Until quite recently, British boys and girls were taught history which made them proud. Then there was an in-between period in which they were taught, yes, to take pride in some of their history, but also to realise that history is a bloody business and our ancestors sometimes did things which we should question or even abhor.
After that, the pendulum swung completely and there grew up the fashion of being ashamed of everything in our British past.
Nelson’s Column stood in the middle of Trafalgar Square as a monument to a great hero who, by defeating Napoleon’s navy, checked the power of a dangerous dictator.
But now, in so far as the British are aware of Lord Nelson, they are asked to deplore him as someone who had an ambivalent attitude to the evil slave trade.
Has our grovelling, apologetic attitude gone too far? It has begun to seem that every aspect of our complex and long history, with all its twists and turns in Church and state, has to be determined today by simple-minded value judgments. Dickens’s house in Broadstairs, Kent, for instance, was daubed with angry graffiti because our greatest novelist was supposedly a racist.
Nelson’s Column stood in the middle of Trafalgar Square as a monument to a great hero who, by defeating Napoleon’s navy, checked the power of a dangerous dictator. Pictured: Nelson’s Column (right) and the statue of Charles I (left) outside the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square
A statue of Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern policing, in Bury, Greater Manchester
‘Until quite recently, British boys and girls were taught history which made them proud,’ writes AN Wilson (pictured)
Churchill, a hero when they put up a statue of him in Parliament Square, is now in the dock. Young people who know little or nothing of what he did to rescue Europe from the tyranny of genocidal fascists are free to condemn him as a defender of racist imperialism.
With each condemnation of figures from our history, there comes the expectation that someone must pay for the sins of our ancestors — and this, in turn, digs us deeper into a mindset which proposes two ideas which are manifestly false.
The first is that everything in British history is inherently evil, something for which we ought to be flagellating ourselves. Second, that we can atone for these sins by making financial settlements.
The nuanced, delicate business of telling the truth about the past has been replaced by the easy display of gesture politics. When we read of some horror perpetrated by our ancestors, it is understandable that we should wish, somehow, we could put matters right.
But we have to recognise that the past is the past. The best we can do is not to forget, but to learn and move on, while acknowledging that we can never undo the evils of history.
This is an unassailable truth, even if some of us might derive comfort from feeling we can wipe out our ancestors’ sins by getting out our chequebooks. These payments are little different, to my mind, from ‘indulgences’ bought by the faithful from the money-loving popes of Rome before the Reformation, so that they would not end up in Hell. The Church of England itself polished its moral halo recently by assigning £100 million — actually, peanuts compared to its vast assets — to ‘address past wrongs’ relating to the slave trade and the connections, supposed or otherwise, of various Anglican institutions with that abomination.
Quite how the Church can absolve itself of the past by paying money now for evils which were perpetrated in the 18th century, is not clear. The fund is apparently to pay for a programme of ‘investment, research and engagement’ and to ‘help communities affected by historic slavery’. The fact that this £100 million will almost certainly be wasted, when it could be better spent improving the many C of E primary schools in British inner city areas, does not matter if it makes the liberal bishops feel good.
And now the Guardian newspaper has leapt aboard the bandwagon. This week it emerged the paper is offering £10 million for some good causes in Jamaica and South Carolina as reparation for the fact that its founding editor, John Edward Taylor, made a fortune out of cotton which had been cultivated by enslaved people in the U.S. state.
Of course, the Guardian must feel free to spend its money as it chooses even if it evidently does not believe such payments will undo the sins of the past. But it is not enough for this self-regarding bible of the liberal Left simply to make payments. It also claims, absurdly, to be in the moral vanguard, setting an example for the rest of us sinners. ‘The Guardian has begun a reckoning with history,’ the paper pompously tells us. ‘Others — individuals, institutions and states — should follow.’
We all know the slave trade was contemptible. That is why the British led the world in having the trade abolished in the early 19th century.
Many other abominations continued, but surely Britain is entitled to be proud that it had brought about the freedom of so many previously enslaved people?
To hear some of the propagandists speak, you would think that the entire economy of Great Britain, and its Empire, in the 18th and 19th centuries depended on slavery. This is simply not the case.
And while it is possible to tell the story of the British Empire as one of a European superpower exploiting Asians and Africans, this is to ignore the many altruistic men and women who, in imperial times, devoted their lives to helping the local inhabitants — running schools and hospitals, building roads, improving agriculture and the like.
Even to suggest that there were well-meaning imperialists is, of course, to risk being accused of racism, imperialism and every sin imaginable. Trying to take a nuanced view and to recognise that there was good, as well as evil, in the behaviour of our ancestors, is tantamount, in some quarters, to defending fascism. The Empire developed as a very human mixture of exploitation — both cultural and economic — with altruism. Compared with the empires of the Romans, the Ottomans, the Belgians or the Dutch, the British Empire was relatively benign in many areas.
But even if you reject such a statement and even if you try to say it was all bad — what could we reasonably do about it now?
What should our attitude be to the sins of the previous generations who did things which we nowadays — we decent modern folks –— can only view with horror?
Until only a generation ago, for example, we lived in a Britain which hanged criminals (some of whom had been wrongly convicted) and which sent practising homosexuals to prison. Almost all children were regularly whipped or beaten with canes or slippers.
The idea that women should be paid the same as men for doing identical jobs is of very recent origin.
Only a few generations before that, the British had a social system which even the most Right-wing Tory MPs of today would view with horror: we had child labour, workhouses and working conditions which were as bad as they still are today in Mumbai or Beijing.
In Staffordshire, where I came from, the average age of death was 35 for the pottery workers who perished from silicosis, inhaling clay dust so that owners of the pot-banks (factories) could make big profits and beautiful cups, plates and teapots could appear on tables all over that wicked old world.
Yes, it was a wicked old world, and in many ways it still is. And no amount of reparation payments is going to alter that fact.
But it is also a world that learns from the past. And by concentrating endlessly on those ills of the past, instead of the many virtues, we reduce history and culture to a competition in expressions of guilt and remorse.
Founder of the Manchester Guardian John Edward Taylor
The Guardian is offering £10 million for some good causes in Jamaica and South Carolina as reparation for the fact that its founding editor, John Edward Taylor, made a fortune out of cotton which had been cultivated by enslaved people in the U.S. state (slaves pictured picking cotton on a plantation, circa 1800)
So we have museums and art galleries ashamed of their contents. The National Gallery has been investigating the 19th-century donors who first assembled the collection for links with the slave trade as if they were criminals.
Had the rich collectors not donated paintings by Titian, Raphael, Rubens and John Constable, there would have been no chance for most people to see them at all. Yet the gallery has found them guilty for their (often very remote) association with the slave trade and labelled pictures accordingly, as if they were tainted.
In Parliament, the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art has been spending its time and taxpayers’ money on ‘updating’ its art collection, and recommending how many trigger warnings and labels should be appended to the numerous paintings, cartoons, sculptures and carvings in the Palace of Westminster.
Edmund Burke was arguably the subtlest and most brilliant orator Westminster ever saw — a merciless 18th-century exposer of the evils of Empire in England and a doughty defender of Irish and American independence. In short, a truly great man.
Yet our committee has put him on the naughty list because a younger brother of his might have speculated on investments in the Caribbean.
And he is by no means the only political colossus in the cross-hairs of this ridiculous outfit.
Among the works of art they deplore are statues or paintings of Sir Robert Peel, a man most famous today for founding the Metropolitan Police (whose officers became known as Bobbies or Peelers, after him).
In his own day, he was perhaps better known as the 19th-century prime minister who destroyed his party, the Conservatives, on a point of principle: allowing Free Trade and the import of cheap foreign grain in order to reduce the price of bread and alleviate poverty. It was said that Peel was the only British politician at whose death the poor openly wept in the street. He had made people’s lives better at a stroke.
He was also a keen abolitionist but, since his father made a fortune out of cotton-spinning, Peel, too, is on the Westminster committee’s hit list.
Now, the Guardian has discovered its own monster, waking up to the fact that its founding editor made his money out of cotton trading. Its reparation payment of £10 million, as a sign of its remorse, comes from a war-chest estimated to be £1.3 billion. So that £10 million is going to have the doubly satisfactory effect of appeasing the liberal conscience without affecting its bank balance.
There was always the good old stench of Liberal hypocrisy hanging around the offices of the Manchester Guardian, in the days when it was still called that.
Its founder, John Edward Taylor, was an old humbug who enjoyed lecturing the world about its supposed wickedness while himself cashing in on the profits of his family cotton trade, which, of course, was derived from the labour of enslaved people in the southern states of America.
Katharine Viner, Editor-in-Chief of the Guardian, says she felt ‘sick to her stomach’ discovering that Taylor had made his fortune out of the cotton industry
Katharine Viner, Editor-in-Chief of the Guardian, says she felt ‘sick to her stomach’ discovering that Taylor had made his fortune out of the cotton industry.
It is fairly astonishing that she did not know where the Taylors’ money came from and she had clearly not read her paper’s infamous editorial from 1833 when the owners of cotton and sugar plantations demanded higher compensation for the costs involved in liberating their enslaved populations.
‘We are convinced,’ harrumphed the paper, ‘that no plan for the abolition of slavery could have been worthy… which was not based on the great principles of justice to the planter [ie the enslaver] as well as to the slave’.
The Guardian and the C of E will feel mighty pleased with themselves for having donated sums of money for the sins of their ancestors. In a similar way, former BBC journalist Laura Trevelyan has been to the island of Grenada to apologise to its people for her wealthy family’s possession of plantations there and enslavement of more than 1,000 human beings.
By apologising and making token payments in reparation, these modern liberals claim they are confronting history.
In fact they are managing to overlook the most glaring lesson of modern history — the fact of liberal humbug and hypocrisy.
The Guardian was founded by and for humbugs. It is written and read, in its modern format, by puritans who rejoice in the easy task of pointing a finger at other people’s sins while turning a blind eye to their own.
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