Please don't apologize
The slave trade was a truly terrible institution. But I fail to see the point of Tony Blair apologizing for it – or sort of apologizing for it (there is some debate about whether expressing your “sorrow” is quite the same thing).
Apologies (or, more usually, sort of apologies) for historic crimes have become increasingly fashionable. The Church of England Synod has already expressed its regrets for the slave trade. The Queen apologized to the Maori for the nineteenth-century devastation of their lands, though she has apparently drawn the line at the doing the same for the Boer War. Bill Clinton and the US congress apologized for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893 (United States Public Law 103-150, for anyone interested in reading the exact terms). Pope John Paul II apologized for the sacking of Constantinople in 1204. The last vice-chancellor of my own university (sort of) apologized to the generations of women students who were denied formal Cambridge degrees, despite passing their exams, until 1948.
My problem is not simply a sense that these gestures do precious little good. But the smugness they tend to reveal on the part of the penitent apologizer adds insult to injury – and deflects attention from the wrongs we should currently be putting right.
Take the slave trade. What actually does this loudly heralded penitence on the part of western liberals do – apart from re-state the obvious. The government believes that slavery was a bad thing, as a spokesman repeated on the news last night. Well, thank heavens for that, I thought. But I didn’t really need their expression of regret to correct any misapprehension I might have had that they in fact approved of the institution. Besides I would rather they devoted their efforts to doing something about the modern slave trade than getting moral brownie points from apologizing for the past.
The Cambridge (sort of ) apology in 1998 was another case in point. All the pre 1948 female (non-)graduates were invited back to a lavish party and honestly, as I can attest, enjoyed themselves hugely. But it turned into a rather self-congratulatory celebration of the same university that had deprived them of their rightful degrees – a university which even now fewer women in academic jobs than any other in the country (a little problem that got lost in the day’s jamboree).
But there is also a problem about history itself. The idea of an apology conscripts the past into our own world and implies that we can treat it as if it obeyed our own comfortable conventions of morality and etiquette. On this model, the villains in history are those who don’t follow our own contemporary idea of moral rectitude. But, almost worse, history’s heroes are assumed to have acted as if they were driven by the same liberal conscience as our own. One thing for sure is that, effective campaigner as he was, William Wilberforce was not driven by the moral agenda of equality and multi-racialism that we now espouse.
I hope we can plug this tide. Otherwise within a few years we’ll have the Italians apologizing for the Roman invasion of Britain and its resulting depredation – or alternatively the inhabitants of East Anglia will be apologizing for Boudicca’s destruction of Colchester. Cui bono?