The division had been called, the count was in. By 275 votes to 153, the proposition – ‘This house will in no circumstances fight for King and Country’ – won the day.

The day was 9 February 1933, and the ‘house’ that voted in parliamentary style against fighting for King and Country was the Oxford Debating Union, with those opposed to going to war winning a stonking majority against those willing to fight, even as the tide of national socialism and fascism spread across Europe. In Germany, Adolf Hitler had become German Chancellor a mere ten days before the Oxford Union debate. In Italy, fascist prime minister Benito Mussolini, already in office for almost a decade, took note of the youthful pacifist victory at one of the most prestigious British universities and concluded that Britain was a ‘frightened, flabby old woman’.

This story is relevant to the work of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) in 2020.

What does the IRR do?

I’ve been asked this question many times and I’ve attempted to answer it in many ways. But, no matter the person or audience I’m speaking to, I always return to the answer that the IRR fights the battle of ideas. It’s a phrase Friends of the IRR will be familiar with. For all its potency, and its redolence of the romanticism of combat, the phrase ‘battle of ideas’ is unbudgingly, stubbornly abstract.

In her book The South African Institute of Race Relations 1929-1979: A short history, published in 1979, Ellen Hellman said ‘the essence of the Institute’s work, trying to influence the minds of men, is by its very nature imponderable. Many believe that the effort has been meaningful… and derive comfort from the fact that proposals that appeared at first heretical when expounded on Institute platforms have become commonplace today’.

‘Imponderable’ is an uncomfortable word – especially when, as part of my job, I campaign actively for ordinary South Africans to become a Friend of the IRR, to support the work we do through small monthly donations. As a response to the question ‘What do you do with the money I work hard to earn and then give to you?’, a supremely unsatisfactory answer is, ‘We do the imponderable’.

Unjust policy

No unjust action is ever executed without an unjust policy allowing it. No unjust policy ever manifests in injustice without an idea birthing it.

It’s no accident that the tyrant burns books and publications and that the plotter of the coup assails the broadcasting studios. The tyrant doesn’t hate books with a burning passion and the plotter of the coup doesn’t desperately aspire to a career in broadcasting. The first battle the opponents of freedom engage in, is the battle of ideas.

So, what does the IRR do?

We push back against those who ‘burn’ publications promoting liberty by writing yet more publications promoting liberty. We push back against those who ‘seize’ the means of broadcasting to silence voices promoting liberty by creating new means of broadcasting and recruiting new voices to promote liberty. We fight the battle of ideas.

Yes, this might be a somewhat unsatisfying answer, but perhaps it is not unreasonable to say that it is an unsatisfying question. Perhaps there might be a better question to ask. What happens when no-one seeks to influence minds – what happens when the battle of ideas is not fought?

‘Imponderable’ is indeed an uncomfortable word. But perhaps the number 62 is worth pondering.

Had 62 minds been changed, had 62 people attending a debate in Oxford on 9 February 1933 sided with another idea, the ‘King and Country debate’, a defining event that had so potently contributed to Benito Mussolini’s belief that the British would not rise to fight socialism and fascism, would have gone the other way. If this number of 62 is worth pondering, another figure might be too. While the exact figure isn’t quite certain, it is reasonable to assume that between 150 000 and 200 000 soldiers died in the Italian theatre of the Second World War.

Haunting to imagine

A fascist leader’s misguided belief in the cowardice of others spilled the blood of hundreds of thousands across Italy because when the moment demanded it, too few minds were influenced to oppose him. It is rather haunting to imagine how different history might have been had a handful of minds been changed.

Amidst the current crisis engulfing all we know, the moment that demands of South Africans to pick a side in the battle of ideas might well be upon us. Will we be successful in influencing the minds of South Africans, or will fascists again regard those who might stand against them to be nothing but frightened, flabby old women?

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Hermann Pretorius studied law and opera before entering politics and, latterly, joining the IRR as an analyst. He was formerly the IRR’s Head of Strategic Initiatives, and is presently Director of the Freedom Advocacy Network. He describes himself as a Protestant, landless, Anglophilic, Afrikaans classical liberal.