Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Monday, November 27, 2006

Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain has nothing to apologise for

Tony Blair is set to turn the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade next year into part of his 'feel good' farewell tour, where a grateful British public will hail the historic victories of Blairism. Rather than apologising for possibly the worst crime in British history - the slave trade - Blair wants us to 'rejoice' because eventually and reluctantly the British Government was forced to abolish it.

As Blair notes, perhaps with a trace of bitterness in his voice at the fact that his criminal Iraq war was declared 'illegal' by the former Secretary of the United Nations, 'It is hard to believe what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at the time.' He continues, 'I believe the bicentenary offers us not only a chance to say how profoundly shameful the slave trade was - how we condemn its existence utterly and praise those who fought for its abolition - but also to express our deep sorrow that it could ever have happened and rejoice at the better times we live in.'

It would of course be nice indeed if Blair really did praise the true heroes of abolition - the likes of Toussaint L'Ouverture and other leaders of slave revolts - or indeed the working class radicals and liberals in Britain - rather than simply praising British MPs like the Tory Wilberforce. Somehow I can't quite see Blair championing the Haitian war of Independence from British, French and Spanish colonial power - just as the Americans and British are getting their butts kicked in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Just as over Iraq, Blair expresses 'sorrow' and 'regret' over the 'disaster' - but explicitly appears to rule out an apology - as this inevitably would raise the question of blame and possibly reparations. And, just as over Iraq, as Gary Younge points out, an apology would inevitably undermine the 'necessary illusion' that Britain and 'the West' in general is superior to everyone else.

If Blair apologised for slavery - or indeed for Iraq - then it would undermine the Whig idea that Britain's past is one of the rise of 'democracy' and 'civilisation' and it would make people question New Labour's whole embrace of Victorian values on just about everything, from Gladstonian 'moral imperialism' abroad, to attacks on the 'feckless' 'undeserving' 'anti-social' poor at home.

Already New Labour historian Tristram Hunt has been wheeled out to try and explain to us why an apology would apparently be 'politically driven and devoid of historical context':

'William Wilberforce had no great affection for the African slave, but he had considerable regard for the spiritual state of England. He led the abolitionist crusade as part of his own evangelical vision for curtailing moral corruption. When Wilberforce's dogged certitude coalesced with a broader demand for political and social reform, the momentum towards 1807 was unstoppable. Ultimately it wasn't economics or security fears which ended the slave trade, it was public pressure and moral sentiment.

Which is why the 200th anniversary of abolition should be a moment of pride as much as guilt. The complexities of abolition mean that the kind of apology Tony Blair offered for the 1840s Irish potato famine - politically driven and devoid of historical context - does no service to the significance of abolition.'

After trying and failing to justify the lack of an apology as a historian, Hunt then simply gives the real reason why New Labour can't and won't apologise:'Any official apology on behalf of the British government would...be logically incoherent, it would unnecessarily goad middle England opinion and open up claims for reparations.' There we are - we can't tell the truth to [white] 'middle England' - because firstly they can't handle the truth and if we did tell them the truth their whole world would fall apart and secondly, it would cost us money that would be better spent on things like Trident nuclear submarines.

Yet without an acknowledgement that the British Empire did commit this historic 'crime against humanity', then the door is open for all sorts of myth making about British 'enlightened' rule and love of 'liberty'. As Professor James Walvin has commented: 'My worry about 2007 is that there will be such a euphoria of nationalistic pride that people will forget what happened before, which was that the British had shipped extraordinary numbers of Africans across the Atlantic.' His worries look well founded. After all the dominant traditional Oxford School of historiography about the slave trade - which Hunt represents - still rules in the academy as well as outside it. As the Trinidadian historian Eric Williams, author of the pioneering Capitalism and Slavery (1944), once pointed out, it seems at times that the only reason that the British engaged in the slave trade in the first place was so that they could have the glory of abolishing it. 2007, unfortunately, looks set to be one of those times.

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At 2:26 pm, Blogger Daphne Watermelon said...

it would also be far harder for blair to maintain his hero-worship of gladstone, if he apologises. gladstone's family made their money from slavery.

in any case, if blair wants to apologise, he can do it for iraq. then he can resign and kill himself.

and this may not be the best blog in the world, but it probably is.

At 3:35 pm, Blogger k. edward warmoth said...

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