Joseph Loconte, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is the editor of The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm.
There were fearful looks as a lone protestor disrupted the otherwise solemn service at Westminster Abbey marking the 200th anniversary of the Parliamentary act to abolish the slave trade. “This is an insult to us,” shouted Toyin Agbetu, leader of an organization pushing African-British identity, before he was led away by security guards. “You are a disgrace to our ancestors.” Attendees—including the Queen, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams—seemed stunned and anguished by the unscripted spasm of rage.
It was, in fact, an entirely predictable episode. The clamoring for apologies and reparations for slavery over recent weeks—stoked by steady coverage from the BBC—made Tuesday’s Westminster debacle almost inevitable. The greater sadness, though, is that the bitter recriminations deprecate the decency and valor of what Britain accomplished by ending its part in human trafficking.
Last week, for example, London Mayor Ken Livingstone dismissed the contribution of parliamentarian William Wilberforce in defeating the slave trade and demanded national contrition. Livingstone called on all Londoners to repent of their “squalid” evasion of guilt. In an op-ed for The Guardian, the mayor summoned all residents to join him in “formally apologizing for London’s role in this monstrous crime.”
As wags here put it, Mayor Livingstone has much to apologize for (see this excellent 18 Doughty Street video) —his broken promises on taxes, embrace of communist thugs Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, and alliance with Islamic militants—but slavery isn’t on the list. Nevertheless, at a moment of national remembrance, he inspired a new round of BBC programs devoted to the question of apologies and reparations.
Anglican leader John Sentamu used the BBC One Sunday program (evidently he was not in church) to call on the government to apologize. The second most senior cleric in the Church of England told his interviewer that Britain “should have the sense of saying we are very sorry and we have to put the record straight.” (Several months ago, in fact, Tony Blair called Britain’s role in the slave trade “profoundly shameful,” and earlier this month expressed “deep sorrow” for its support of the institution.)
Meanwhile, activist groups and politicians ratcheted up demands that government payments be made to the descendants of slaves. After debating a reparations advocate on BBC 24, Baroness Caroline Cox warned the House of Lords: “I hope that we will not allow the celebration of the year of [Wilberforce’s] achievement to be a condemnation of our failures.”
That hope appears to be fading. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking to BBC’s Radio 4, seemed inclined toward a scheme of faith-based compensation. “I haven’t got a quick solution to that,” said Rowan Williams. “I think we need to be asking the question and working at it.” In his address at Westminster Abbey, the archbishop stressed the economic debt that modern-day Britain incurred from its exploitation of African slaves. “We, who are heirs of the slave-owning and slave-trading nations of the past, have to face the fact that our historic prosperity was built in large part on this atrocity.”
This argument, mouthed endlessly on BBC outlets, contains a certain emotional appeal. Yet it is deeply misleading. It elides the fact that Britain’s stability and prosperity are rooted in its long-standing commitment to democracy, human rights, and economic freedom. Equally important, this attitude neglects the moral leadership—and costly resolution—of an earlier generation of statesmen and religious figures.
Thankfully, the explicitly Christian dimension to the story—the efforts of Wilberforce and his Clapham Sect—is getting renewed attention. Films such as Amazing Grace, which opened last weekend in London, and new Wilberforce biographies by Eric Metaxas (a New York buddy of mine) and Conservative MP William Hague make the Christian inspiration for abolition compellingly clear. And, to be fair, the BBC Online also takes note of Wilberforce’s evangelical faith.
Yet lost amid the din of apology talk are some provocative historical facts. Britain not only was the first major European country to criminalize the slave trade after 1807. In the words of William Hague, the British government “lobbied, bullied, and bribed other nations” to get in line with the new policy. Between 1810 and 1850, the British Navy freed nearly 120,000 slaves—an effort that proved hazardous to the officers and seamen involved. “It was the Royal Navy who bravely enforced the abolition,” Hague told members of Parliament in a little-noticed speech last week. “And so the moral case, once made and enshrined in the law, was upheld over the coming decades through a commitment to international diplomacy and the application of British force.”
There’s a lesson for politicians and clerics alike: Great social evils are not defeated by mere talk. In the case of abolition, new laws demanded not only diplomacy but the threat—and the use—of military power. Without it, the proclamations and legislative victories might have come to nothing.
To this observer, many Britons seem to harbor a deep and nagging guilt—even self-loathing—for their days of empire and the brutalities that sustained it. Americans could probably benefit, at least on occasion, from a stronger sense of shame. But, facing the post-9/11 threat of Islamic fascism, Britain (and America) cannot afford to indulge in self-flagellation. There are too many cheerless voices eager to demean British identity for their own craven reasons.
This danger is not new; Great Britain faced similar criticisms during another season of national testing. In the darkest hours of 1941—as the British people stood alone against the Nazi juggernaut—a fresh generation of cynics and appeasers condemned the nation for its historical sins. American observer Lynn Harold Hough, a gifted preacher and theologian, took umbrage at them. Hough’s critique, published in April of 1941, is worth quoting at length:
“He [the cynic] reminds us of every evil thing he can find in the history of England since the Norman Conquest…After his best efforts, Britain remains a dull grey against the bitter black of Hitler’s Germany. The history of parliamentary democracy is ignored. The broadening liberties of the British Empire are forgotten. The word imperial is used in such a fashion as to black out intelligence and to set every fact in a false perspective. Nobody—least of all the British—would deny the dark spots in British history. But they do not represent the defining matters in the British tradition.”
Great Britain’s audacious decision to forcibly end the slave trade is part of the uplifting narrative of that tradition. This American, at least, is grateful for that supremely moral act and the freedoms it promoted, on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond.