Slavery: anger, horror, sadness: yes! An apology? Why?

March 25, 2007 at 5:56 pm (Anti-Racism, Human rights, Jim D, left, Livingstone, Racism, Slavery)

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.


  1. Jules said,

    “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.”

    If there are votes to be won from communities who suffer racism or who’s accestors were slaves does this not indicate that a formal appology for the barbarity of the slave trade could have an impact beyond mere “gesture politics”?

    Slavery is far from an issue of the past. I live in Bristol, one of the major former slave ports. Nelson Mandela was due to appear here to commemorate the slave trade but has boycotted the city after anti-racist groups pointed to him the discrimination and poverty that black people still suffer in the city. Black people still live in the poorest areas and the 70 strong coucil only has two non-white councellors.

    A landmark in Bristol is the Colston Hall – named after the slave merchant Edward Colston. Massive Attack refuse to play there and black groups are demanding that its name be changed – which the near all white council are refusing to do. Slavery is still an issue for these people – and its really that surprising is it?

    Personally I think that socialists should be applying the pressure for an apology – not least because such official recognition would help to demystify the nature of British imperialism and the current notions that its somesort of benevolent force for good. Its no coincidence that all the reactionaries are so indignant about the requests for an apology and Blair is probably more likely to join the AWL than ever say sorry for anything.

  2. voltaires_priest said,

    I’m personally unsure about the issue – I have no problem at all in principle with an apology for slavery. But it does have the smack of soft-left ’80s gesture politics about it, and to be honest I’m disinclined to take anything that Livingstone says at face value. However, for all that, I’m not against the gesture itself, if it would have some beneficial political effect for those communities being apologised to.

  3. Tony said,

    It is interesting that although we come from opposite ends of the political spectrum we have arrived at just about the same conclusion. I think this just goes to show that most matters of conscience should be left alone by politicians who will try to make capital out of the issue for electoral benefit.

  4. Jules said,

    Tony, I think it might be problematic for Jim that his post is being endorsed by a do gooder tory boy. Perhaps time for a rethink Jim?

  5. johng said,

    It was so obviously a right wing argument. as are all jim’s posts, and the increasingly potty voltaires Priest is usually right wing in a more liberal sort of a way.

    An unexamined part of the story of this astonishing ideological degeneration appears in Voltaires comment though. Terribly worried by ‘gesture politics’ of the 1980’s. Are these all people of a certain age who never grew up properly?

    The only thing any leftist from Britain should notice about any of this is the sheer graceless bad temperedness with the mere suggestion that British history is less then perfect.

    Most of the puce indignation is really an attempt to suggest that we bought higher moral standards to the world and the very idea of us apologising for anything is ridiculous…

    Ahhhhhhhhh, now I understand. Thats Jim’s entire world view isn’t it?

  6. Jim Denham said,

    John; I think the words “anger”, “horror” and “sadness” might just possibly suggest even to a numbskull like yourself, that I do *not* think that Britaish history is “perfect” or that Britain has “brought higher moral standards to the world” (higher than whose, btw): my argument is about something quite different: the futility and emptiness of “apologies” for things that no living person is responsible for, and how this in fact insults the intelligence of those who are intended to be appeased by such empty gestures.

  7. johng said,

    Well I don’t see why it does. I wish my country would take responsibility for the horrors of the British Empire and cease to prettify this history as a civilizing mission. For the very good reason that we are currently using this idea to get involved in more wars. There is not even a minimal historical consiousness about colonialism and children should be taught about it in schools and there should be discussions about the political and ethical implications, in the same way that the Holocaust was discussed in German Schools. So its not at all the case that such things are ‘meaningless’. I think the British State exists as does British Capitalism as does British Imperialism. It has a history. It should be taught properly. Then there could be no more of this pompous ‘then what?’ nonsense that you couldn’t quite restrain yourself from concluding with.

  8. voltaires_priest said,


    Had you been on the sauce when you wrote that first comment of yours?

    I quote, for the readers’ love and enjoyment:

    An unexamined part of the story of this astonishing ideological degeneration appears in Voltaires comment though. Terribly worried by ‘gesture politics’ of the 1980’s. Are these all people of a certain age who never grew up properly?

    The only thing any leftist from Britain should notice about any of this is the sheer graceless bad temperedness with the mere suggestion that British history is less then perfect.

    Note the flight of ideas evident between the first para and the second. They bear no relation to each other at all, and are equally untrue. Not that this is any great surprise coming from John, who specialises in wrong (and often downright misleading and insulting) conclusions drawn from untrue assumptions.

    The reality is that his own party – even in the 1980s – took a far more spartan line on issues of gesture politics than I do. Their recent conversion owes more to their tendency to support more or less anything that’s in the headlines as long as they can give it a left-wing “spin”, than it does to any actual ideological commitment or thorough thinking on their part.

    As indeed on a smaller scale, John’s increasingly shrill and irrational accusations directed at anyone on this site who disagrees with him, seem to show evidence that he is trying desperately to use hyperbole and shrieking rhetoric to cover a chronic lack of political substance on the part of himself and his organisation.

  9. voltairespriest said,

    I think the British State exists as does British Capitalism as does British Imperialism.

    Well spotted. I’m glad to see that expensive education of yours wasn’t entirely wasted. However, again this statement (which is true, albeit banal) bears no relation to the rest of your argument. Which in any case is a classic example of burning a straw man, since no-one was arguing the stance that you claim to be refuting.

  10. johng said,

    Well, yes, the SWP was hostile to ‘gesture’ politics in the 1980’s. You might have noticed that there have been a few political shifts since that time. In other words we face a right wing offensive on Empire, we’re constantly threatening war against third world countries, and raising issues about racism is no longer contrasted to a movement from below. You guys don’t seem to realise how wierd your politics are in the current scene. As fascinating and loathsome as the old RCP’s.

  11. voltaires_priest said,

    …and again, we see a generalised rant followed by an untrue insult which bears no relation to it. You’re getting pretty predictable.

    So come on then, what are “my politics in the current scene”, and how do they relate to the RCP’s?

    As opposed to yours, which resemble those of a stereotypical undergraduate leftie whose inclination is to yell “Like, you’re such a fa-shist, yah” at anyone who disagrees with him.

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