The chained fist of the statue celebrating the emancipation of slaves in the US. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Much of Britain's wealth is built on slavery. So why shouldn't it pay reparations?

The benefits of slavery have accrued down the generations, so why are we so nervous about the responsibility for the slave trade doing the same?

“Should we be responsible for the sins of our fathers?” Any discussion about the deeply polarising topic of reparations for slavery, if it happens at all, takes place in these quasi-religious terms.  Unfortunately, the language of the confessional immediately constrains, indeed skews, the debate. Turning a matter of material justice into one of proxy atonement does the question of our demanding relationship to history a profound disservice. It implies, wrongly, that historical events of such vast reach as slavery have no discernible material impact on our present, as though what happened to or was done by our ancestors doesn’t filter down and impact our present.  This is a curious belief in a society which believes so passionately in inheritance. How is possible, at one and the same time, to believe deeply in the right to inherit wealth and property acquired by progenitors while insisting that we in the present cannot, in any way, be responsible for the mechanisms of wealth-making in the past?  It’s convenient enough: my grandfather’s house is my house but how he came to own is none of my business.

“Say NO to paying for something that happened 100s of years ago,” screamed one meme that was doing the rounds on social media around the time tabloids began to claim that Caribbean nations were “suing” for reparations. They aren’t, strictly speaking, and nor can something which ended only in 1838 be compared, as it often is, with the Viking invasions or Roman conquest.  The CARICOM group of nations, led by Barbados , is really calling for a wider dialogue about historical justice.  Why should Britain – or any other former slave-trading nation – shy away from it?

After all, in almost any other sphere, historical continuities are acknowledged, even venerated – aren’t we told ad nauseum that the monarchy is important because it represents continuity?  Even something like the “Commonwealth” – whose Games will be held in Glasgow this summer – celebrates the international “links” forged by Britain’s Empire and its apparent historical achievements. Britons are constantly reminded by politicians and some historians to take pride in having “given” former colonies those two old chestnuts, the railways and the English language. Seems a bit odd, if not thoroughly hypocritical, to then swiftly put distance between our “proud” present and the Empire’s rather less flattering legacies, which include gargantuan impoverishment and dislocation across swathes of the globe.  How is it possible to keep up the endless national self-congratulation for the abolition of the slave trade while insisting that no one today has any connection to slavery itself?  The Trinidadian historian Eric Williams once noted wryly that it was almost as though Britain had set up the slave trade for the sole purpose of abolishing it.

But in truth, Britain gained rather more out of slavery than the retrospective joy of abolishing the trade in slaves, celebrations of which obscure the role rebellious slaves themselves played in their emancipation. The Industrial Revolution would have been impossible without the wealth generated by slave labour. Britain’s major ports, cities and canals were built on invested slave money. Several banks can trace their origins to the financing of the slave trade. Apart from the Barclays Brothers, who were slave traders, we also know of Barings and HSBC which can be traced back to Thomas Leyland’s banking house. The Bank of England also had close connections to the trade. Hundreds of Britain’s great houses were built with the wealth of slavery (pdf) and the Church of England also acknowledges its pecuniary gains from slavery. As an excellent project at University College London is showing, not only many contemporary millionaires and politicians but also perfectly ordinary middle-class people come from families which were compensated for the loss of slaves. The freed slaves, of course, never received such compensation and their families inherited, instead, the poverty and landlessness which blights them to this day. Capitalism itself, along with cheap beach holidays, would have been impossible without slavery.

The Foreign Office responded to the invitation to discuss reparations with the patronising suggestion that we concentrate on “identifying ways forward”. That’s great if you benefited, however little, from slavery. How exactly does “moving forward” work if the slave past holds you and your society back in poverty? It’s a mistake, however, to think of the question of slavery as something that only pertains to its direct victims, past and present. Sensationalised tabloid reports about paying out to foreign countries have stoked an understandable, if false, resentment among the less well-off in Britain who don’t  themselves feel particularly advantaged by the legacies of slavery.

A more honest debate would engage with slavery’s crucial role in helping to set up capitalism itself, the system under which all of today live and labour, inextricably connecting us not only to its enslaving foundations but its controlling mechanisms and values, especially that of under-valuing labour and repressing serious challenge.  “Do you ever try to understand,” thunders the Antiguan author Jamaica Kincaid, “why people like me cannot get over the past, cannot forgive and cannot forget?” As a descendant of someone whose ancestors were in themselves “capital”, she notes that the denial of the extent to which “got-for-nothing” labour underlies capitalism only adds to the injury, “for not only did we have to suffer the unspeakableness of slavery, but the satisfaction to be had from ‘We made you bastards rich’ is taken away too.”

“They took our boots, no less our straps,” anti-racist African-American campaigner “Queen Mother” Audley Moore once memorably put it, challenging the capitalist cherished myth that all achievement is solely due  to individual effort rather than at least a degree of inherited privilege. This is surely an insight that will resonate with the millions today who are at the receiving end of capitalism’s profiteering viciousness?  They include the low-waged, the unemployed, the disabled, the undervalued, the over-worked, the ill-treated, the indignant, the resistant, the ill-adjusted, the trafficked and the needlessly criminalised – indeed, the vast majority of us, to different degrees.

Plantation slavery may no longer be with us in the same form but its founding principle has never really gone away – take as much as you can from the labour of the many and concentrate land and wealth among the few. A debate about reparations – and redressing historical injustice – can help us ask the question more starkly: for all the pious talk about “addressing inequality”, can capitalism really move so far from its beginnings as to be inherently fair? How can a system which won’t acknowledge its origins become “responsible” capitalism? Rather than feel “we” have to unfairly pay to help “them” – any reparations money should clearly come from banks, large corporations and multi-millionaires, in any case – perhaps we should talk about the possibility of economic justice under capitalism itself?

Maybe this is why there is such resistance at governmental and corporate levels to opening up the question of reparations.  It might lead us to ask why large corporations, like slave owners, receive bailouts or compensation for losses incurred, as did slave owners, but people who inherit landlessness and poverty, whether descendants of slaves or not, are repeatedly to told not to expect help or benefits, to look to themselves. The “sins of the fathers” notion, separating past from present, allows the question to conveniently be turned into one of private faith and individual responsibility (that beloved capitalist buzzphrase) rather than how some inherit privilege and many inherit disadvantage within a stratified social order.  That’s a move which ultimately benefits not you and me, but the wealthy and the privileged in whose favour the global order is disastrously skewed.

Getty
Show Hide image

Expressions of sympathy for terror's victims may seem banal, but it's better than the alternative

Angry calls for "something to be done" play into terrorists' hands.

No sooner had we heard of the dreadful Manchester Arena bombing and before either the identity of the bomber or the number of dead were known, cries of “something must be done” echoed across social media and the airwaves. Katie Hopkins, the Mail Online columnist, called for “a final solution”, a tweet that was rapidly deleted, presumably after she remembered (or somebody explained to her) its connotations. The Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson wanted “a State of Emergency as France has” and “internment of thousands of terror suspects”, apparently unaware that the Nice attack, killing 86, happened after that emergency was declared and that nobody has been interned anyway.

It cannot be said too often that such responses play into terrorists’ hands, particularly if Isis was behind the Manchester bombing. The group’s aim is to convince Muslims in the West that they and their families cannot live in peace with the in-fidel and will be safe only if they join the group in establishing a caliphate. Journalists, striving for effect, often want to go beyond ­banal expressions of sympathy for ­victims. (It’s a mistake I, too, have sometimes made.) But occasionally the banal is the appropriate response.

Pity begins at home

Mark Twain, writing about the “terror” that followed the French Revolution and brought “the horror of swift death”, observed that there was another, older and more widespread, terror that brought “lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak”. The first, he wrote, we had been “diligently taught to shiver and mourn over”; the other we had never learned to see “in its vastness or pity as it deserves”.

That is true: more children across the world die each day from hunger or disease than could ever be killed in a terror attack. We should not forget them. Nor should we forget that the numbers killed in terrorist attacks in, for example, Baghdad far outnumber those killed in all European attacks of our times combined. In an age of globalisation, we should be more cosmopolitan in our sympathies but the immediacy of 24-hour news make us less so.

When all is said and done, however, pity, like charity, begins at home. We naturally grieve most over those with whom we share a country and a way of life. Most of us have been to concerts and some readers will have been to one at the Manchester Arena. We or our children could have been present.

Cheers from Highgate Cemetery

What a shame that Theresa May modified the Tory manifesto’s proposals on social care. For a few giddy days, she was proposing the most steeply progressive (or confiscatory, as the Tories would normally say) tax in history. True, it was only for those unfortunate enough to suffer conditions such as dementia, but the principle is what counts. It would have started at zero for those with assets of less than £100,000, 20 per cent for those with £120,000, 50 per cent for those worth £200,000, 99 per cent with those with £10m and so on, ad infinitum. Karl Marx would have been cheering from Highgate Cemetery.

Given that most people’s main asset – the value of their home – did not have to be sold to meet their care costs until death, this was in effect an inheritance tax. It had tantalising implications: to secure their inheritance, children of the rich would have had to care for their parents, possibly sacrificing careers and risking downward mobility, while the children of the poor could have dedicated themselves to seeking upward mobility.

The Tories historically favour, in John Major’s words, wealth cascading down the generations. In recent years they have all but abolished inheritance tax. Now they have unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly, who knows?) conceded that what they previously branded a “death tax” has some legitimacy. Labour, which proposes a National Care Service but optimistically expects “cross-party consensus” on how to finance it, should now offer the clarity about old age that many voters crave. Inheritance tax should be earmarked for the care service, which would be free at the point of use, and it should be levied on all estates worth (say) £100,000 at progressive rates (not rising above even 50 per cent, never mind 99 per cent) that yield sufficient money to fund it adequately.

Paul Dacre’s new darling

Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail editor, is in love again. “At last, a PM not afraid to be honest with you,” proclaimed the paper’s front page on Theresa May’s manifesto. Though the Mail has previously argued that to make old people use housing wealth to fund care is comparable to the slaughter of the first-born, an editorial said that her honesty was exemplified by the social care proposals.

On the morning of the very day that May U-turned, the Mail columnist Dominic Lawson offered a convoluted defence of the failure to cap what people might pay. Next day, with a cap announced, the Mail hailed “a PM who’s listening”.

Dacre was previously in love with Gordon Brown, though not to the extent of recommending a vote for him. What do Brown and May have in common? Patriotism, moral values, awkward social manners, lack of metropolitan glitz and, perhaps above all, no evident sense of humour. Those are the qualities that win Paul Dacre’s heart.

Sobering up

Much excitement in the Wilby household about opinion polls that show Labour reducing the Tories’ enormous lead to, according to YouGov, “only” 9 percentage points. I find myself babbling about ­“Labour’s lead”. “What are you talking about?” my wife asks. When I come to my senses, I realise that my pleasure at the prospect, after seven years of Tory austerity, of limiting the Tories’ majority to 46 – more than Margaret Thatcher got in 1979 – is a measure of my sadly diminished expectations. l

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496