He used to be knows as G.O.M, or Grand Old Man, to his supporters (God’s Only Mistake to his critics). But the descendants of the great liberal reformer, William Gladstone, have reserved quite different language for another of their ancestors. Charlie Gladstone has described William’s father John as ‘vile’, ‘greedy’ and ‘domineering’ in an interview with The Observer, condemning the family’s links with the slave trade. To atone for their guilt, the modern Gladstones have travelled to Guyana to apologise for their forebear and hand over £100,000 in compensation.
It’s a bizarre gesture, to say the least. A modern white British family who had no part in slavery will apologise to a mixed-race country whose current population are also uninvolved in transatlantic slavery. Indeed, the largest ethnic group in Guyana traces its ancestry to the Indian subcontinent.
It’ll neither inconvenience John Gladstone nor compensate any of his victims, or even the victims’ immediate descendants. Perhaps the only immediate beneficiary will be the conscience of Charlie Gladstone in his country pile in Flintshire.
That the apology coincides with the anniversary of the Demerara rebellion, which began on a Gladstone plantation, gives it some symbolic significance. But it won’t improve the lives of many Guyanans, most of whom have probably not heard of William Gladstone, let alone his father John.
The only group that can claim substantive gains are academics who will be paid from a grant that the Gladstones are awarding the University of Guyana, the money being gifted to the International Institute for Migration and Diaspora Studies.
This follows a curious pattern of reparations ending up in the hands of academics. Former BBC journalist Laura Trevelyan also made a £100,000 reparations pledge for research at the University of the West Indies, a school which also benefitted from a £20m reparations scheme announced by the University of Glasgow in 2019.
Perhaps the rush to fund such bodies is due to the difficulty in working out who should give or receive reparations, let alone how much is owed. Colonial states rarely maintain neat divisions between slaves, slavers and other residents over the generations – the fact that questions still remain over the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, herself the offspring of slavers and slaves, perfectly captures this complexity.
But that hasn’t stopped Jamaican judge Patrick Robinson trying to put a figure on it. He has written a report claiming the UK owes a staggering £18.8trn in reparations for its role in the transatlantic slave trade, and that this is likely an ‘underestimate’. ‘I believe that the United Kingdom will not be able to resist this movement towards the payment of reparations: it is required by history and it is required by law,’ Robinson has said.
Now an individual giving away their own money to burnish the reputation of their wealthy and storied family is one thing, asking the UK taxpayer to do so is quite another. Financial contributors to reparations would include the sizeable ethnic minority population in this country, many of whom have their own ancestors who were subjects of the British Empire.
And that’s before you turn to whether Britain itself is deserving of compensation for its own experience of being subjugated. The UK could claim injury from the likes of Italy, Scandinavia and France, offset against whatever we can agree that the Romans, Vikings and Normans did actually do for us.
In short, it’s an absurd task – a quest for cosmic justice that can’t hope to right the wrongs of the past. One suspects that for the governments of former colonies, its appeal is in blaming foreigners for current problems and distracting from their own shortcomings.
The greater tragedy is that all of this distracts from the need for foreign aid. Helping to raise people out of poverty is the single best way to improve lives today, and investing in emerging markets not only helps the local population, but fosters trade links that benefit the UK too. And quite aside from the economic arguments, tackling climate change and disease is as vital for the health of British people as it is for anyone else.
Post-Brexit Britain should be especially receptive to such arguments as it carves out a new role outside of the EU. While aid spending has temporarily shrunk to 0.5% of gross national income, that still amounted to £10bn in 2021/22, much of it spent in former imperial possessions, with Nigeria, Pakistan and Yemen among the leading recipients.
That makes sense in two ways. The UK has responsibilities to its former colonies and needs to address any ill feelings about the old imperial relationship, but it also has deep and longstanding cultural ties with these countries. Plus with the next Commonwealth Games in jeopardy as the most visible sign of such ties, aid programmes will only become more important.
Such development aid may not satisfy nurses of historic grievance, but it’s clear benefits are far likelier to convince Western taxpayers. By comparison, reparations are divisive and absurd.
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