Thursday, 1 October 2015

No, Britain Absolutely Should Not Pay Reparations For The Slave Trade

Jamaica's Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller has called on David Cameron to personally apologise for Britain's role in the slave trade, and to even consider paying reparation money too. It was good that David Cameron uttered the words 'Jog on!', or words to that effect, because the idea of contemporary nations apologising or paying reparations for our ancestors' role in the historic slave trade is an ugly and egregious notion.

Now let's be absolutely clear: the slave trade was horrific, despicable and a truly abhorrent legacy for which some of our ancestors ought to have felt much shame, regret and contrition. But that sentiment must apply to - and only apply to - people who were personally involved, and people around at the time who didn't do enough to stop it - it is certainly not David Cameron's duty to apologise or offer financial restitution for these past crimes against humanity.

The very basis of contrition, regret and atonement is that we are moral agents who must take responsibility for our own actions, not the actions of people we've never met and to whom we have no personal connection.

But there is another point to this opprobrious news story: in asking us to live in the past, the valuable notion of 'moving on' and acknowledging the progress that has been made in the intervening time is being diminished, which to me smacks of treating the current people of Jamaica a little too trivially and disrespectfully. It sees to me rather patronising to talk of the citizens of Jamaica as being people so stuck in the past that they haven't moved on and are still preoccupied with righting the wrongs of history.

Perhaps they are, but I would like to think not: for if there is one valuable thing to be learned from being human it is that harbouring resentments from the past is rather like pouring hot coals on your own head and expecting it to burn the scalp of your enemy. Imagine how much that truism is magnified when the people who've done the wronging did so at a time when your grandparents weren't even born.