The build-up to today’s bicentenary of the British parliament’s “abolition” of the slave trade (but not slavery itself) has been an overwhelmingly positive thing. The BBC has played a particularly good role, with a host of excellent TV and radio programmes portraying the horror and barbarism of the slave trade and explaining why black people still feel scarred by it to this day (a very good Radio 4 play on Saturday afternoon, featuring comedian Lenny Henry, drove this home in a powerful, non-didactic way). Simon Schama’s BBC 2 TV programme ‘Rough Crossings’, this Friday (about the slaves who fought for the British in the American war of independence, and how the Brits eventually betrayed them in Sierra Leone) , was also a convincing vindication of the licence fee.
Sure, we could have done with a little less emphasis on Christian do-gooders like William Wilberforce (a thoroughly reactionary figure, apart from his opposition to slavery), and rather more upon people like Toussaint L’Ouverture and the other slave rebels, who laid their lives on the line by confronting slavery in the only way left open to them as self-respecting human beings.
Certainly, right-wing shits like the Guardian‘s loathsome islolationist Simon Jenkins, bleating about how “This week Britain celebrates the feast of the empty gesture…the BBC has gone potty. Tony Blair will presumably find a black person and say ‘I feel your pain'”, should be treated with the contempt they deserve. But on one issue – and one issue only – the likes of Jenkins have a point: this solemn and massively important commemoration has very nearly been hijacked by the ridiculous posturings of those demanding an “apology”: predictably, the ever-opportunist Mayor of London has been at the forefront of those seeking to demean and divert this commemoration by raising this ultimate excercise in gesture politics. Livingstone (or rather, his scribe), says “Germany apologised for the Holocaust. We must for the slave trade”. That argument ignores one rather obvious fact: when Germany apologised for the Holocaust, adult Germans had participated in, or at least passively witnessed, what had happened. Their apology meant something real. To apologise for something that you are not personally responsible for, is to insult the intelligence of the person or persons you are “apologising” to. In the case of that arch-opportunist and poseur Livingstone, the suspicion is unaviodable that his “apology” on behalf of London, was in reality, mere pandering to ethnic and cultural constituencies that deliver him votes.
Amazingly, that buffoon Prescott struck a more appropriate and relevant note, when he told the Guardian (March 23 2007): ” We need to get the proper history told, including the good, the bad and (the) dreadful. For instance, we need to recall that parliament for the best part of a century facilitated slavery. It did not just have an overnight intellectual conversion. Public opinion made the change and forced the change on parliament. We have fed it into our minds that a Christian from Hull, William Wilberforce, came along and changed the law in 1807. It was remarkable, but the real change came from working people.
“It is one of the reasons why I would like us to pick a date every year. The legacy of this 200th anniversary should be a permanent date when we ask whether there is more we could do, so that every year, like Holocaust (Remebrance Day), we remind people of the horrors. Each year we should think about it and commemorate and rededicate ourselves to helping people on which such horrors were committed”. For once, I’m not going to take the piss out of Precott’s syntax.
But a real, meaningful tribute to the victims of the “other” holocaust would be to join the fight against modern-day slavery and super-exploitation, by joining No Sweat and/or Labour Behind the Label: campaigning against modern-day slavery is worth a million empty apologies.