might have checked with the parents, all of whom approved the students’ involvement, and who later wrote of their disappointment at the Mail’s rather mindless criticism. When a Mail journalist did ask me, subsequent to publication, whether 3DC had any reply to the comments by their readers, he might have published at least some of my response. Failing all this, some might reasonably accuse the Mail of “brainwashing” their readers. The next day, BBC2 hosted a rather more rounded discussion on Politics Live where, for the most part, the participants were relaxed about the idea of young people challenging their elders. To the extent a question was raised, it was why such an issue should be discussed in the mock trial of an individual. I did not like to point out to the presenter that the only time I have ever prosecuted anyone in my entire career was a Newsnight episode where Jeremy Paxman asked me to put the case against Tony Blair for his alleged involvement in Iraq War crimes.
Blair was convicted by the studio audience, partly because his defence by a respected QC was far less rigorous than the students’ effort on behalf of Drax.
Yet the notion that we should not challenge the moral decisions by others, and hold individuals responsible, is a curious one, given how loud the political chorus normally is for “personal responsibility”. While Priti Patel has backed away from the death penalty these days, she still says she wants people “to literally feel terror at the thought of committing offences.” That seems a harsh approach when she may be talking about no more than smoking a joint. The students invited Drax to come and put his position, but he never even replied. If he cannot justify the source of his inherited wealth, what does that say about his confidence in his position? To the contrary, when I challenged Labour MP Chris Bryant on Politics Live, he was decent enough immediately to agree to come to a trial to defend his vote for the Iraq War. And the next day I had a call from GB TV – apparently Nigel Farage wanted to put me on trial on his programme. I gladly agreed, but this seemed to put him off the idea, as he has not called back. I don’t know what I am meant to have done, but if there is a legitimate subject of debate (perhaps my predilection for defending those accused of terrorism), I will happily defend it – particularly if it exposes students to the various sides of an important issue.
I respect the right of people to disagree with me – no matter what the topic. But we must respect our young people too. They are the future, yet we often fail to educate them to evaluate the decisions they will inherit from us.
And as for the accusation that the 3DC trials are part of a left-wing cabal, I can reveal that the up-coming GoT cases chosen by students will span the political spectrum: Nick Clegg will face criticism for the student loans he helped to foist on the young; Blair, for the chaos his policies created in the Middle East; Farage himself, for his contributions to Brexit; and anyone else the young generation may choose to challenge. I hope, like Chris Bryant, they will have the courage to come and defend their choices. Else why should the young respect them? – Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of the 3DCentre (3dc.org.uk)