British writer on global issues shared common quest for truth with Mahatma Gandhi

Ronald Higgins by Liz Hingley
Ronald Higgins. Photo: Liz Hingley

By Russell Harris

“Ronald Higgins, a British diplomat of the 1960s, and author of the book The Seventh Enemy, was in search of truth like Mahatma Gandhi and others who followed Gandhi’s philosophy,” said Mohamed Keshavjee, recipient of the 2016 Gandhi, King, Ikeda Peace Award.

Dr Keshavjee was a co-speaker at this year’s Hay Festival where, together with Professor Patrick Pietroni of the Darwin International Institute for the Study of Compassion, he delivered the Ronald Higgins Memorial Lecture sponsored by the Elizabeth Bryan Foundation Trust.

The Hay Festival, described by The New York Times as “the most important literary festival in the Western world”, and co-sponsored by leading institutions such as the BBC, Tata Limited, PEN International, the British Museum and the V&A, this year included speakers such as Fergal Keane, Richard Dawkins, Sarah Dunant, Terry Eagleton, Shashi Tharoor and Margaret Atwood.

Dr Keshavjee on stage at Hay-on-Wye - Hay Festival 2018. The Ronald Higgins Memorial Lecture - Mediation and Restorative Justice. Friday 1 June 2018. Photo Russell Harris
Dr Keshavjee on stage at Hay-on-Wye – Hay Festival 2018. The Ronald Higgins Memorial Lecture – Mediation and Restorative Justice. Friday 1 June 2018. Photo Russell Harris

Ronald Higgins, who died in December 2017, spent time working in the Middle East during the Suez crisis in 1956, followed by a posting in the newly-independent countries of East Africa as well as in Indonesia.

In the 1970s he gave up his governmental position and, at the invitation of David Astor, editor of the Observer, he joined the newspaper to prepare a seminal article for the colour magazine on the major global issues of the day, with a focus that would go beyond the normal humdrum of daily reportage.

Higgins identified six major threats to global survival which were: unbridled population growth, massive food shortage which he recognised was due to “a savage injustice of distribution”, the depletion of the earth’s natural resources, the alarming and accelerated degradation of the environment, the nuclear threat with its attendant danger of nuclear terrorism, and exponential scientific and technological growth leading to abuse.

The article attracted letters from over 7,000 people asking how they could help ameliorate the situation while another 5,000 asked for a specially produced pamphlet on these issues.

Many people changed their career paths to make a more meaningful contribution to human society.

Higgins consequently embarked on further research which culminated in his best-selling book The Seventh Enemy, about which Dr Keshavjee spoke at the Festival.

Dr Keshavjee on stage at Hay-on-Wye - Hay Festival 2018. The Ronald Higgins Memorial Lecture - Mediation and Restorative Justice. Friday 1 June 2018. Photo Russell Harris
Dr Keshavjee on stage at Hay-on-Wye – Hay Festival 2018. The Ronald Higgins Memorial Lecture – Mediation and Restorative Justice. Friday 1 June 2018. Photo Russell Harris

“Higgins was a realist,” he said. “He understood that global threats require global responses,” and he also knew that governments were limited in their responses and were not really ready to do anything more than participating in dialogues that amounted to no more than lip service accompanied by a trickle of aid. Realising the limitations of both governments and individuals, Higgins spoke about the “seventh enemy”, which he said was the human factor.

Higgins felt that “we lack the political will and the moral courage to confront these problems…The responsibility rests with us, ourselves.”

Spending some time in an idyllic rural setting in Herefordshire, Higgins pondered many of these issues, and in his book he presented a number of scenarios — some of which have come true while others, far-fetched as they seemed, according to Dr Keshavjee, may not be so in today’s resource-stretched world.

Sir Edward Elgar in Hereford
Sir Edward Elgar in Hereford “This is what I hear all day; the trees are singing my music or am I singing theirs?”

While Higgins spent time reflecting on all these issues, the most important according to Keshavjee was the one based on his own personal crisis regarding how we as humans address the apathy and moral blindness that exists in each one of us.

Higgins went to the nearby small Herefordshire village of Kilpeck and there in the 12th-century church of St Mary and St David he noticed grotesque human faces carved in stone that had been sculpted by medieval craftsmen, and there he heard the voice which said to him “know thyself!”

“This,” said Keshavjee, “is a Socratic principle which is also deeply embodied in Sufi philosophy and indeed espoused by all the major spiritual traditions of the world.”

Higgins, he reminded his audience, came to discover that human beings were not perfect and were never meant to be! He also realised that the best type of knowledge lies on the other side of despair. He felt that greater questions needed to be asked — not about the outer challenges we all face but about our inner responses. “Self knowledge was not enough,” wrote Higgins. There was a need for positive action and this he did by administering to the needs of the mentally and emotionally challenged segments of British society, something he did without eschewing the larger global concerns.

Keshavjee emphasised that Higgins linked war, poverty and environmental degradation into a single overarching theme and reminded the audience that in this linkage Higgins was ahead of his time as these factors continue in a synergistic and exponential way to drive the new dystopian world into a global frenzy.

In his search, Higgins underwent a spiritual awakening and asked some very fundamental questions that we ourselves need to ask today such as what is religion? What role does it play in modern life and does it have any place at all in our worldview? Higgins lamented the fact that the God that was dying was being replaced by “demigods such as prosperity, scientific progress, history and the revolution and assorted idols like the machine the manifesto and the flag.”

He realised that these “secular religions” can slake man’s psychic thirst for meaning, purpose and dedication, but only to a limited extent and in a distorting manner.

Higgins cautioned that false gods have to be unmasked and that we have to “wake or reawaken to the truly religious dimension of life, not necessarily subscribing to any specific set of beliefs but by seeing life in its ultimate contexts such as finitude, tragedy, comedy and love.

According to Keshavjee, in his search Higgins recognised our modern impatience with the mysterious and the immeasurable as well as our blunt refusal to accept the impoverished view of the individual and the world which science has so damagingly portrayed and spread.

According to Keshavjee, in his search Higgins espoused a much broader view of religion and life and that he realised that much of this renewed exploration of the spiritual was taking place outside the realm of institutionalised religion — with a quest for the rediscovery of the Transcendant.

Keshavjee spoke on how Higgins’s philosophy squares with the thinking of Mahatma Gandhi and others who have reflected on many of these issues such as Martin Luther King Jnr and Daisaku Ikeda, outlining 11 principles of which 7 are attributed to Gandhi and the others to those who followed Gandhi’s philosophy .

These are the 11 deadly sins plaguing society which are: politics without principles, wealth without work, enjoyment without conscience, knowledge without character, business without morality, science without humanity, religion without compassion, rights without responsibilities, power without accountability, development without sustainability, and laws without justice. And looking at today’s global situation Keshavjee told the audience: “we notice each day a depletion of the moral ozone layer.” Gandhi’s answer was to teach: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Higgins’s response was to embark on immediate social action: “I prefer to be doing my duty.”

Professor Patrick Pietroni
Professor Patrick Pietroni. Photo Richard Hammerton

Professor Pietroni who knew Higgins personally spoke about his other book Plotting Peace: the Owl’s Reply to the Hawks and the Doves. After highlighting Higgins’s early career, Pietroni mentioned how in later life Higgins was involved in issues of international defence and ecology.

In his book he wrote that after coming into contact with leading members of the strategic community, civilian and military and the various peace movements “it became clear to me that unless we could find ways of defusing East-West tensions and its nuclear perils, there could be no serious prospect of humanity devoting enough time, energy and resources to coping with the more fundamental and longer term threats from Third World poverty and environmental deterioration which had up to then been my main preoccupation.”

According to Pietroni, Higgins felt that humanity was faced in essence with a triple crisis and a dual problem. These were: A short term waning but potentially cataclysmic crisis between East and West, a medium term crisis between the world’s rich North capitalist and communist societies and the human majority in the poor South and the long-term crisis between man and nature which has been a profound, and perhaps, perennial conflict between human appetite and the planet’s finite resources.

Higgins wrote this at the time of Reagan and Gorbachev but according to Pietroni: “What he wrote then is as relevant [given] today’s confrontation between Trump and Kim Jong-Un.”

The detail of the Mappa Mundi ca 1300 on show in Hereford Cathedral. Photo Russell Harris
Detail of the Mappa Mundi ca 1300 on show in Hereford Cathedral. Photo Russell Harris

Pietroni referred to Higgins’s having contrasted the Mappa Mundi, the masterpiece made by Richard de Bello in ca. 1300 and preserved in Hereford Cathedral, with the Mercator map with which we are all familiar and which shows the equator two thirds down the map, thus inflating the northern hemisphere at the expense of the southern.

Higgins’s anguished cry to the map was that “it took Dr Arno Peter’s projection, with its own half-way equator and genuinely proportionate land areas, to demonstrate how misleadingly Eurocentric and intrinsically prejudiced and unjust our view of the world had been.”

Pietroni referred to Higgins’s “piercing honesty and intellectual grasp of hugely complex issues that enthralled us.”

Highlighting the strengths and pitfalls of international diplomacy, Pietroni provided his perspective on Higgins’s approach to the whole notion of negotiated settlement in global conflict situations. He ended his presentation with his own tribute to the man with whom, in 2013, he spent a week in the south of France discussing their contribution to posterity.

Reflecting on a number of discussions and memories, Pietroni paid warm tribute to Higgins’ second wife Elizabeth Bryan a leading figure in the field of multiple births, an accomplished physician, and mentioned “the huge influence his wife had on his thinking, his work and his life.”


Hay Player: Mohamed Keshavjee – THE RONALD HIGGINS MEMORIAL LECTURE: MEDIATION AND RESTORATIVE JUSTICE – Hay Festival 2018, Friday 1 June 2018:

via Elizabeth Bryan Foundation Trust:

Russell Harris: Top Award for Two Editors from the Institute of Ismaili Studies at Frankfurt Book Fair

Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

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