This is our truth, tell us yours
These are first thoughts – as ever I am open to comment, criticism and contributions.
I am ambivalent about the issue of reparations for the slave trade. Without the slave trade, I would not be here, and I like being me.
I have no doubts about the slavers who took my ancestor to the West Indies, and thence to the UK. They were immoral criminals. However, they also made it possible for me to be me.
The racism of the slave owners, and of the UK in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, made life harder for my ancestors than necessary. It is quite possible I would have inherited something other than a sense of fair play if my ancestors had been less excluded from society, but counter-factual history is unreliable at best.
I understand the case being made by the Jamaican government. Slavery, and the subsequent colonialism, have not left Jamaica well equipped to face the challenges of the 21st century. But for slavery, Jamaica’s history would have been very different. Morally, it it a history in which the UK has been utterly reprehensible.
The problem, of course, is that reparative justice has a poor track record, on the personal and the national scale. Whether you call it compensation (provided by a third party) or reparations, provided by the offender, the reality is that pain and damage can rarely be evaluated, and money is a poor substitute for intangibles that have been lost.
Much has been made of the compensation paid to former slave owners paid by the British government. Compensating former owners for property,even if the property is people, is a far more precise science than compensating individuals or societies for lost opportunities or the consequences of neglect and oppression.Owners only think in terms of cash values; they really are that shallow.
That doesn’t excuse the UK. Far from it. The whole point about reparative justice is that it’s possible to pay reparations and not regret the original offence. The UK, my home country, morally compromised as it is by its failure to come to terms with its past and its failings, needs to not debate reparations, but a programme of restorative justice, an honest admission of what was wrong, and how, at this distance, we might demonstrate our remorse and understanding of what was wrong, by trying to do something right. Signing a cheque is too easy, too simple, and will not change us. It would be all too possible for racist Britain to pay reparations and foster a sense of grievance at being made to pay. There are sufficient examples in recent history to make that point.