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Opinion

October 13, 2015

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Atonement

When British Prime Minister David Cameron went to Jamaica earlier this month he ran into a diplomatic and political problem. His host, Portia Simpson Miller, raised the question of whether the UK should pay reparations for the slave trade.
When she told the Jamaican parliament that the UK should engage in the issue, many Jamaican MPs banged their tables to indicate their agreement. Cameron responded by highlighting Britain’s role in abolishing slavery as opposed to its record of profiting from it.
The issue was especially tricky for Cameron: in 1833, when the trade was abolished, one of the prime minister’s distant forebears, General Sir James Duff, was compensated for losing 202 Jamaican slaves. And that raised an obvious question: how come those who owned slaves got compensated, when those who were slaves never received a penny?
The history of the Cameron family is by no means unique. Britain’s class system is so rigid, and social mobility is so restricted, that many of today’s leading establishment families can trace their wealth back to the colonial era.
Jamaica’s demand for a moral reckoning is echoed elsewhere in the former British empire. In a recent speech at the Oxford Union, the Indian politician Shashi Tharoor used his considerable rhetorical skills to argue that Britain has never faced up to its colonial record of starving, torturing, maiming, killing and impoverishing Indians.
“India’s share of the world economy when Britain arrived on its shores was 23 percent”, he said. “By the time the British left it was down to below four percent. Why? Simply because India had been governed for the benefit of Britain.”
“Britain’s rise for 200 years,” he concluded, “was financed by its depredations in India.”
His remarks seemed to touch a nerve – his fifteen-minute speech has been viewed well over three million times on YouTube.
The demand for reparations is generally expressed in financial terms. But that

raises difficulties. Given the passage of time, and the sheer scale of Britain’s colonies, coming up with sensible figures is difficult: demands can range from millions to billions of pounds.
But, for some, money is only a small part of the story. Those demanding reparations are often unimpressed by the UK’s quite substantial foreign aid programme. In light of India’s impressive economic growth record, British aid to the country is currently being phased out. But in 2013 London spent no less than £269m trying to help India’s poor. And during his trip to Jamaica, Cameron announced £300m for Caribbean infrastructure projects.
In his Oxford Union speech Tharoor argued that cold hard cash has little to do with it. He suggested that the UK give India a pound a year for the next 200 years – as long as it came with a genuine sense of atonement for past sins.
There are all sort of possible objections to his suggestion. Can the current government in the UK really be considered responsible for the actions of governments in power over a century ago? If Britain has to apologise for its role in the slave trade then should the West African countries that captured the slaves and sold them apologise too? How far back should one go? Could London demand an apology for the Roman invasion of Britain or, perhaps, the Norman Conquest? And if so, could the present day Italian and French governments really be thought to have anything to do with it? There have been so many injustices in human history that it’s difficult to know where to draw the line.
In the case of any reparations to India there would be yet another issue. If India were to receive a pound a year, how much of it should go to Pakistan? And that in turn raises the question: do Pakistanis feel as strongly about this as many Indians seem to?
Narendra Modi set aside party political differences to join those in India who praised Tharoor’s Oxford Union speech. The Indian prime minister said the Congress politician’s oration had: “reflected the feelings of patriotic Indians on the issue and showed what impression one can leave with effective arguments by saying the right things at the right place.”
You might have thought that India’s increasing self-confidence at home and abroad would result in it leaving such historical issues in the past and to instead concentrate on looking ahead to the future. In fact it seems that, as India takes its place as one the world’s great powers, it feels the humiliation of the colonial era as keenly than ever.
Modi may derive some kind of nationalistic pleasure from hurling the occasional barb in London’s direction but it’s difficult to imagine Nawaz Sharif, or for that matter Raheel Sharif, adding their voices to the demands for the British to face up to the true record of colonialism and to accept a dose of retrospective accountability.
But then, Pakistan is in a different situation. With its dependence on foreign military and civilian aid (not to mention remittances), it is in a weaker position to demand an historical reckoning. The fact that successive military and civilian governments have subjugated themselves to western governments makes it far harder to demand reparations from them.
After all, you can only complain about your independence having been taken away in the past if you can assert that independence today. You can’t chase foreign aid and reparations at the same time.
The writer is a freelance British journalist, one of the hosts of BBC’s Newshour and the author of the new political thriller, Target Britain.
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @OwenBennettJone

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