Blair takes the blame for slavery, but not for Iraq

According to the lead story in today's Observer, Tony Blair is about to issue a virtual apology for the slave trade in an article for a black community magazine, New Nation.  It's only 'virtual' because he nimbly avoids the words 'apologise' or even 'sorry', but he announces that the trade was 'profoundly shameful' and that 'we condemn its existence utterly', and 'express our deep sorrow that it ever happened' (oops, that's dangerously close to saying we're sorry, isn't it?).  

In a crisp comment on this latest buffoonery, Tim Worstall is disposed to be generous about the 'apology' ("I wouldn't say that I'm all that worried about Blair's apology for slavery"), although he goes on to despatch pretty briskly the even more ludicrous assertion that those who apologise for a wrong committed by others must pay 'reparations' to those wronged (or, in this case presumably, their great-great-great-great grandchildren). Personally, I'm less inclined than Tim to be generous about the Blair quasi-apology.  Those who assert their right to apologise for the wrongs committed by others, especially when those others are long dead, devalue the whole concept of apology, which entails contrition and an acknowledgement of guilt.  The offence is all the greater if the apology is issued on behalf of the whole current population of Britain (or, by implication, that part of the population whose ancestry in Britain goes back to the period between 1450 and the early nineteenth century;  more recent immigrants and their descendants are no doubt excused), all of them equally guiltless of the offence apologised for.  

The Blair 'apology' also commits the serious ahistorical blunder of seeking to apply 20th and 21st century moral values to a much earlier age.  Ideas of right and wrong which seem to most of us timeless and absolute are in many cases socially derived and organic, changing from century to century.  When will our prime minister apologise for the hanging of children for stealing a loaf of bread, or for the tortures inflicted by the Star Chamber, or for the practice by a former monarch of having his more unsatisfactory wives beheaded?   All these things, like slavery, once seemed part of the natural order of things.  The judicial killing of murderers and flogging of schoolchildren were fiercely defended by upright moralisers in my own lifetime (a few left-overs on the far right, and rather more Americans, would still advocate restoring them).  But Mr Blair can't grasp the concept that what seems obviously wrong to us now once seemed perfectly OK to our ancestors:

'It is hard to believe that what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at the time,' the Prime Minister will say.

Well, Mr Blair may find it hard to believe, but there's a lot more, and more cogent, evidence for it than there ever was for WMD in Iraq.  What's more, slavery had not only that barely credible legal backing that so astonishes Mr Blair, but sound biblical authority too, as our bible-reading prime minister ought to know:

However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you.  You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land.  You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance.  You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way.  (Leviticus 25:44-46 [NLT]) 

(Exodus 21:2-6 and 21:20-21 are worth a glance, too.)  And, even better known, from the New Testament, lest Leviticus and Exodus be regarded as superseded:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear.  Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ.  (Ephesians 6:5 [NLT])

Admittedly, the devil may quote scripture for his purpose, but it's a free country, even for the devil. 

The Observer article recalls that two years ago, a group was demanding an apology for slavery from the Queen, when–

Rendezvous of Victory, a group which seeks to combat the legacy of slavery, said it would call on the Queen to issue an apology. Its joint co-ordinator, Kofi Mawuli Klu, said he was disappointed by Blair's suggestion that slavery is a thing of the past: 'He's missed the point. They do not understand contemporary enslavement. There is nothing in this statement about the enduring legacy of slavery in terms of racism and global injustice.'

According to Mr Klu, it seems that "racism and global injustice" can be equated with slavery, so we're (nearly) all guilty after all, although it's not clear what would be achieved in the cause of eliminating racism or global injustice by a mass apology for their existence by either the Queen or Tony Blair on behalf of the rest of us.  Blaming others for past evils (as we now perceive them to have been) comes a lot cheaper than doing something practical and effective about the elimination of current ones, which requires energy and clear thinking.  And Mr Klu might care to direct his condemnations at the modern, existing practitioners of slavery in its true and original sense.  He could start by visiting the website of the Anti-Slavery Society, "Fighting Slavery Today", including its documenting of slavery practised now in west Africa.  Tackling such wrongs calls for a lot more than an apology.


2 Responses

  1. Tim Weakley says:

    Many thanks for expressing so lucidly what I too felt on reading today’s Observer.  One cannot apologise – admit responsibility and express remorse – for what one did not do, except in some trivial everyday situations as when a parent apologises for an unruly toddler.  The people responsible for slavery, the ship-masters, their financial backers, and the politicians and rulers who looked on complacently, are long since dead, and all any of us can do now is express disgust that it happened (while recalling, as you point out, how values change).  The people now calling for a formal apology are simply putting themselves in the position of being labelled professional victims.  Incidentally I’d point out that anyone with roots in this country more than a generation or two back, even though his or her ancestor arrived after 1807, almost certainly is descended from participants in the slave trade, perhaps by several routes.

  2. Phil says:

    There’s an insight into Blair’s thinking on this issue in today’s Guardian. Quote:

    Plans for Mr Blair’s apology became public this month after Lady Amos showed notes from a meeting with the prime minister discussing whether to back a UN resolution on slavery tabled by Caribbean countries. The notes contained the phrases "window closing, political pressure mounts, get it out of way" and "do it before end of year". The notes said the apology would be "internationally recognised" and "status enhancing".

    I’m starting to believe you could get Blair to do just about anything – declare war, bring back the rope, reinstate slavery – by telling him that it would be status enhancing and (even more important) that the window was closing and he needed to get it out of the way. Busy, busy!