Thursday, November 30, 2006

Should Blair have apologised for slavery?

Tory MP calls for an apology for Henry VIII's treatment of women, as a satire of Blair's recent comments on the slave trade.

This, for me, raises an interesting question. The slave trade in Britain ended 200 years ago. This means that one has to travel back quite a few generations to reach an ancestor who was around at the the time. Leaving aside questions of whether what Blair said went far enough (though, let's face it, there was absolutely no pragmatic point in not turning his statement into a full apology. There was hardly going to be backlash), I think it is interesting to consider if an apology was necessary now at all. After all, neither he as a person, nor we as a country have had any direct contact with legal slavery and not much indirect contact either.

True, it can be said that as a member of the white middle class, I am enjoying this position because of historical consequences of the slave trade. But even if this is the case - and I'm not convinced that after 200 years it is, though I acknowledge that this is a largely subjective and unanswerable question - I did not chose to be born to white, middle-class parents. That I am in this context is nothing to do with me, it is an accident of birth. So if I do enjoy indirect benefits of the slave trade, it is not my responsibility and not my fault. Nor anyone else's. It is simply the way things are. So why should Blair have apologised for the actions of people he is not connected to in any way, except a sharing of geopgraphical territory over a wide time-span?

Did his statement change anything? I don't think so: no one who had previously been pro or ambivalent towards slavery, if indeed there are any such people, is likely to have been galvanised towards a change of mind.

This is not to say that I don't think actions aimed at neutralising or mitigating historical, social circumstances are anything but necessary, but I feel that an apology is irrelevant - Blairs semi-apology even more so.

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