Slaves to self-flagellation

Tony Blair's half-apology for the slave trade has been hailed as noble. In fact it was more for his benefit than anyone else's.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

UK prime minister Tony Blair has issued a statement to the black community newspaper, New Nation, condemning Britain’s role in the slave trade. Next year is the bicentenary of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade, and according to Blair: ‘[T]he bicentenary offers us a chance not just to say how profoundly shameful the slave trade was, but also to express our deep sorrow that it ever happened.’ (1) As Iraq spirals further out of control, and there are pressing questions regarding the management of the NHS, it is reassuring to know that Blair is against a practise that was abolished nearly 200 years ago.

It is not the first time that Tony Blair has expressed ‘sorrow’ for the actions of Britain’s colonial past. In 1997, Blair publicly said he ‘reflected’ on the deaths caused by the Irish Potato Famine. The purpose of such statements has always been to flatter the conceit of New Labour’s project. Although the government has always lacked a positive, forward-looking vision of Britain, at least Blair can try to appear benign and morally righteous compared with the old days of race and empire.

Yet such developments are not merely PR stunts. They are an attempt to find a new source of legitimacy for Britain’s political system as a whole. Indeed, Blair’s crowning achievement in office has been to transform the British state into an ‘anti-racist’ and therapeutic institution. Such is the powerful consensus surrounding official multiculturalism that Blair can score some easy political points by lambasting the slave trade. Paul Stephenson, a black activist in Bristol, said: ‘It’s historic for a British prime minister to say this and it is to be welcomed.’ Meanwhile, in an Observer article on Sunday, Blair’s emotional handwringing was said to shape a ‘progressive public climate’ (2). Both of these responses are wrong-headed.

For a decade now, raking over Britain’s former role in the slave trade in Africa has loomed large in Britain’s education system and culture. So much so that black newspapers and organisations such as Rendezvous of Victory have been spurred on to seek public apologies for slavery from Tony Blair or the Queen. For Kofi Mawuli Klu, such measures are needed to confront slavery’s ‘enduring legacy’. Other commentators argue that since ‘the evidence for Britain’s slave trade is all around us’, it must still have contemporary relevance – and surely an apology is needed?

It is true to say that, up until recently, Britain’s colonial past did have an influence on state authorities and institutions. For example, racist immigration controls re-produced Britain’s relationship to its former colonies within the domestic sphere. But as ideas about race have been dramatically transformed, it’s hard to see how colonial policing methods have much purchase for a self-consciously ‘anti-racist’ state. If anything, the real contemporary legacy of slavery is that it provides a form of therapeutic self-flagellation for the establishment, while strengthening the state’s ‘anti-racist’ and therapeutic turn in the process.

Outside all of this, discussing the horrors of the slave trade underpins much of the multiculturalist prejudice against modernity. There’s nothing particularly wrong with commemorating and discussing atrocities and barbarism. After all, CLR James’ writings on the black slave’s revolt are required reading for any students of history. What is dubious today is the one-sided preoccupation with death and destruction and the highly conservative conclusions drawn. In school history teaching, the overemphasis on Nazi Germany and the enslavement of Africans seems to question the validity of Enlightenment modernity (see The Hitlerisation of history teaching by Neil Davenport). For example, one riposte against the beliefs on liberty and equality that were a cornerstone of the Enlightenment is to say that liberal thinker John Locke was ambivalent about the slave trade in The Second Treatise of Government.

Postmodernists often cite this as proof that Enlightenment claims to universalism are merely partial, Eurocentric concerns. But Locke was writing in 1690 when a peasant’s economy was only beginning to give way to free-trade capitalism. It was only through the development of the productive forces of society that concepts such as equality and liberty began to have a real impact. Far from modernity condoning and extending the slave trade, it was only through Enlightenment thought that such practices were considered to be reprehensible.

Alongside such selective readings of history, the slave trade commemorations also attempt to show how we’re all passively chained to the past. In his statement, Blair discusses the slave trade almost as if he was personally and directly involved. Likewise, the spokespeople for Rendezvous of Victory talk about ‘the ongoing psychological damage’ caused by slavery to Britain’s black community. Quite how postwar migrants from Africa or second- and third-generation African-Caribbeans are supposed to be ‘connected’ with the slave trade is anyone’s guess.

For anti-racists, defending the Enlightenment notions of equality and liberty, it is precisely because biological appearance is ‘an accident of history’, and therefore meaningless, that attempts to racialise people have been vigorously attested. By contrast, multiculturalist debates on slavery, and the need to apologise, imply that humans are fixed and determined by long-standing genealogy. The triumph of such essentialist thought is not only corrosively anti-human; it lays the basis for irresolvable grievances to flourish. It’s notable that Blair’s statement of regret on the slave trade still didn’t go far enough for some. Mawuli Klu described Blair’s failure to say ‘sorry’ as ‘adding insult to the lingering injuries of the enslavement of African people by the European ruling classes’ (3).

While claims to essentialism can be pandered to, they can never be fully appeased, especially when allied to the most viable currency going – victimhood. Blair and his supporters may like to believe that displays of self-flagellation will pave the way for a climate of cosmopolitan understanding. In fact, it will nurture further resentment and further claims for victimhood. When radical Islamists talk about avenging the Crusades from 1,000 years ago, you can’t help thinking to yourself: now where could they have got an idea like that…?

In the short-term, though, denouncing Britain’s role in the slave trade is about trying to shore up some much needed legitimacy for Blair. He’s right, of course, to point out that the abolition of slavery was a progressive historical development, and we have Enlightenment modernity to thank for that. Yet the real point of discussing past atrocities is not to dwell on them, but to point the way forward to a society where inequality and unfreedom are truly consigned to the past.

By this criterion, Blair and his government fall short. They create new restrictions on liberty as busily as they denounce long-dormant ones. The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill, and the extending reach of the Sex Offenders Register; ASBOs and the culture of constant surveillance; the ever-shrinking rights of terrorism suspects and the criminalisation of free speech. Somehow I doubt whether Blair will be expressing ‘deep sorrow’ over his own government’s anti-freedom record just yet.

Neil Davenport is a writer and lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

(1) Blair: Britain’s ‘sorrow’ for shame of slave trade, Observer, 26 November 2006

(2) Slavery: The long road to our historic ‘sorrow’, Observer, 26 November 2006

(3) Slavery: The long road to our historic ‘sorrow’, Observer, 26 November 2006

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today