“Elite private schools, banks, and country homes were all built on the back of slavery and colonialism. Even now, we are only just beginning to reckon with this history and understand its linkages with the present.”
By Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP
At Prime Minister’s Question Time last month, I asked Rishi Sunak if the Government would offer an official apology for Britain’s role in the Transatlantic slave trade. Given the Tories’ recent dismal track record on truthfulness, accountability, and antiracism I wasn’t unsurprised by the flatout “no” I received from the Prime Minister.
But I was appalled by the roll-back from the usual platitudes of sorrow and deep regret, and the sheer disrespect of his failure to acknowledge the late great Bernie Grant MP, who I referenced in my question on the anniversary of his death.
Whilst it might be politically expedient for Sunak to play up to his base by dismissing out of hand the call for an apology, we’re entering an age where it can no longer be ignored. And when the richest Prime Minister in British history, with a net worth of £730 and a Cabinet of millionaires trailing behind him says “unpicking our history is not the right way forwards”, we cannot ignore the fact that the institutions, tax arrangements and financial offshoring that maintain their wealth are all the legacy of the British Empire. Perhaps they’re worried that this might mean “unpicking” the very institutions that put the upper echelons of society where they are.
So much of the inequality and racism we face in the present is a legacy of chattel slavery. Anyone who seriously believes that it’s a matter of ancient history should try telling this to survivors of the Windrush Scandal. The truth is that Britain’s extensive role in the slave trade enriched the capitalist class and left no part of our society untouched.
Elite private schools, banks, and country homes were all built on the back of slavery and colonialism. Even now, we are only just beginning to reckon with this history and understand its linkages with the present.
The Transatlantic slave trade was one of the largest forced migrations in the history of nations, with Britain second only to Portugal in the number of slaves transported. The British Empire was one of the largest in history. Empire enthusiasts like to point out that Britain was the first country to ban slavery. They’re less keen to point out that slave owners were paid off with the biggest loan in state history whilst the enslaved were sent out into the world without a penny.
They’re even less keen to point out the way our economy benefitted from the slave trade long after this happened, albeit with sometimes courageous resistance from the British working class, such as the Lancashire cotton workers. The Right act as if we’re snowflakes for refusing to simply draw a line under this history and pretend it has nothing to do with the world we live in today. They’re the real snowflakes, who can’t stare the truth in the face and say sorry.
No apology or abstract sum of money can ever atone for the violence inflicted on human beings in our country’s name. And reparatory justice isn’t about reimagining the past, it’s about reimagining a future built on equality. The apology Bernie Grant first asked for all those years ago is a basis for action to address its legacy. So much of this would cost us nothing and really does begin to move us forwards: from returning stolen artefacts to cancelling debts that have been repaid over and over, and education that actively engages with Britain’s history of Empire across the curriculum.
Sunak’s high-handed refusal to apologise did not go unremarked in former colonies like Belize or St Vincent and the Grenadines, where Presidents condemned his refusal to apologise for Britain’s role in the Transatlantic slave trade. Anyone who understood this history and its ongoing impact on international relations would be a little less dismissive.
And for those not swayed by the purely moral argument, I would ask them to consider our place in the world as Britain turns its back on European diplomatic and trading partners. The call for reparations is only growing harder to ignore.