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Tuesday, November 28, 2006
What apology, if any, should Mr Blair make for Britain's role in the slave trade?
There are several ways of assessing whether one should be ashamed of the acts of a group to which one belongs.
To illustrate point (1), my pride in the role of Britain in putting down slavery must be accompanied by shame for the role of Britain in the slave trade. A pride that cannot encompass shame is a dead thing.
To illustrate point (2), I feel neither pride nor shame for the acts of whites or women. I had no choice about being born white or female and the utility of undergoing surgical procedures to demonstrate lack of solidarity with either condition is not obvious. In contrast, a member of a political party who resigns on a point of principle is acting meaningfully. Midway between the two extremes just mentioned comes the nation. Changing nationality on a point of principle is a major disruption but it can be done, at least for some of us.
To illustrate point (3) it would be crazy to re-spray your blue car because a serial killer was found to have a blue car; but if blue cars became known as a symbol denoting membership in some vicious gang it would not be crazy. (Added later: I was thinking of a gang in your area, one to which you could reasonably be supposed to belong.)
Point (4) refers to continuity of identity over time. Britain 2006 does have some continuity of identity with the Britain that carried out the slave trade. Although I would argue (and have argued, possibly at tedious length) that slavery is inefficient and does not enrich the societies that practice it, there seems little doubt that Africa is poorer because of slavery, even if Britain is not richer. Of course Britain in 2006 has more continuity with the Britain that abolished slavery and flung its ships and men to Zanzibar, West Africa and Brazil in order to stop the slave trade.
Nonetheless, all my four points seem to apply. It is certainly right for Tony Blair (and not only him) to feel patriotic regret for Britain's role in the slave trade. For Tony Blair as Prime Minister to make an official statement of regret about the slave trade is not an outrage to common sense. (Even though it is mostly an opportunity to display virtue, and to make party political points about lottery funds and immunisation programmes.) Who knows, perhaps his action will serve as a model for the coming statements of deep personal sorrow about the slave trade from various Arab and African rulers? At any rate it may make some people, black and white, feel more at peace with their history, and there are many worse uses of his time.But among all this acknowledgement let us acknowledge one more thing. The slaves are all dead, the masters are all dead, and pride, shame and a sense of injury are all among the things that the living sometimes steal from the dead.