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18 November 2023

Should Britain pay slavery reparations?

Laura Trevelyan and Clive Lewis represent “two sides of a horrible shared history” in Heirs of Enslavement.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Clive Lewis is a Labour MP. Laura Trevelyan is a former BBC journalist. His ancestors were once enslaved by her ancestors, on a plantation in Grenada. “We make an unlikely pair as two sides of a horrible shared history,” Lewis says in the opening episode of their podcast Heirs of Enslavement. This six-part series, which examines the impact of slavery on today’s politics, derives its power from the awkward juxtaposition of its presenters.

Both are known as expert voices on this topic. In February 2023, the Trevelyans made a public apology for their family’s historical involvement in the slave trade and donated £100,000 in reparations to an education fund in Grenada. The next month, Lewis raised the issue of reparations in a House of Commons debate, calling on Britain to confront its colonial legacy. Neither of them expected this would eventually lead to their making a joint trip to Grenada, to visit that infamous plantation, meet Lewis’s father and try to resolve the pain and contradictions of the past. 

Trevelyan wants her family’s history to be a “catalyst for discussion”. To say it’s not an easy topic to broach would be an understatement. Reparations have become a heated front in the culture war: critics argue that holding people accountable today for things that happened hundreds of years ago is divisive and counter-productive. Proponents, including in this series, maintain that it’s not about blame. It’s about recognising the damage and finding ways to repair it.

Heirs of Enslavement is provocative. But it’s also a thoughtful, nuanced look at a highly polarising subject. Lewis’s father was part of the Windrush generation; he came to the UK because post-abolition Grenada offered so few opportunities. Now his son is an MP. That tells its own story. “If it wasn’t for enslavement… I wouldn’t have become a member of parliament who’s then in a position to raise the very issues of reparations and reparatory justice,” Lewis points out. It’s not just countries like Grenada that need this conversation, he argues. Britain does too.

Heirs of Enslavement

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This article appears in the 22 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The paranoid style