Paying tribute to the idea of liberty in the American constitution, Nobel laureate VS Naipaul opened a major conference in London on Wednesday by stressing that in societies where there was a free interplay of ideas, the good can often overcome the bad.
Naipaul, 81, delivered the opening address of the ‘Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty 2014’ organised by the Centre for Policy Studies to mark the 40th anniversary of its founding by Thatcher and Keith Joseph.
Speakers included academics such as Niall Ferguson, Deepak Lal and Richard Epstein, and former Australian PM John Howard, General Petraeus and Lord Saatchi. Naipaul was described as ‘the only living British winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature’.
Naipaul referred to world history, his upbringing in a Hindu family in Trinidad and his travels to Islamic countries such as Iran and Malaysia to highlight the importance of the idea of liberty, which, he said, had “blown away” the most rigid systems, including religious.
Naipaul said, “It is important to remember that where there is free interplay of ideas the good can often overcome the bad…I find it marvellous to contemplate that the idea, a mere phrase in the preamble to the American constitution, has come to a universal fruition.”
He continued, “It is an elastic idea. It fits all men... It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. It is an immense human idea; it can be said to contain the world. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system.”
Describing his upbringing to make the point that he travelled to Islamic countries with an open mind, he said that historically religious laws may have been liberating and gave order to societies, “but they quickly became oppressive and acted as a break to the freedom of thought”.
He added, “I grew up only with half knowledge of the religions of India… I barely understood the many rituals at my grandmother’s house... Religion wasn’t part of the intellectual formation of my mind. Traditions and rituals regulated the wider life of my family. I feel I have to say this to make it clear that I did my Islamic travels with an open mind”.