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March 26, 2007


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Mark Wadsworth

Yes we should apologise, which we have done. Yes we should pay compensation to Africa, which we have done dozens of times over - it's called "Third World Aid". End of discussion.

Andrew Zalotocky

I think it's a lot simpler than that. The people who are most enthusiastic about apologising are the usual leftist suspects, for whom it's just another chance to portray Britain as uniquely evil. As for Blair and the Church of England, they demonstrate the extent to which the liberal establishment is afflicted with the multi-cultural cringe.


In the context of the African nations' recent hardline stance, this is about money -compensation. End of story.

Rob Spear

Like Andrew says, it's just another stick to beat the traditional freedoms of England into submission. What proportion of those filthy, disgusting Tories do you reckon have inherited wealth, and of them how many are "dirty money"?

Nigel Sedgwick

I'm not really one for having heros. However, if I was, Edmund Burke would be high on the list.

I wonder if, in his view, it would be better to expend one's energies in apologising for the past mistakes of one's "partnership" or better to expend it in trying to avoid said "partnership" needing to apologise in the immediate or distant future.

Now, of course, Burke would probably consider it better not to have a general theory on this, but to judge according to "the gravity of the case".

Does this case have "gravity"?

Or are some of its proponents looking to make either an easy buck, or trouble? And the others are just short of anything more worthwhile to do with their lives? And/or perhaps suckers for the schemes of proponents of the first type?

Best regards


There is another view. I don't want to be benefiting from illegitimate advantage (even indirectly), and this is the basis for my supporting reparations for slavery. It's also the basis of my supporting some form of socialist redistribution. I would imagine that many left wing people would feel the same way. It's not inconsistent.


Maybe the question is independent of any thick general theory of the nature of society. Even those who think that society is a collection of atomised individuals (might) agree that a nation (or a state) persists over time, and that it can act freely, and so can be held liable for its acts. That’s sufficient to ground the sort of liability that those wanting an apology need.

I think the problem for Tories is the deeper (why exactly is Ken likelier to be individualist?). It shouldn’t matter to a consistent tribal Tory that his country did horrible things in the past, since his attachment to his patch is supposed to follow from the mere fact of its being his patch. But we see Tories, apparently sincerely, explaining that slavery wasn’t such a bad thing, or that the UK in 2006 is not liable for its past vilenesses, or that the UK is to be commended for its abolition of the trade. So, reasons matter for the attachment of (even the most tribal of) Tories to their country after all. Which suggests that the inhumanity is confined to their political philsophy.


It's rather simpler than you give it credit for. To apologise, one must be directly responsible for the hurt caused and must apologise to those directly hurt. As both parties are long dead, this is impossible.

I cannot and will not take any responsibility for actions that I have not directly caused. I have never owned a slave, never sold a slave nor ever had any involvement in the trade. To suggest that two hundred years after the events that we are prospering from it is absurd. If we are, then so, too, are the descendants of slaves.

So, when are the French going to apologise for Napoleon Bonaparte?

That is just how silly the apology argument is.


An apology would raise the question of whom one could apologise to - the African descendants of the blokes who sold fellow-Africans into slavery originally? It would also raise the question of restitution, which would presumably logically take the form of rounding up the descendants of the slaves and repatriating them to Africa. Who on earth could support such a horrible idea? Perhaps the conclusion is that the playground idea that everything can somehow be made right by an apology hasn't got much purchase here. I'll make my own suggestion, though. Can we agree to hurl ordure at any twit who equates non-slavery to slavery e.g. indentured labour, serfdom or even, God help us, living in a pit village?


Oh, here's something else that perhaps we could do something about: scroll down to Sunday.


It's possible that self-interest has won out over intellectual consistency, but not in the way you think (I don't find your Tory theory very convincing). As a politician, it's in Livingstone's interests to apologise: an apology is the verbal equivalent of a pork barrel project, which greatly pleases a small number of people and doesn't greatly displease the rest of the electorate. Jenkins, OTOH, is paid to be contrarian, so we shouldn't be surprised to see him oppose the establishment line.

As an aside, I think your characterisations are a little tenuous. Surely* Livingstone's influences are more classically socialist than Rawls, and though Jenkins may be a conservative, he doesn't strike me as being particularly Burkean.

*The word I use when I'm not sure

Jeffrey Mushens

If you're proud of being British, of our long tradition of liberty (think Magna Carta, charter of Henry 1, Declaration of Arbroath), and of our unforced (by outsiders) abolition of the slave trade and of slavery itself, then you've also got to be ashamed of the (truly) bad things in our past. And I think our participation in the slave trade, knowing its moral turpitude, was the worst. So we should apologize. Because it was wrong and we knew it was wrong then.


I may not be personally responsible for slavery, but I do benefit from it. The industrial revolution of the 19th century was driven by, amongst other things, slavery and its outcomes. I can't see why it is absurd to say that we are prospering from events 200 years ago. Apart from the fact that slavery did not, in fact, end 200 years ago, is Longrider seriously suggesting that we don't, today, still prosper because of the events of the industrial revolution? Seriously?

And I personally subscribe to a view somewhere between 1 and 2 - they are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Me, I'd say apologise. It would cost me nothing but might bring some peace or satisfaction to others.

Kevin Carson

Most of that "Third World aid" is actually aid to Western corporations that want to export capital to the Third World.

And apologizing for slavery by itself doesn't mean much unless it's part of a confrontation with the much broader acts of statist robbery in the same time period--lumped together by radical economists as "primitive accumulation"--by which modern capitalism was founded. That means not only slavery, but massive land thefts in the Third World (not to mention the Enclosures and other abrogations of the peasantry's land tenure rights at home), the acts of violence by which the Indian textile industry was suppressed, and the mercantilist policies by which most of the world's trade was forced onto British bottoms and competing production was suppressed.

Slavery was outlawed and tariffs were lowered when the owning classes no longer found them useful. It's a bit like looting all of someone's property and then saying "OK, no more stealing starting.... NOW!"

Orwell had it wrong--the *past* is a boot stamping on a human face. The problem is that we're still living inside the structural framework created by those acts of violence.


As far as I see it, an apology for the slave trade at this point is meaningless- not simply because of the time elapsed, which is certainly a factor, but rather because of the subsequent efforts Britain made to stamp out the trade.

I'm surprised that while there's been a whole lot of focus on William Wilberforce, nobody ever mentions the Royal Navy's Anti-Slavery Patrol in the years afterwards. This, combined with the strenuous British diplomatic efforts to ensure abolition in other countries seems to be more then enough to preclude an apology today; David Eltis' book "Economic growth and the ending of the transatlantic slave trade" even goes as far as to state that the costs incurred by Britain in stifling the slave trade in the 19th century were greater then the economic benefits the trade gave in the 18th.

Actions speak louder then words in this case, I feel.


Katherine -- slavery was not an important driver of the Industrial Revolution. The combined profits of the slave trade and the West Indian plantations accounted for less than 5% of Britain's national income at that time. Furthermore, the Royal Navy's post-abolition role in suppressing the slave trade cost Britain a lot, possibly more than was ever gained from slavery in the first place. So the argument that we (as in we white Britons) have all profited from slavery is dubious. And even if it were true, would it not be equally fair to say that millions of prosperous African-Americans have also indirectly benefited from slavery?


Jon, I'm gonna have to disagree with you on that one - and use the literature of Anti-Slavery International, amongst other groups, as my source. I don't know where you got the 5% figure from, not that I'm disagreeing with you, but I do wonder what "at that time" means. The Transatlantic Slave Trade, through the 17th and 18th centuries drive a huge amount of eceonomic development for the UK - the development of the ports that became some of the drivers of the Industrial Revolution, to give one example.

Your assertion, may I say, does not seem to be backed up by any facts. If Britain hadn't benefitted from the slave trade, then why, pray, would it have kept doing it until it was made illegal (on moral, not economic grounds)?

As for whether it would be equally fair to say that prosperous African-Americans mnight also indirectly benefitted - this may well be the case - what of it? An unintended consequence doesn't make an original bad act any less bad.


Katherine -- Table III of Engerman's "The Slave Trade and British Capital Formation in the Eighteenth Century" (Business History Review, Winter 1972, 46 -- e-mail me if you want the PDF) shows that the contribution of slave trade profits was never more than 1% at any time between 1688 and 1800.

As to your second point: I was being somewhat facetious, but it's worth noting that in legal terms your claim is incorrect. Tort law is basically consequentialist in its reasoning -- if the good stemming from one's actions outweighs the harm, then there is no tort, regardless of intentions.

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