Wednesday 10 June 2020

Let's abolish slavery where it is

My mother was born in 1933. She grew up in a Britain without racism. The police did not beat up black people. There was no discrimination against black people. We didn’t have any laws regarding racial discrimination. Sporting events were completely free from any ugly racist chants and no one thought about black lives mattering or not mattering. The only black people my mother ever saw in those days were in films or news reels.

In 1945 there were very few people from ethnic minorities indeed living in Britain. We were like modern day Poland or Belarus. In World War II Poland lost 17% of its population. Belarus lost 25%.  By contrast the United Kingdom lost 0.94%. But while Poland and Belarus rebuilt with what they had, Britain decided to gradually increase immigration.

 There are advantages and disadvantages to immigration. Britain is multicultural whereas Poland and Belarus are almost exclusively monocultural. Immigration has brought us economic benefits. It has given us talented British people who would not be here if their parents had not decided to come here.

In Poland and Belarus identity is a matter of the language you speak and who your parents are. Someone from Grodno in Belarus with Polish parents is Polish, citizenship has little to do with it.

In Britain we are more inclusive. We accept that every British citizen is as British as every other. We don’t care what language you speak, or where your parents came from. The British identity is open to all in a way that is simply not the case in most of the world. Yet this our shared identity is under attack.

The proportion of ethnic minorities in Britain has risen from less than 1% in 1945 to approximately 13% in 2011. None of these people were taken aboard slave ships and forced to come here. They either came voluntarily or their parents did so.

Migration has brought benefits, but it has also brought things that have been less welcome. There is a long list of race riots stretching back to the 1950s. There have been gangs and crime. Some British cities have become informally segregated. We have had to learn about cultural practices such as forced marriage and honour killings and worse that had not been present here since medieval times. We have had to deal with terrorism committed by adherents to a religion that was hardly here at all when my mother was born. We have had to develop a whole series of laws to deal with racism, which was a problem that simply did not exist prior to 1945.

So, while acknowledging that immigration since 1945 has brought with it great benefits it’s worth taking into account that it hasn’t always been easy for any of us.

There is no question that racism exists in Britain. Some members of ethnic minorities face horrible discrimination. But a quick look at our present Government shows that people can overcome prejudice and succeed. Rishi Sunak and Priti Patel hold two of the highest jobs in Government. They do so on merit.  Other black people too numerous to mention have reached the top in all professions.

Racial discrimination is illegal in Britain. Anyone who acts in a racist manner is liable to lose their job if not their liberty. Discrimination still exists, but the solution is for British people to fight this together rather than to single out one side of our society as guilty while the other is innocent.

The attack on monuments in Britain is an attack on the history good and bad that made Britain the country that it is. It is unjust for people whose families did not fight off the attack from Nazi Germany to call those who did racist.  

When I walk through the average British city, I see statues of people I don’t recognise.  You would have to be a great expert or else looking for something to destroy to be able to tell who each of these statues was and how they earned their money.

The problem is not one statue, the problem is one of escalation. After the mob throws one statue into the harbour, it is rewarded with another. So, encouraged it seeks a new target.

The focus on slavery is ill-judged. Britain was not merely in the forefront of the movement to abolish slavery, we spent 40% of the Treasury’s annual income in 1833 to do so. We then used the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron to prevent the Atlantic slave trade and succeed in eradicating it. For this we get almost zero credit and much blame.

In the modern world there is still slavery, but hardly any of it is in Britain nor is it is the USA. Slavery exists to the greatest extent in Africa, India and Pakistan, North Korea and Russia. But Black Lives Matter is uninterested in modern forms of slavery. It prefers to riot and topple statues of slave owners from centuries ago.

Britain and the United States are democracies and each of our citizens has equal rights before the law. There is injustice, there is racism, but few of our citizens whose families have arrived here recently regret that decision. If they did, they could reverse it.

If we get rid of every monument to every person who owned slaves or had connections with the slave trade, we will not merely get rid of Colson, we will get rid of Robert Burns, William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. Serfdom, after all,  was equally a form of slavery. In America if you get rid of Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart you will eventually have to get rid of Grant’s Tomb and Mount Rushmore.

Worse that that you will have to get rid of the Lincoln Memorial.

Lincoln freed the slaves, but he also said “my first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land.” Imagine if Trump said that today. But if you get rid of Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson, what would be left. It wouldn’t be America.

If Sadiq Khan’s family had moved to Warsaw in 1968 he would not now be the mayor of that city, no matter how hard he had worked. He might not even be recognised as Polish by his fellow citizens. If he tried to destroy a statue of a Polish historical figure, he disliked he would be met with fury. If he called Polish people racist for fighting Nazis he would be met with bemusement.

Demonstrations, violence, vandalism and toppling statues will free no slaves in Pakistan, India and Africa and elsewhere, but it will poison race relations in Britain. We need to get beyond race in order to find our shared humanity. 

Let's abolish slavery where it is rather than destroy statues where it isn't